The Difference of Opinion in Iran and Saudi Arabia
Regarding a first component in tensions between the two states, it seems that the major issue is the different approaches of Iran and Saudi Arabia to the regional order. Considering this difference and the issue of the popular uprisings of last year in the Arab World, these two countries tried to make the most advantage from existing opportunities in the region and minimize threats to their interests. The different opinions in Iran and Saudi Arabia with regard to the regional order has led to the fact that these two countries pursue different and even contradicting interests at the regional level. This, by itself, has caused deep tensions and sustainable competition between the two countries in the region.
Iran has proposed a dialogue of Islamic Awakening with regard to the new movements of the Arab countries and has made efforts to support them. Iran has supported the popular movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahrain and shown its willingness to introduce these popular movements as having Islamic and independence-seeking inclinations. Iran has introduced Syria as an exception, and believes that in Syria foreign issues have more impact than internal issues. Iran believes that in Syria foreign interventions exist to attack the axis of resistance.
Contrary to Iran’s point of view, Saudi Arabia’s viewpoint is based on opposition to popular movements and support of the current regimes and, to sum it up in one phrase, “maintaining the existing situation”.
In cases where changes have occurred, such as in Egypt where the Hosni Mubarak regime was toppled, Saudi Arabia has tried to use the Salafis to combat against popular movements and prevent serious changes on the one hand, and has wanted to expand its influence in these countries through support of the Salafis, on the other. This means that, by highlighting the Salafi discourse in Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has both fought against the spread of changes and increased its influence over future developments. Despite this point of view, based on the Saudis’ overall view the Syrian crisis is an exception among new movements in the Middle East and they have supported those opposed to the Assad government. Through this action, Saudi Arabia aims to support change in the regional balance of power. Countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen have been areas which have had less of an effect on the rise of tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But, in contrast, we have seen that changes in the two important countries of Bahrain and Syria have had vast negative effects on Iran-Saudi relations. Due to the connection conditions in these countries have with Iranian and Saudi interests and their regional power status, the changes in Bahrain and Syria have increased sensitivities in both sides. We witness that both Iran and Saudi Arabia define their interests in Bahrain and Syria so as to oppose each other and they follow completely contrasting policies. Therefore, the Saudis have shown their utmost support for the Al-Khalifa family in Bahrain and have even sent military troops there, while Iran’s support has been directed towards the popular movement there in gaining political and social rights. The situation in Syria is the reverse. Saudi Arabia has shown support for the opposition to the government, while Iran hopes for Bashar Assad, who is part of the axis of resistance, to stay in power as long as possible, even though it believes that using violence against those opposed to the Syrian government should be avoided.
Saudi Arabia’s role in the West’s games in regard to Iran
The second component that caused tension and animosity in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the past year was the Saudis’ participation in the West’s initiative to contain and weaken Iran. We saw in different cases how Saudi Arabia not only showed more initiative than other countries in the region, and even international powers, in trying to contain Iran, but it played a big role in accelerating this process. As an example, the Saudis had a rather active role in increasing sanctions against Iran, and they were even prepared to increase their own oil production so that other countries in the world could sanction Iranian oil. We have also observed how Saudi Arabia tries to augment political pressure against Iran in the international scene. One important issue in this regard was the accusation that Iran had planned to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US; an issue that created a lot of controversy.
Iran made some efforts to relieve some of the tension between the two countries. In fact, through a series of measures, Iran tried to prevent any serious confrontation between the two sides. The trip Heydar Moslehi, the Iranian intelligence minister, made to Saudi Arabia can be considered as a part of these efforts. However, it seems that because of the strong increase in competition, tension and hostility between the two countries and especially due to Saudi Arabia’s approach in containing Iran and trying to change the regional order to its advantage, the efforts made by Iran have not had tangible results and tensions between the two countries persist.
The Outlook for the Future
The future of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is on the one hand tied to developments in the region, and to the type of relations and interactions Iran has with the West on the other. This means that the way Saudi-Iranian relations will unfold depends on these two aspects. If the situation in the region is maintained and tensions in hot zones such as Syria weaken, it seems that current tensions between the two sides could also lose strength, and vice-versa. On the other hand, if Iran and the West are able to cooperate on the international level in those areas where they have differences, especially with regard to the nuclear debate, and build confidence and relieve tensions, it will have an effect on the decrease of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is because an increase in tensions between Iran and the West will allow Saudi Arabia to have a greater opportunity to put pressure on Iran.