Tehran-Riyadh Relations Need Stability
December 15th, 2013 - by Hamed Shafiei
During the years following the Islamic Revolution of Iran, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have either experienced periods of pure confrontation or periods of temporary interaction. During these years, and with the changes in Iranian administrations, Saudi Arabia has displayed different political reactions. It seems that, due to its strategic ties with the US and its vast sources of energy, the Saudi regime considers itself as a leader in the region and it is not willing to share this regional leadership with Iran. Iranian Diplomacy recently spoke with Hossein Sadeghi, Iran’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, about Iran-Saudi relations and potential cooperation between the two countries.
Today, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been affected by numerous developments which have not been positive. What has been the background of interactions and confrontations between the two countries during the last three decades? Why did Riyadh take passive positions with regard to Iran’s political success in the Geneva-3 agreement?
Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, there have been 5 stages of relations with Saudi Arabia, each one of which has had its own special consequences. The first stage is from the victory of the Islamic Revolution until the acceptance of Resolution 598, the details of which I do not intend to discuss here. The second stage is related to the coming to power of Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani and the era of construction when the gates of political relations between the two countries opened. Mr. Rafsanjani was able to deal strong blows to the wall of mistrust between the two countries through challenging and vital dialogues. Later, the reform administration of Mr. Khatami came to power. In that period, not only did the wall of mistrust collapse, but the foundations of trust were also built and political relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were expanded. The fourth stage was the coming to power of Mr. Ahmadinejad. During his presidency, everything returned to its previous state and the wall of mistrust was formed again. Relations between the two countries turned cold during these eight years. Therefore, it is natural that when the gates of dialogue are closed, pessimisms grow. The fifth stage is related to the administration of Mr. Rohani. The situation which Mr. Rohani is faced with now is to return the political relations to the year 2005 which is not easy but not impossible either.
Following the coming to power of the 11th administration, measures have been taken to remove the tension between Iran and the US and there were simultaneous reactions from the al-Saud regime, including their refusal to make a speech at the UN and their rejection of a UN Security Council seat. What is the relation between these reactions and the measures of détente between Iran and the US? Do Saudi Arabia’s reactions originate in the crisis of mistrust between this country and the US?
I do not have a positive opinion in this regard; because Saudi Arabia and the US have strategic relations with each other. Although certain ambiguities may be created at different times, this would not mean that the strategic relations between these two countries would rapidly be affected. There are expanded bonds in different dimensions between Riyadh and Washington. Perhaps it can be reiterated here that Saudi Arabia is faced with ambiguities which have resulted in negative reactions. On the other hand, I believe that the Saudi officials, including the King and others, are willing to establish relations with Iran. Although there are radical groups on both sides which create obstacles in the path of establishing normal relations between the two countries which should not be ignored, Saudi Arabia is well aware of the importance of good relations with Iran and intends to pursue this path by building confidence.
The policy pursued by the Foreign Ministry is to improve relations with the region’s countries. Iran’s Foreign Minister made visits to the region in this regard. But why was Saudi Arabia not included in these regional visits?
It can be said that Saudi Arabia was not absent in these visits, because a visit to this country was on the agenda of Mr. Zarif’s regional visits but Saudi Arabia stated that the King was not in the capital and it was preferred that the visit be made at another time when King Abdullah is in the capital so that a meeting could be arranged between Iran’s Foreign Minister and the King and a new page could be opened in the trend of relations between the two countries.
You mentioned that there are certain ambiguities in Saudi Arabia which have created obstacles in its relations with Iran. What are these ambiguities and their causes?
I believe that if the two sides rely on the existing realities in the two countries and recognize their differences, they could take steps on the path of removing these ambiguities. If the two governments begin challenging talks based on the understanding of the existing realities and recognize their differences, we could expand our relations with Saudi Arabia and numerous developments would take place in the region, because the security of the region is significant for its countries and even the world. That is why the two big regional powers can play serious roles in this matter.
There are four opinions with regard to the reactions of Saudi Arabia. Some consider these reactions to be related to the internal differences among the officials of this country and related to the King’s successor. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s failed measures, particularly on the issue of Syria and this country’s expectations from its allies have impacted this issue. At the same time, there is this view that Saudi Arabia is showing jealousy towards the establishment of relations between Iran and the US. The fourth element is their fear of the influence of Shiism in the region and Iran’s support of the Shiite groups in this area. How effective are these elements?
I do not intend to say that the elements that you mentioned were ineffective but they are not determining factors. The two countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia have good experiences in the past. If these experiences are used to look towards the future, the issues of Syria, Bahrain and Yemen could be resolved. In other words, all of these cases can be solved in constructive talks and by founding cooperation.
The uprisings of the Shiites in Bahrain have created challenges between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, Bahrain expressed its satisfaction following the Geneva agreement. Will the normalization of relations between Iran and Bahrain and other countries which were the cause of challenges between Tehran and Riyadh lead to the closeness of Iran-Saudi relations?
I do not have a sectarian-religious outlook with regard to these issues and do not advise the spread of such a view. I do not look at the issue of Bahrain with a mere Shiite view; there is rather a majority in this country that attempts to achieve its rights. I believe that some make efforts to display Iran with a sectarian-religious view. They intend to create this concern among the countries of the region that, through supporting the Shiites, Iran intends to highlight their roles. But this is not true. Iran’s view is based on the humanitarian look of the right to determine the destiny of the country by its own people. In fact, Iran wants the ballot boxes to be the determining factor in any country, whether it is Bahrain or any other place. If this issue is looked at in this manner, then it would help in the improvement of relations between the countries of the region. Past experiences show that there had been no problems between the Shiites and the Sunnis before. They had economic, cultural, and even family relations between each other. This issue which is now talked about did not exist in the past. Everyone should make efforts to resolve this issue. We should learn to live peacefully and with mutual respect.
It has been said that Russia seeks to play a mediatory role between Iran and Saudi Arabia for their presence in the Geneva-2 conference. Considering the differences between these two countries during the past years, could a mediator prepare the ground for their interaction and the establishment of relations?
Based on my experiences, I would like to say that Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia do not need a mediator. Why? Because both of these countries are big and powerful in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have had the best of relations at some junctures, thus, they could solve the problems of the region through cooperation.
Following the coming to power of the new administration in Iran, the Foreign Ministry took some measures to build confidence in the Arab states. In general, what are the confidence-building measures which the government of Iran could take to improve relations with the countries of the region?
The neighboring countries must always be the priority in the foreign policy of each country. In the new administration, the neighboring and regional countries are also the priorities of our foreign policy.
Today the region and the world are confronted with three challenges: one is the issue of terrorism; a phenomenon about which the world community must unite to fight against. The reason is that this region is the center of the growth of terrorism and the two countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia can talk with each other in this regard to contain terrorism.
The second challenge is radicalism which is spreading in this region on a daily basis. No country could be saved from this radicalism. Relative calm might appear at one short juncture but, if not contained, its fire would involve all countries. Unfortunately, some make efforts to enflame it instead of containing this issue.
The third challenge is sectarian and religious disputes and clashes. This challenge is spreading. These issues are crises which have entangled the region and there is no solution except talks between the countries of the region.
There have been some terrorist measures against Iran including the attack against the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon and the clashes in Saravan. It has been said that these attacks were mainly supported by Saudi Arabia, although Iran has refused to put the blame on this country. Will the closeness in Iran-Saudi Arabia relations lead to the reduction and, in the end, elimination of terrorist measures against Iran?
There is no doubt that the expansion of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will impact the entire region. Cooperation between the two countries could contain terrorism and radicalism. But the pre-condition to all these measures is that both countries should first build the foundations of trust and take confidence-building measures.