It has been a while that ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been diminished. The history of tensions between the two countries is not limited to the developments in the past year and a half. Tehran’s ties with Saudi Arabia have seen tensions over the past eight years. The difference is that the tensions escalated slowly before Salman took office as the monarch but when he did, they peaked so much so that Iran now has no diplomatic relations with the Saudis. Even though the eighth and ninth Iranian administrations played a significant role in ruining the ties, it is not fair to blame them for everything. Far from the truth. The Saudis themselves have adopted an anti-Iran policy and that has nothing to do with Ahmadinejad’s administrations. The policies they have adopted are in stark contrast to the policies Iran pursues in the region.
The truth is that Iran-Saudi relations started to conflict after Saddam Hussein collapsed. The period is a long story to be covered in our limited space but it should be noted that the tensions were exacerbated when American forces decided to leave Iraq and those who rose to power backed Iran more than the KSA. In other words, they were Iran’s main allies and friends in Iraq. Three countries are especially important to the Saudis and the whole Arab world: Iraq, Syria and Egypt. The Arab world defines its identity, essence, civilization and history through the three countries. Iraq has centuries of Abbasid caliphate in its history, while Syria has a similar record under the Umayyad caliphate. Egypt has helped establish the genuine Arab history and has always heralded in Arab thought.
To lose Iraq is to lose historical identity for the Arabs and the Saudis. Two points should be taken into account. One, by Arab identity we mean that of Sunni Arabs because Arabs do not recognize Shiites as a part of them, if though Al-Azhar names it the fifth faith in the world of Islam. Second, in the absence of Egypt’s intellectual and Iraq’s ideological leadership, Saudi Arabia managed to take over as the leader of the Arab world through money. Under the influence of Wahhabism itself, the country has since promoted Wahhabism and the Shiite-Sunni sedition in the Arab world and the world of Islam.
By 2011, when the Syrian crisis started, the Saudi Kingdom was trying to get along with the new reality of Iraq. It even thought it could find a way to get along with Iran in order to secure its own interests in Iraq. However, when the Arab Spring reached Syria, the Saudis felt an opportunity had emerged for them and their allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly the UAE and Qatar, to make up in Syria for what they had lost in Iraq. The Saudis openly said majority should rule over minority in Syria, just as it was in Iraq: why should Alawites, a Syrian minority, rule over the Sunnis majority – a clearly tribal attitude that sparked nothing but speculations of a Shiite-Sunni war. An Iraqi official informs Iranian Diplomacy: “In one of our meetings with Saudi officials, they told us they were fed up with Iran”. If Syria does not leave Iraq and join us, they said, they would have to consider confrontation with Iran. According to the Iraqi official’s account of the Saudi side’s remarks, the kingdom “is ready for a military war with Iran” even though they know they might “be defeated in the war and pay huge costs”. Thus, the Syrian crisis has deepened the tensions between Iran and the Saudi Arabia.
The hostile attitude to Iran is not limited to the rule of King Salman. In retrospect, we remember how harshly Saud bin Faisal attacked Iran and how frequently Turki bin Faisal and Bandar bin Sultan lobbied against Iran and took anti-Iran positions every assembly. Thus, the hostile attitude toward Iran arises from a consensus in the whole Saudi government that considers Iran as a fatal threat in the region.
As King Salman came to power, the Saudi approach to Iran became even harsher primarily for two reasons. First, it coincided with increased Iranian influence in the region exemplified in the Houthis’ rise to power in Yemen. Second, as Americans sought to drift away from Saudi Arabia, the Saudis thought the oil-political-security deal they had agreed upon with the US, enabling their absolute rule back at home, had been forgotten and that the Americans were no longer old, intimate friends. At the same time, the nuclear agreement between Iran and the West, without considering demands of the Saudis, was seen as a betrayal to Arabs to favor Iran.
What to do now?
Unfortunately, there are still some officials in Iran who think they can reconcile with the Saudi Arabia and, if a wise man emerges among the Saudis, he will metamorphose Iran’s relations with the kingdom like a magic wand. It is not going to be so. Saudi Arabia is not going to make peace with Iran and is still seeking hostility. And it will strike every time it sees an opportunity. In sum, Saudi diplomacy is now defined based on “hostility with Iran, everywhere, every time and in every possible way”. They spare no effort in reaching this very goal even if it takes reconciliation with Iran’s toughest enemies, only to put pressure on its Shiite rival. A living proof is the relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But what should Iran do? Certainly, a military option has no benefit for Iran. Iran will never be able to get involved in a military phase with the Saudis. First, it will impose great financial costs on Iran. Second, the Saudis enjoy more money, facilities, and relations that can be used against Iran. Third, Iran has many enemies at the international level who will unite against Iran if a war is to be fought. Last but not least, since a majority of the world of Islam are Sunnis, the Saudis will encourage the whole world of Islam, by spending money to mobilize it against Iran. It is not wise for Iran to say it stands, fights and bears all the costs. The trick for Iran will be to reduce its costs as far as possible and try to approach its goals as closely as possible instead of achieving them. Of course, neither Iran nor the Saudis are considering the military option. It is too obvious that both sides see military conflict as a serious redline.
But the Saudis are doing their utmost to infuriate Iranian officials and make them do things out of fury and what comes out of fury will bring great costs. However, this does not mean that Iran should do nothing against Saudi Arabia. What exactly Iran should do remains for the country’s decision-makers and those involved in the issue to say, but it seems that human rights and terrorism are places we can take actions. The KSA is a sponsor of terrorism: there are many documents proving that Saudi security organizations and so-called charities support radical groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Yemen. Iran could take action against the kingdom’s support of terrorism, to turn the global community and public opinion against it. Now that there is an anti-Saudi air in western media outlets recently, Iran can put it to ultimate use in order to impose pressure on Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, mocking Saudi lobbies in the US and Europe, Iran can use powerful anti-Saudi lobbies to take measures against its Sunni rival in those countries.
In short, if Iran thinks its war with Iran has a bright horizon and will ever come to an end, it is an illusion, because, for the time being, the Saudis have no intention of declaring the end of hostilities.