Iran–Saudi Arabia relations
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Saudi–Iran Arabian relations refers to the bilateral relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia-Iran relations have been mixed throughout its history. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have aspiration for Islamic leadership and both countries possess different vision of regional order. Iran, which after the Islamic Revolution strictly followed an anti-US policy, always deemed Saudi Arabia as an agent of the US in the Persian Gulf region that speaks for the US interests. Saudi Arabia's concerns about Iran on the other side are mainly associated to its plans of expanding influence to other parts of the Persian Gulf region, notably in post-Saddam Iraq, and the quest to build its own nuclear program.
The difference of political ideologies and governance also divided both countries. For Iran, it is said that there is no place for monarchical regimes in Islam as is seen in Saudi Arabia and also in some other Arab countries, which legitimizes the authority of Iranian clerical elites. Energy is a third source of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Whereas Saudi Arabia, in contrast to Iran with its smaller oil reserves and larger population, can afford and is in a position to take a long-term view of the global oil market and has incentive to moderate prices, on the other hand Iran is compelled to focus on high prices in the short term.
- 1 Pahlavi Dynasty
- 2 Iranian Revolution
- 3 Sectarian tensions
- 4 Iran–Iraq War
- 5 1987 Hajj Incident
- 6 Responses to Satanic Verses
- 7 Invasion of Kuwait
- 8 Khobar Towers bombing
- 9 OIC meeting
- 10 Saudi Arabia, Iran and the U.S.
- 11 Israel-Hamas conflict
- 12 Shia insurgency in Yemen
- 13 Wikileaks
- 14 Sanctions against Iran
- 15 See also
- 16 References
Saudi Arabia and Iran established diplomatic relations in 1929 following the signing of a Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty. However, relations were not active until the 1960s mostly due to differences in religious practices and Iran's recognition of Israel. In 1966 King Faisal of Saudi Arabia visited Iran with the aim of further strengthening the relationships between the countries. The Shah of Iran Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi reciprocated by paying an official visit to Saudi Arabia which eventually led to a peaceful resolution of the islands. The Shah supported King Faisal's efforts regarding Islamic solidarity and actively contributed to the establishment of multinational Islamic institutions, including the Organization of the Islamic World Congress, the Muslim World League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
In 1968, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed a demarcation agreement. When the United Kingdom announced to withdraw and vacate from the Persian Gulf in the late 1960s, Iran and Saudi Arabia took the primary responsibility for peace and security in the region. In the late 1960s, the Shah sent a series of letters to King Faisal, urging him to modernize Saudi Arabia, saying, "Please, my brother, modernize. Open up your country. Make the schools mixed [sic] women and men. Let women wear miniskirts. Have discos. Be modern. Otherwise I cannot guarantee you will stay in your throne." In response King Faisal wrote, "Your majesty, I appreciate your advice. May I remind you, you are not the shah of France. You are not in the Élysée. You are in Iran. Your population is 90 percent Muslim. Please don't forget that."
During the 1970s, Saudi Arabia's main concerns over Iran were firstly, Iran's modernisation of its military and its military dominance all over the region; secondly, Iran's repossession of the islands of Big Tunb, Little Tunb and Abu Moussa in 1971 which challenged the United Arab Emirates claim over the islands. But the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia was never as friendly as between the years 1968 and 1979.
The relationship between the two countries was not without its tensions in the mid-to-late 1970s. As the Shah attempted to build an Iranian security architecture in the region, the Saudis resisted these efforts. Instead, King Khalid attempted to build bilaterial security relationships with the smaller Gulf states. The Saudis also argued for more modest OPEC price increases in 1976 and 1977 than Iran wanted.
Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Khomeini and other Iranian leaders openly attacked and criticised the character and religious legitimacy of the Saudi regime. However King Khalid, then ruler of Saudi Arabia, sent Khomeini a congratulatory message, stating that "Islamic solidarity" could be the basis for closer relations of two countries. He also argued that with the foundation of the Islamic Republic in Iran there were no obstacles that inhibited the cooperation between two countries.
In a 1987 public address Khomeini declared that “these vile and ungodly Wahhabis, are like daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back,” and announced that Mecca was in the hands of “a band of heretics.” Upon this statement diplomatic relations between two countries ended until 1991.
Historically, Iran–Saudi Arabia relationships have always been uncertain, something attributed to the different sects that the majority populations in both the countries follow. Saudi Arabia which is a predominantly Sunni society has always been skeptical about Shi'ite Iran's activities in the Persian Gulf region, thus labeling them as Iran's strategy of gaining influence in not only the Middle East but also in the entire Muslim world. Leading Sunni and Shi'ite Clerics in both the countries deemed each other's religious beliefs as incorrect for decades. An attempt was made by the Sunnis to demolish the shrine of al-Hussein, one of the important religious leaders of the Shi'ite theology. Since that incident, tension between the Sunni and Shi'ite creeds has increased and this tension is considered unlikely to be resolved any time soon. According to Le Figaro, on 5 June 2010, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told Hervé Morin, then Defense Minister of France that: "There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel."
The Shia–Sunni conflict between the two countries also played a pivotal role in the Iran–Iraq war when Saudi authorities pledged US$25 billion of aid to the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. The Iran–Iraq War increased Saudi concern about their security, leading to their financial support to Iraq, although the relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia at that time were not warm. Therefore, the reason for helping Iraq was that Saudi Arabia recognised that revolutionary Iran was a far greater threat to its survival and the stability of the region. Saudi Arabia also encouraged other Arab states of the Persian Gulf, including Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, to do the same by giving financial support to Iraq. To cover the costs of the war Saudi Arabia dramatically increased its oil production. This increase in oil production by Saudi Arabia was aimed to weaken Iran's ability to fund its campaigns. But this measure by Saudi Arabia did not have a desired impact on Iran because it also cost the Saudi government billions in revenue because oil prices plunged from over $30 a barrel to less than $15 by the mid 1980s.
During the Iran–Iraq war, Iran flew their aircraft in Saudi airspace and also threatened Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with severe consequences if they would not stop supporting Iraq. But unlike America, Saudi Arabia did not break diplomatic relations with Iran even during the worst periods of tension following the revolution and during the Iran–Iraq war.
1987 Hajj Incident
Until 1987, no satisfactory resolution was made to decrease the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The already strained relationship between the two countries further deteriorated when clashes occurred between Iranian-led demonstrators and Saudi security forces on 31 July 1987. The clash claimed the lives of around 400 pilgrims, out of which two thirds had Iranian nationality. This incident angered the Saudis and in retaliation, the Saudi administration instituted a ban on all Hajj (Pilgrimage) rituals and activities. Angry protesters in Tehran responded by ransacking the Saudi embassy and also detained and beat many Saudi diplomats. As a result, one of the Saudi officials died from the injuries. In response, Saudi Arabia in 1988, cut its diplomatic relations with Iran and as a result no Iranian could obtain a Saudi travel visa for performing the Hajj (Pilgrimage).
Responses to Satanic Verses
The relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran gradually started to improve after the end of Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Iran had accepted ceasefire with Iraq in July 1988 and soon afterward, Saudi Arabia started improving relations with Iran. In October 1988, King Fahd stopped media attacks against Iran and asked Saudi administration to put pressure on Iraq to implement UNSCR 598. In 1989, Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani stated that Iran and Saudi Arabia were holding indirect talks to improve their relations. But the issuance of fatwa by Khomeini against the Indian author Salman Rushdie again soured the relations between the two countries. Khomeini, who was the spiritual leader of Iran at that time, declared a death sentence for Salman Rushdie for his remarks in his book Satanic Verses published in 1988. The Saudi government, which took this religious decree against Rushdie as an act aimed at gaining Muslim sympathies across the world, came up with its own verdict of making Rushdie appear before an Islamic tribunal before he could be delivered a death sentence.
Invasion of Kuwait
When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Iran criticised and condemned the invasion. This posture of Iran in favor of the Kuwaitis and the anti-Iraqi coalition of the Persian Gulf states helped an improvement in its relations with Arab neighbors. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia rejected the use of force as a solution to regional problems and opposed the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Iran went farther, backing UN sanctions against Iraq. Iran viewed the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait as a serious threat, considering it the first step towards its expansionist mindset. During the war, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia thawed considerably and the official ties were restored in 1991.
This resumption of political ties were followed by quick high level visits, notably, in April 1991, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati visited Saudi Arabia to propose an Iranian-Gulf Cooperation Council alliance with a mandate for the security of the Persian Gulf, during a meeting with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. He blamed the toothless existing Gulf Cooperation Council for its failure to prevent the invasion of Kuwait, and stressed the need of the inclusion of Iran for strengthening its role.
The Hajj (Pilgrimage) issue was also resolved. For 1991, the Saudi authorities allowed 115,000 Iranian pilgrims, which was more in number compared to the 1988 quota of 45,000, that had led to Iran's abrupt boycott. The Saudis also agreed to an Iranian request of allowing 5,000 relatives and friends of the 412 "martyrs" of the 1987 incident to attend the Hajj. In the later years, Iran adopted a careful approach and undertook measures for preventing a repeat of that incident. Iranian authorities tried to discourage large demonstrations by its pilgrims and attempted to have them held within the confines of the Iranian encampment.
Khobar Towers bombing
On 23 June 1996, a massive truck bomb exploded near a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, killing nineteen U.S. American servicemen and wounding hundreds of people. The US government held Iran responsible for the attack. The charges against Iran, however, remained unsubstantiated, and therefore did not sour the Iranian-Saudi relations.
The 1997 meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Iran heralded a shift in the attitude of the Arabs towards Iran. Several Arab countries confirmed their commitment to the conference. Saudi Arabia, which was always criticized by Iran because of its control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and also because of its total reliance on the United States for security, also participated in the meeting. In the OIC summit meeting, Saudi Arabia was represented by the Crown Prince Abdullah and its Minister of Foreign affairs Saud Al Faisal. Saudi participation proved helpful in the process of further reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a result, Saudi ministerial delegation visited Iran and later on, the official visit of President Mohammad Khattami to Saudi Arabia took place in February 1998.
This was the first visit by the Iranian top leader to Saudi Arabia after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and its aim was to address the pressing economic issues of the time. Iran was looking for a reallocation of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) producing quotas and for that it strongly needed the support of Saudi Arabia. It was also reported that Iran was also persuading Saudi Arabia that it must consider the Iranian Infrastructure to export it to Central Asia. Iran also expected that the issue of the regional security alliance would be raised in which the alliance for the security of the region could be made bordering the Persian Gulf.
A Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement was signed between Saudi Arabia and Iran in May 1998, in which both the countries agreed to cooperate with each other not only in the field of economics but also in the field of culture and sports. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran was further improved when Khatami, the President of Iran, on his visits to Arab countries, reached Saudi Arabia in May 1999. President Khatami stayed for five days in Saudi Arabia in which various discussions were held between the heads of both the countries. Discussions included Persian Gulf security, efforts to bring about higher oil prices, the situation in Iraq and the development of a common approach to regional issues. The partial détente between Iran and USA encouraged Saudi Arabia to show more cooperation to President Khatami of Iran. In addition to this, Saudi Arabia and Iran signed an agreement called Saudi-Iranian security agreement in April 2001.
In July 1999, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia urged other Persian Gulf countries to improve their relationship with Iran. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, speaking at the opening session of the Shura Council said that it is in the interest of all the countries of the Persian Gulf to improve our relations with Iran. He further said that all the other countries should follow Saudi Arabia's lead. This improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran also brought criticism from the United Arab Emirates, which criticised Saudi Arabia of abandoning UAE in its territorial disputes with Iran over three strategic Islands.
Saudi Arabia, Iran and the U.S.
As the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. is concerned, both countries have been strategic allies for more than sixty years. Saudi Arabia was a firm and generous partner of the U.S. in the cold war and in distant conflicts. The two visits by the President of the U.S., George W. Bush to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2008 reaffirmed the ties between the countries. But Saudis have always distanced themselves when it comes to American policy, especially with regard to Iran. Even when there was growing criticism against the former Iranian President, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, for his alleged hostile foreign policy in connection with Israel, Saudi Arabia recognised that Iran was a potential threat to them, and a regional power in a position to create trouble in their country. Therefore, Saudi Arabia's security over time requires accommodation and good relations with Iran. Iran with its population of 80 million, almost four times the population of Saudi Arabia, is separated from Saudi Arabia by only a few miles across the Gulf, but Americans and other foreigners may come and go. Saudi Arabia, which is the largest producer in OPEC, followed by Iran, is seeking to reduce the tension in the Middle East, with fears of a civil war looming in Lebanon and sectarian conflict in Iraq.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran was further improved when in March 2007 President Ahmadinejad of Iran accepted Saudi King Abdullah's invitation to visit Riyadh. King Abdullah greeted and welcomed the Iranian President at the Riyadh airport and was pictured holding Ahmadinejad's hand as they walked from airport. During Ahmadinejad's trip to Saudi Arabia, the two countries were referred by the press as "brotherly nations", and also hailed Ahmadinejads visit as another sign of deepening ties between the two countries. Prior to this visit, Saudi National Security advisor Prince Bandar bin Sultan, among the most pro-American figures in the country's leadership, had made a trip to Tehran to voice his government's interest in building harmonious relations with Iran. During Iranian President Ahmadinejad's 3 March 2007 visit, he discussed with King Abdullah the need to protect the Islamic world from enemy "conspiracies."
In 2007, President Ahmadinejad of Iran attended the first-ever annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which was established in 1988 with an aim of containing revolutionary Iran. This visit by the President of Iran was an event which signaled a possible change. Soon after the meeting, Saudi Arabia, the biggest member out of the six GCC states and which has also long been hostile to Iran, invited Mr. Ahmadinejad to Saudi Arabia to take part in the annual Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.
In 2009, Saudi prince Faisal said in a press conference with Hillary Clinton that the "threat posed by Iran demanded a more immediate solution than sanctions." A statement condemned by Iranian officials.
In 2013, Saudi Ambassador to Britain Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud penned an editorial in The New York Times criticizing Saudi Arabia's Western allies for not taking bold enough action against Syria and Iran, thus destabilizing the Middle East and forcing Saudi Arabia to become more aggressive in international affairs. The Obama administration continues to reassure the Gulf states that regional security is a U.S. priority, but, as of December 2013, the Gulf states express skepticism.
Israel considers Iran as a staunch patron of Hamas, the current administration of the Gaza strip, whose militant wing has fought directly with Israel. Israeli leaders point out too that Iran provides rhetoric support for Hamas, bitterly criticising Egypt and Saudi Arabia to break Israel's economic blockade of Gaza. Iranian President Ahmadinejad strongly condemned Israeli attack on Gaza and put pressure on Arab and other Muslim countries to help Hamas. Iranian President, Ahmadinejad urged King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to speak out against Israel's attack on Gaza. He also accused the Saudi King and other leaders of Arab countries of being complicit in a "genocide" perpetrated against the Palestinians. Therefore, he stressed all the Arab countries to cut their ties with Israel. Iran has provided funding to Hamas and also supplied Hamas a number of Katyusha Grad Missiles.
Shia insurgency in Yemen
Yemeni rebels, known as Houthis, crossed into Saudi Arabia, killed two border guards and seized Saudi territory, including the strategically important Mount al-Doud. This triggered the largest Saudi military operation since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Yemen's government accused Iran of arming the Houthis. Iran has heavily criticized Saudi Arabia for their intervention in the Shia insurgency in Yemen. Iran's then president Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying: "Saudi Arabia was expected to mediate in Yemen's internal conflict as an older brother and restore peace to the Muslim states, rather than launching military strike[s] and pounding bombs on Muslim civilians in the north of Yemen," while Saudi foreign minister Saud Al Faisal accused Iran of meddling in Yemen's internal affairs. Later Ahmadinejad went even further saying: "Some Western states invaded the region (Afghanistan and Iraq) in the wake of the September 11 attack, while al-Qaeda's main hub is located in another country in the region, which enjoys huge oil revenues and good relations with the United States and Western countries. There are some countries in the Middle East region that do not hold even a single election, don't allow women to drive, but the US and European governments are supporting their undemocratic governments," in a reference to Saudi Arabia.
Iranian general Mir-Faisal Baqerzadeh changed his name to Seyed Mohammad Baqerzadeh in opposition to what he viewed as Saudi crimes committed in Sa'adah.
In November 2010, the whistle blowing website Wikileaks disclosed various confidential documents pertaining to the US and its allies which revealed that King Abdullah urged the US to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear weapons programme, describing Iran as a snake whose head should be cut off without any procrastination. The documents were dismissed by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claiming them to be "organised to be released on a regular basis."
Sanctions against Iran
In 2012, in response to the global sanctions against Iran, Saudi Arabia offered to offset the lost Iranian oil sales and Iran warned against this. The same year Turki Al Faisal, former head of Saudi General Intelligence and a Saudi royal, suggested that Saudi Arabia would support the U.S.-led sanctions against Iranian oil.
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