Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have deteriorated in recent days, raising concerns in the Middle East and around the world. While tensions between the two nations are not new, the situation reached a boiling point on Saturday when the Saudi government executed 47 people accused of being terrorists, including a prominent Shiite cleric.
Valentine Moghadam, a professor of sociology and international affairs and director of Northeastern’s International Affairs program and Middle East Studies, explains how the conflict began and what the international community should do.
Prior to the executions on Saturday, what were relations like between Saudi Arabia and Iran?
Relations between the two countries have been fraught for a while. Saudi Arabia feared the revolutionary zeal of Iran’s new Islamic republic after 1979, and there were occasional tensions over the behavior of Iranian pilgrims during the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and their treatment by the Saudi authorities.
Saudi Arabia is intolerant of religious minorities or any form of dissidence, and the discriminatory treatment of the minority Shia population has exacerbated tensions with Iran. In addition, Saudi financing over three decades of the global spread of Wahhabism—a very conservative version of Sunni Islam—through the building of mosques and madrassas and support for Islamist extremist groups, has raised concerns in Iran—and elsewhere.
Saudi Arabia and Iran were among the founders of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), but in recent years Saudi Arabia has gone its own way and in 2014 there was much discussion of how the Saudi regime’s overproduction of oil was driving down oil prices. This has put a strain on the budgets of countries highly dependent on oil revenues, including Iran. Although some observers maintain that Saudi Arabia seeks to maintain its share of the oil market in the face of competition from the U.S. and Canada, others argue that the real target is its regional rival, Iran.
During the September 2015 Hajj, more than 2,000 pilgrims were killed and another 950 injured during a stampede, which was the result of poor crowd management. The largest single national group killed in the stampede was of Iranian pilgrims, and many Iranians felt that this was not a coincidence.
Saudi Arabia has joined Israel in opposing the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. In addition, Saudi Arabia and Iran take completely divergent positions on Syria. Whereas Saudi Arabia—and other Gulf sheikhdoms—has supported and armed Syrian rebels, especially the Islamist ones, Iran has supported the Syrian regime.
Although the rivalry between the two regimes has theological roots, it is primarily political. Moreover, competition between the two intensified after the U.S/U.K. invasion and occupation of Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the installation of a Shia-led government that went on to establish good relations with Iran raised concerns in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikhdoms, and Jordan of potential Shia dominance in the region with Iran in the lead. The irony is that Iran had opposed the U.S./U.K. invasion even though the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 was started by Saddam Hussein and chemical warfare was used against Iranian soldiers.
What do these rising tensions mean for the Middle East region?
The Middle East is in turmoil because of the way that the Arab Spring was handled by Western countries. Having learned nothing from the fallout of the 2003 U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq, a group of Western countries decided to intervene militarily to make sure that the Gaddafi regime in Libya was overthrown. The result has been a failed state, chaos, and marauding militia.
Turning to Syria, the U.S., UK, and France declared that “Assad must go,” and were joined by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other countries in supporting and arming the rebels—and allowing foreign fighters to join the “jihad” in Syria. The chaos from Iraq, Libya, and Yemen led to the formation of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, the murderous Islamic State. Russia and Iran are in favor of negotiations to end the violence in Syria and to isolate ISIS, but these attempts have been thwarted thus far. Meanwhile, the U.S. and other Western countries have turned a blind eye to the Saudi bombardment of Yemen in the wake of the Houthi-led rebellion, which the Saudis claim is supported by Iran, but which Iran denies.
There is widespread concern that the Saudi execution of the Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, followed by the assault on the Saudi embassy in Tehran—which was widely condemned by the Iranian authorities—and the withdrawal of diplomatic relations by a number of Gulf regimes will prevent any progress on the Syria talks and on a coordinated effort to defeat ISIS. This can only encourage ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and terrorist action across the globe.
What should the international community do at this point?
Put another way, can the U.S. and other Western powers undo the damage in the Middle East and North Africa for which they are largely responsible? Let’s imagine a positive scenario. First, the U.S. would beef up its diplomatic efforts to help bring about peace talks to end the turmoil in Syria; if this meant compelling its allies in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, to end support for the rebels in Syria by withholding the sale of arms, it would be a small price to pay to help stop the spread of violence and terrorism.
Second, the U.S. would mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran to end the hostility between the two countries and to point out that the common enemy, ISIS, requires cooperation and not competition among countries in the region.
Third, the U.S. would work with Russia, China, and other U.N. Security Council members to pass a resolution calling for a halt to all armed interventions and hostilities in the Middle East region, including Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen. At the same time, global civil society would support the above initiatives while also calling for a moratorium on executions wherever they occur—in Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, and the U.S.