THE LEVANT – By Hamid Reza Kamali – Iran and Saudi Arabia are two important countries in a region, which plays a pivotal role in historical changes and developments. Iran has a history which dates back to thousands of years ago and is the remaining part of ancient empires whose story has been told by historians living as far back as 2,000 years ago, including the Greek historian, Herodotus. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, came into being after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and as a result of colonialistic treaties of the 20th century, including the Sykes–Picot Agreement. Its geographical location, however, is the cradle of a religion, which is almost 1,500 years old and which is currently being followed by more than one billion people across the world. The diplomatic relations between these two political entities during the past century have been a function of personal will of their leaders as well as the external effect resulting from the general conditions that prevailed during the Cold War. Bilateral relations between Tehran and Riyadh have been also influenced by the hegemonic powers. A review of past developments in relations between these two countries can, therefore, serve as a guide to study the possible future outlook of those relations.
Iran opened its embassy in the Saudi Arabian capital city of Riyadh in 1930. Under the former Iranian monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were influenced by the presence of the British forces in the region as a colonialistic force and were also affected by religious and racial differences between the two nations. However, those relations became somehow tense after an Iranian citizen called Aboutaleb Yazdi was executed in Saudi Arabia in 1943. Of course, the common fight against Communism and Nasserite nationalism in addition to the issue of the conflict between Palestinians and Israel and the security void caused by the withdrawal of the British colonialistic forces from the Middle East, finally led to more convergence between the two government’s viewpoints and encouraged them to cooperate on regional issues. As a result, the former Saudi monarch, King Fahd, announced when he was just a crown prince in 1977 that relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were at a very high level. The need for having good neighborly relations with Iran was felt so strongly by Saudi officials and was considered to be such a necessity that even following the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, King Fahd announced that his government recognizes the new government in Iran and holds great respect for its leadership.
After the breakout of war between Iran and its western neighbor, Iraq, and subsequent escalation of religious disputes, relations between Tehran and Riyadh went sour for a second time. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of granting billions of dollars in aid to the then government of Iraq. The Islamic Republic also charged Saudi Arabia’s officials of trying to undermine Iran’s economy during the war by increasing their country’s crude oil output and exporting more oil to international markets. The acme of that tense situation was seen in a development that took place during the Hajj pilgrimage. During the Hajj pilgrimage in 1987 and when the Iranian pilgrims were conducting a ceremony to show their hatred for infidels, they were attacked by Saudi police as a result of which, a total of over 400 pilgrims were killed more than 270 of whom were Iranian.
Following a subsequent period of total freeze in relations and through the presence of the Saudi King Abdullah in Tehran in 1977 to take part in a conference of Muslim countries, new hopes blossomed about possible rapprochement between the two countries. The improvement of relations between Tehran and Riyadh continued until it culminated in the signing of a joint security agreement between the two countries in 2001. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States and the fall of the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, as a result of invasion of his country by the occupying American forces, pitted the two countries against each other again. Iran and Saudi Arabia parted ways and for one more time, the two countries’ behavior was determined by existing religious differences.
At present, Iranian officials are accusing Saudi Arabia of supporting such terrorist groups as Al-Qaeda, armed Sunni opposition groups in southeast Iran, opposition groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well as the entirety of Takfiri current in the region. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, incriminates Iran of trying to build a Shia empire and dominate all Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. An instance in which serious differences between the two governments soared was when Saudi officials reached the conclusion that Iranians were not serious in cooperation against Al-Qaeda terrorist group, which they considered as enemy number one of Al Saud ruling family. Of course, Iran could not take part in a one-way game in which all benefits were reaped by one side of the game, leaving all the losses for the other side.
During recent months, as the ISIS Takfiri group has emerged in Iraq following its conquests in Syria, the Middle East region has been scene of another important development. But it seems that even now, the two countries are following the same old line in their analyses of each other. Iran has charged Saudi Arabia of providing financial and logistic aid to the ISIS in order to mount pressure on the Shia government in Baghdad and to claim an unfair share of political power in Iraq. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, claims that the government of Iran is using the ISIS as an excuse in order to strengthen its influence over the entire region by deceiving the international community and putting pressure on Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.
Regardless of all the negative aspects of such incriminations, the point which should be taken into account here is that there is a very remarkable positive side to these charges as well. The two countries have owned up to the fact that both of them have powerful pressure tools and leverage in the region. When two political players in a sensitive region like the Middle East consider each other of having high political capability, it proves that they have accepted each other as major regional powers. Therefore, they have actually forged a certain form of threat balance on the basis of political principles. However, both countries should be very careful not to turn into dead heroes in the heat of this regional game. This is totally true because in view of the prevailing conditions in the region, the void of a suitable gaming model between these two important regional players is more than evident. In this situation stag hunt could serve as a good model for cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau described a situation in which two individuals go out on a hunt. Each can individually choose to hunt a stag or hunt a hare. Each player must choose an action without knowing the choice of the other. If an individual hunts a stag, he must have the cooperation of his partner in order to succeed. An individual can get a hare by himself, but a hare is worth less than a stag. The two countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia have many figurative hares in the basket of their national interests. However, to get rid of the threat posed by religious extremism, which is currently represented by the ISIS Takfiri terrorism, will be like having a figurative stag in the basket of their national interests. This aspect of bilateral relations between the two countries is affected by both internal and external elements. The internal element, which affects bilateral relations between the two countries, is the existence of religious extremist currents while the external element is the influence exerted by foreign powers, especially the United States. The Saudi king, as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, is currently facing a challenge of legitimacy both within and without Saudi Arabia, which stems from the establishment of the Islamic State by the ISIS that seeks to strip Saudi Arabia of its role as a political and religious center in the Muslim world. On the other hand, Iran, as a country most of whose population is Shia, is also facing a threat from the ISIS very close to its borders.
Following what happened in Syria, the statesmen in Saudi Arabia have found out that they can no more count on unconditional support of their Western allies. By refraining from launching a military strike on Syria, the American government practically made Saudi Arabia change its mind about becoming a member of the United Nations Security Council. Under these conditions, the two important neighboring governments are looking into each other’s eyes, knowing that through serious and high-level consultation, they will be able to put an end to existing differences, which are only remarkable and striking at a media level. Riyadh should accept that the red line it had previously drawn about not accepting Iran’s involvement in the developments of the Arab world has been rejected even by its close allies. It should come to grips with the reality that ongoing crises in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and even Yemen cannot be resolved without due respect for Iran’s national interests and taking advantage of the influence that Tehran sways in those countries. The fight against terrorism and religious extremism, including the threat that the Saudi kingdom is feeling from political currents affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, can be taken as the main axis of cooperation between the two countries. Let’s not forget that there are always hares in the basket, but the time is short for hunting a stag, which if left on its own may turn into a bloodthirsty wolf.