Saudi-Iranian Relations: A Troubled Trajectory

Awadh Al-Badi

Introduction John F. Kennedy once addressed the Canadian Parliament: "Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.”1Perhaps this sagacity is the right prescription for the long-sought perpetual peace between neighbors, but alas, it does not hold in the Middle East, where Saudi Arabia and Iran represent important centers of power. Geography has made the two countries neighbors, but history has not made them friends, economics has not made them partners, and necessity has not made them allies. However, their relations are not necessarily destined to remain torn. Since the conclusion of the first Friendship Treaty between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 1929, Saudi-Iranian relationship have gone through many fluctuations, both positive and negative. At certain time normal relations prevailed, marred only by issues that mar normal relations between any modern nation-states: they cooperate when their national interests converge and try to reconcile differences when they diverge. At other times, Saudi-Iranian relations have been soured by rivalry and mistrust. Why do the two countries appear unable to reconcile their policies in order to contribute to their own peace, security, and prosperity? What are the prospects for transcending the seasonal troubles in their relationship? By reviewing the history of this important relationship from its inception, the understanding of its nature can be deepened and a way out of the present impasse, if there can be one, can be envisioned. This is the aim of this paper. The Foundation of Saudi-Iranian Relations: Setting the Principles The presence of the Islamic holy places in Arabia made relations between the two countries of paramount importance throughout Islamic history. However, the first encounter between the modern-day states of Saudi Arabia and Modern Iran occurred during the process of unifying Najd (Central Arabia) with the Hejaz, where the Islamic Holy Places are located, in the years 1924 – 1 John F. Kennedy’s address before the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, May 17, 1961. Available at 2 1925. Persia condemned the Saudi takeover of the holy places,2 and hesitated to offer its official recognition to the new, unified state, and banned Iranian pilgrims from travelling to the Hejaz.3 From the start, the process of obtaining political recognition and establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries was dominated by four issues, which had a determinant effect on their relations. The quest for understanding on these issues set the principles that would govern their relationship. The issues were the guardianship of the holy places in Mecca and Medina; the rites and rituals of Persian pilgrims; interference in internal affairs; and the sovereignty of Bahrain.4 After tense wrangling and negotiations over these issues, positions were clarified and principles for a good relationship were set as follows: guardianship of the holy places would rest with the Saudi state; Hajj would be open to all Muslims, conducted in accordance with the rules of Sharia with no exceptions; there would be no interference in countries’ internal affairs; and Bahrain, for the Saudis, is sovereign, neither a Saudi nor an Iranian principality. A friendship treaty between the two countries was signed in Tehran in 1929.5 However, Saudi-Iranian relations did not experience any major developments during the reign of Reza Shah and remained at a minimal level, focusing mostly on Hajj affairs. Saudi-Iranian Relations during the Reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1941–1979) With the accession of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (1941–1979) to the Persian throne, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were stable. However, an accident that took place at the end of 1943 involving misconduct by an Iranian pilgrim was seen by Saudi authorities as a breach of the principle that Hajj was to be conducted according to local rules. This halted their diplomatic relationship until the end of 1947.6 With the advent of the Cold War in the Middle East and the spread of transnational ideologies, communism and nationalism, that threatened the status quo of the monarchies in the region, the two countries found themselves in the same camp with the same political stand regarding the existential threats facing them. Therefore, containing this threat by all necessary means became their common goal. This new phase in the relationship crystallized with accession of King Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz (1964–1975) to the throne in Saudi Arabia on October 29, 1964. 2 Saeed M. Badeeb, Saudi–Iranian Relations 1932–1982 (London: Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies and Echoes, 1993), p. 33. 3 M. Kramer, “Khomeini’s Messengers: The Disputed Pilgrimage of Islam,” in Emmanuel Sivan and Friedman Menachem (eds.), Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 180–81. 4 These issues were the subject of negotiations and diplomatic correspondences between the two countries during this period, see Saudi Arabia Secret Intelligence Records 1926-1939, NO. 1 (Archive Editions 2003) , p. 163, p.164, p.166, pp.855-57. 5 The text of this treaty can be found in Badeeb, Saudi–Iranian Relations 1932–1982, pp. 133–35. 6 An Iranian pilgrim was accused of throwing dirt on Ka’bah and he was put to trail and eventually he was executed. See Ibid., pp. 50–51. 3 King Faisal envisioned a policy of Islamic solidarity as a means to counter the appeal of irreligious ideologies and to overcome and solve differences among Islamic states.7 Iran was one of the most important Muslim countries in this respect. Iran applauded King Faisal’s initiative and welcomed him to Tehran in 1965 to disseminate his call. In a speech delivered before the shah and members of the Iranian senate and parliament, King Faisal declared: “If we look at the Arab nation and the Iranian nation, we do not find there any disagreement but rather the same goals and the same interests. Most importantly, there is the Islamic faith that binds us all. . . . We need today to cooperate and to interconnect to reform our religion, to advance our nations, and to reform our homelands.”8 Though Iran and Saudi Arabia were cooperating in advancing such call in the Islamic world, the approaching end of Pax Britannica in the Gulf at the end of 1971, as declared by the British in January 1968, old and new differences surfaced in the Saudi-Iranian relationship. These included the issues of Bahrain, the destiny of the three islands (Greater Tunib, Lesser Tunib, and Abu Musa) that were claimed by Iran as well as by the emirates of Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah, and security arrangements in the region after the departure of the British forces. Saudi Arabia and Iran had to work together to sort out these issues and deal with the anticipated strategic vacuum. From the beginning, the United States made it clear that it was not in a position to involve itself directly in securing the region or to replace the British presence: Iran and Saudi Arabia had to reach an understanding on the issues dividing them.9 This they did. Through difficult diplomatic wrangling and contacts at the highest levels, they were able to deal with their points of disagreement. On the issue of bilateral relations, in October 1968 they were able to conclude and ratify an agreement concerning the delimitation of the boundary line separating submarine areas between them.10 On the issue of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia made clear immediately after the British announcement and in response to the Iranian claim on Bahrain that any military move against Bahrain would be seen as a move against Saudi Arabia and therefore would be met with all available means.11 The shah, who saw that relations with Saudi Arabia could become the core of stability and progress in the Gulf, was willing to make a deal on Bahrain and leave it to the people of Bahrain to decide their future.12 This principle having been agreed upon, the negotiations on how to implement it were left for the United Nations in order to ascertain the opinion of the Bahraini people on the subject of self-determination. The overwhelming majority 7 For an in-depth study of King Faisal’s Islamic solidarity policy, see Nizar Obaid Madani,“The Islamic Content of the Foreign Policy of Saudi Arabia: King Faisal’s Call for Islamic Solidarity 1965–1975” (PhD dissertation, American University [Washington, DC], 1977). 8 For the text of this speech, see: 2.htm_cvt.htm. 9 Faisal bin Salman al-Saud, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf: Power Politics in Transition 1968–-1971 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2003), p. 44. 10 For details on this diplomatic issue, see: Ibid. pp. 36–45. 11 Ibid., p. 32. 12 Ibid., p. 41. 4 of the people of Bahrain chose full independence and a sovereign state.13 In May 1970 the Security Council of the UN voted on a resolution to that effect. In parallel with the process of solving the Bahrain issue, the future of the three contested islands was being determined. Though Saudi Arabia supported the Arab claims on the islands, it encouraged discussions on suitable arrangements with the shah without sacrificing Arab sovereignty over the Islands.14 However, Iran occupied the islands by military force. Saudi Arabia expressed its surprise and regret at the use of force and called on the Iranian government to reconsider its position for the sake of peace and stability in the region.15 This has continued to be the Saudi position until today on this issue. Despite the strain caused by this action in their relations, strategic considerations dominated their shared agenda. With the British now out of the region, the security vacuum had to be filled by cooperation between the two countries as “twin pillars” of an American strategy that recognized “the preponderance of Iranian power” in the Gulf.16 The two countries developed their regional security strategies accordingly. The history of their relations from the end of the British military presence to the fall of the shah is proof of this reality. Contacts and exchange of official visits at the highest levels were constant, and the two countries worked together on Islamic issues by advancing the idea of Islamic solidarity; cooperated to end the communist rebellion in Oman; coordinated their intelligence efforts with the intelligence agencies of Egypt, France, and Morocco (since 1974 to counter communist penetration, particularly in Africa); collaborated to bring Egypt back to their camp following Nasser’s death in 1970; successfully bridged the gap in their positions on the Arab-Israeli conflict(especially after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War); and managed to solve with their differences over oil prices and production through OPEC, which was founded by the two countries together with other oilexporting countries in 1960.17 In 1975, when King Faisal, who had been the architect of these working relations on the Saudi side, was assassinated, Iran declared a seven-day mourning period. However, King Khalid (1975–1982) continued on the same path until the end of the shah’s reign in 1979. According to Prince Turki Al-Faisal, former head of Saudi Intelligence (1977- 2001), who was a witness to all these developments, Saudi-Iranian relations during this period “were at their best and promising.”18 Saudi-Iranian Relations during the Revolutionary Era (1979–Present): All Over Again 13 Ibid., pp. 48–54. 14 Thomas R. Mattair , The Three Occupied UAE Islands: The Tunbs and Abu Musa (Abu Dhabi: Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research [ECSSR], 2005), pp. 253–56. 15 Ibid., p. 264. 16 Roham Alvandi, “Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The Origins of Iranian Primacy in the Persian Gulf,” Diplomatic History, 38, no. 2 (2012): p. 361. 17 Personal interview with Prince Turki Al-Faisal Al-Saud, Riyadh, January 1, 2015. 18 Ibid. 5 Against this background, Saudi Arabia’s declared position during the events leading up to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 was summarized by Prince Fahad bin Abdul-Aziz, at the time the crown prince and deputy prime minister (later King, 1982–2005), who stated that Saudi Arabia supported legitimacy; that what was happening in Iran was seen, in Saudi Arabia, as an internal issue, and it was for the Iranian people alone to figure out.19 The Iranians did so, and the revolution became a reality. Saudi Arabia recognized the revolution and saw in its Islamic character an important commonality. Prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, the second deputy Prime Minister (later King, 2005–2015), had high expectations of future Saudi-Iranian relations in the wake of the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran: The new established regime in Iran has removed every obstacle and dropped all reservations regarding all kinds of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Islam is the governing reference of our relations. . . . The Holy Quran is the constitution of our two countries, and thus links between us are no longer determined by material interests or geopolitics. . . . You see me very optimistic about the future of relations between us. . . . And I do not go away in optimism if I say that I became, after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, more firm in my conviction of restoring our al-Quds al-Sharif [Holy Jerusalem].”20 One year after the revolution, Prince Fahad reaffirmed this hopeful position, stating: “It is not in our interest to have misunderstanding . . . especially since the new regime in Iran is working under the banner of the Islamic faith, which is our motto in Saudi Arabia.”21 These statements correspond well with the tradition of Saudi foreign policy toward “revolutions” and “coup d’états” that struck the Arab world in the Fifties and Sixties. regardless of their ideologies, as long as these revolutions gain legitimacy their people, and as long as they kept their ideologies to themselves, business could go as usual. Therefore, Saudi Arabia recognized the Iranian Revolution and hoped that the Islamic factor would contribute to building a new kind of relationship. This was not the case. During the tenure of Imam Khomeini as supreme leader (1979–1989) and Ali Khamenei as president (1981–1989), when revolutionary fever was at it is highest pitch, the relations between 19 Quoted by Algomhuria (Egypt) , January 7, 1979; the Arabic text is available at d4e6&BookID=1&ID=32112&View=Page&PageID=32112 20 Interview with Prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz by the Gulf News Agency in Riyadh, April 1979; the Arabic text is available at 85004&BookID=1&ID=5807&View=Page&PageID=5807&PrevRecID=10034 21 Interview with Prince Fahad bin Abdul-Aziz by Al-Hawadith magazine, January 10, 1980; the Arabic text is available at e0d6&BookID=1&ID=798 6 Iran and Saudi Arabia were marred by interconnected issues that finally caused their severance in 1988. When the Hajj issue reemerged again. Imam Khomeini had his own philosophy about the Hajj and its political importance. He argued that “Hajj is an Islamic political movement. We had in mind from the outset to perform the Hajj the way it was supposed to be, just as the Prophet broke the idols down, in Ka’ba, we are to break the idols of our time just the same, the idols that are much wicked.”22 He called on Iranian pilgrims as well as all Shia to avoid all actions that break Muslim lines.23 The issue now was not the rituals and rites but politicization of the Hajj. The Hajj was seen as an optimal time and Mecca and Medina as the optimal places to revolutionize Muslims and to instigate them to rise in revolt. This was unacceptable to Saudi Arabia, and it broke the basic rules of conducting the Hajj that apply to all Muslims. Therefore, from the first Hajj session following the revolution, clashes and confrontations, with varying levels, between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi authorities were a dominant issue in the Saudi-Iranian relationship. This tension continued with an exchange of harsh accusations by both parties that culminated in the Hajj session of 1987 in a bloody confrontation resulting in more than four hundred deaths.24 Eventually, these ever-0ccuring clashes and confrontations would lead to the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries in April 1988. The second issue that dominated Saudi-Iranian relations during this period was the issue of interference in internal and regional affairs, particularly in the Gulf. An imperative of Khomeini’s ideology and of Iranian revolutionary foreign policy was the export of the revolution. The first target of this policy was neighboring countries. Attempts to export the revolution continued during the Eighties through propaganda and the instigation of mass demonstrations in the Gulf countries, as well as violent attacks and acts of sabotage in Gulf Arab states. Furthermore, Iran was claimed to host and nourish two Saudi Shia opposition groups, the Organization of the Islamic Revolution and Hezbollah al-Hejaz. Though Iran denied its involvement in many of these actions, all indications supported Iran’s involvement.25 The third issue that affected Saudi-Iranian relations during this period was the Iran-Iraq War that began in September 1980 and ended in 1988. Though the war was started by Iraq, its end was to be determined by Iran. After ejecting Iraqi forces from its territories in the middle of 1982, Iran rejected all initiatives for ending the conflict, which meant defeating Iraq and upon victory annexing it to Iran.26 Saudi Arabia, from the start, called for a cease-fire and through the Organization of Islamic Conference championed the efforts of the good office committee that was 22 The Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, Hajj in the Words and Messages of Imam Khomeini (Tehran: Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, n,d,). Available at, chapter 10. 23 Ibid., chapter 6. 24 Kramer, “Khomeini’s Messengers”, pp. 186- 91. 25 Christin Marschall, Iran’s Persian Gulf Policy: From Khomeini to Khatami (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 34–40. 26 Shahram Chubin and Charles Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War (London: I. B. Tauris, 1989), p. 164. 7 established in 1981 to find a settlement to the conflict. Saudi Arabia continued its call during the eight years of the war through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the UN. However, after it became clear that what was at issue was the future of Iraq and the future of the regional balance of power, and therefore that the war posed an imminent existential threat, Saudi Arabia sided with Iraq, thus ending two years of “neutrality”. The Saudis supported Iraq on all fronts except for combat, providing political, diplomatic, economic, financial, military, and intelligence assistance. Iraq was to be sustained at any cost. In the end, Iraq was sustained and Iran accepted UN Security Council Resolution 598 in August 1988. A cease-fire was declared. The fourth issue that influenced Saudi-Iranian relations in this period (and continues to do so) was Gulf security. Up to the Iranian Revolution, Iran, as we have seen, was a pillar of the Gulf security arrangement. However, revolutionary Iran was no longer interested in such an arrangement, and Saudi Arabia was consequently left alone and had to consolidate its position, strengthen its alliance with the US, and engage in military buildup, armed with President Carter’s doctrine promising that the US would use all means to prevent any “outside power” from controlling the Gulf region.27 At the same time, Saudi Arabia had to figure out a regional structure to deal with the challenges posed by ramifications of the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq War. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed in 1981 to include six Arab states of the Gulf: Bahrain, Kuwait Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates,. This development ran counter to all of Iran’s aims regarding Gulf security, as it entailed its exclusion from a regional structure.28 The fifth central issue in Saudi-Iranian relations during this time was oil. As major exporting countries, both rely heavily on oil revenue to sustain their economies. Since the formation of OPEC in 1960, they had managed to deal with their differences on production and pricing. However, after the revolution, the two countries could no longer find common ground to reconcile their different positions regarding the stability of the world energy market and oil price levels. This led to an oil war between them within OPEC regarding their production quotas and prices. In consequence, oil prices collapsed in February 1982. Disagreement among Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other members of OPEC continued. In 1985-1986, Saudi Arabia’s oil exports increased, bringing oil prices down to as low as $10.91 per barrel in July 1986. As a result, Iran suffered a dramatic drop in its oil revenue. Iran felt that this Saudi policy was part of a Saudi effort to undermine the Islamic Republic of Iran.29 At the time of Imam Khomeini's death in 1989, SaudiIranian relations were at rock bottom on all levels. 27 F. Gregory Gause, III, the International Relations of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 56–57. 28 Chubin and Tripp, Iran and Iraq at War, p. 187. 29 For a detailed account of this oil episode in Saudi-Iranian relations, see Hooshang Amirahmadi, Revolution and Economic Transition: The Iranian Experience (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 70–82; Hooshang Amirahmadi, “Iranian–Saudi Arabian Relations since the Revolution,” in H. Amirahmadi and N. Entessar (eds.), Iran and the Arab World (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993), pp. 139–58. 8 With Khomeini dead; the Iran-Iraq War at an end, leaders were figuring out how to deal with the ramifications of the war and their revolutionary strategies. Ali Khamenei was chosen as the new supreme leader and Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was considered a moderate element in the revolutionary leadership, was elected president with new constitutional powers in foreign policy. This development marked a new phase, which Ehteshami and Hinnebusch term the “reorientation phase.” Starting in June 1988 and ending in August 1990, and it was marked by the adoption of pragmatism in Iran’s foreign policy under the pressure of economic needs.30 This pragmatism was soon to be tested by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990. By opposing the invasion and by declaring itself neutral throughout the crisis, and despite rhetorical voices coming out of Iran against American forces in Saudi Arabia, Iran cooperated “silently” with the efforts to free Kuwait, going as far as permitting the US Air Force to use Iranian airspace.31 At this point Iran was viewed in Saudi Arabia as a responsible actor.32 Seeing the mass of forces in the region, the strong reaction to Saddam’s move to change status quo, and the determination exhibited during the crisis to reverse the tide, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the transformation of its “enemy” into the sole superpower, strengthened the conviction of the Iranian leadership under Khamenei and Rafsanjani to tone down the radical revolutionary orientation for the benefit of the “reorientation.” Relations with Saudi Arabia, even if only on Hajj issue and oil prices, were very important for Iran to enable it to break out of its economic and social problems and its isolation in the region and in the world at large.33 Therefore, with Omani mediation, communication resumed between them and in March 1991 an understanding on the Hajj issue and the resumption of relations was reached. Since then, the two countries have managed the issue through cooperation despite the continuing emergence of tensions in some Hajj seasons to this day. The resumption of diplomatic relations, the toning down of revolutionary rhetoric, and the resolution of the Hajj issue paved the way to improving bilateral relations during the presidency of Rafsanjani (1989–1997) despite the two countries’ differences over Afghanistan and the Peace Process in the Middle East. However, the relationship was strained in1996 by a terrorist act linked to Iran that was committed against US military personnel housed in Al Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.34 Saudi Arabia arrested some of the perpetrators, who had connections with Iran, but refrained from accusing Iran directly and publicly in order to avoid jeopardizing their détente. 30 Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch, Syria and Iran: Middle Powers in a Penetrated Regional System (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 44. 31 Said Amir Arjomand, After Khomeini: Iran under His Successors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 138–41. 32 F. Gregory Gause, III, Oil Monarchies: Domestic and Security Challenges in the Arab Gulf States (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1994), p. 134. 33 Reza Ekhtiari Amiri, “Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait as Turning Point in Iran-Saudi Relationship,” Journal of Politics and Law 4, no. 1 (2011): p. 191; Reza Ekhtiari Amiri and Ku Hasnita Ku Samsu, “Role of Political Elites in IranSaudi Economic Cooperation,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 1, no. 12, (2011): p. 108. Available at 34 Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 138. 9 During these years, old differences over oil were resolved through OPEC with a view to stabilizing oil production levels and pricing. With the election of President Mohammed Khatami (1997– 2005), the ground was well prepared for stabilizing and improving their relations. High-level official visits were exchanged, and an understanding was reached. This process of rapprochement during the Khatami presidency led to the conclusion of two major agreements: the Cooperation Agreement of 1998 and the Security Accord of 2001. In addition, negotiations were conducted toward the aim of reaching a defense agreement.35 These agreements prove that when states’ interests prevail; states can find common ground for understanding and cooperation. The events of 9/11 and the 2003 American invasion of Iraq and teh subsequent shift in the regional balance of power changed the strategic equation of the Middle East. The strategic priorities of both Iran and Saudi Arabia also changed, and bilateral relations that were moving forward, took a back seat to their new strategic considerations. Saudi Arabia’s priorities were preserving its strategic relations with the US, which had been strained by 9/11; joining the war on terrorism; building new international partnerships; pursuing its own war on the terrorism that started to affect Riyadh in 2003–2004; and embarking on a process of internal reforms. Iran, meanwhile, was occupied internally by the challenges posed by the emerging “New Right”36 to the reform agenda championed by Mohammed Khatami in his second term (2001–2005); the implications of Iran’s inclusion in the “axis of evil” in January 2002; the consequences of the subsequent exposure of the nature of its nuclear program; and the ramifications of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. The rise of the “New Right” in the 2004 parliamentary elections and the subsequent election in 2005 of the rising star of the conservative forces, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for the presidency brought the ideological factor back into Saudi-Iranian relations. Though Ahmadinejad prioritized Iran’s relations with neighboring Islamic countries,37 he “reoriented” the “reorientation” of Iran’s foreign policy conduct. Relations with Saudi Arabia were to be test by the new “reorientation.” The election of President Ahmadinejad coincided with Prince Abdullah’s ascension as King. King Abdullah, de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since 1995, was genuine in his belief in the importance of friendly relations with Iran.38 He was the architect of the détente and rapprochement with Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami. Saudi Arabia welcomed the election of Ahmadinejad with the hope that he would continue the path of rapprochement, and overcome the newly emerging 35 For details of these agreements and this episode in Saudi-Iranian relations, see Adel Al Toraifi, “Understanding the Role of State Identity in Foreign Policy Decision-Making: The Rise of Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement (1997–2009)” (PhD dissertation, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2012), pp. 206–35; available at See also Gwenn Okruhlik, “Saudi Arabian– Iranian Relations: External Rapprochement and Internal Consolidation,” Middle East Policy 10, no. 2 (2003): pp. 113– 25. 36 On this, see Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of Its Neoconservatives (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), chapter 2. 37 Amir M. Haji-Yousefi, “Iran's Foreign Policy during Ahmadinejad: From Confrontation to Accommodation” (paper presented at the annual conference of the Canadian Political Science Association, June 2–3, 2010, Montreal, Canada), p. 11. Available at 38 Al Toraifi, “Understanding the Role of State Identity,” p. 158. 10 differences regarding Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, interference in Arab affairs, and the nuclear issue. High-level official visits were exchanged, strategic talks were convened (2006–2007), and meetings were held between King Abdullah and President Ahmadinejad on many occasions during Ahmadinejad’s two presidential terms (2005–2013).39 However, differences over regional issues dominated their relations. As the gap widened and mistrust over intentions in dealing with these issues accumulated, a falling out was inevitable. The old rapprochement became the victim. Though many regional issues affected Saudi-Iranian relations during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, strategic considerations for both countries regarding some of these issues caused this breakdown in relations. Iraq was at the top of the list of these issues ever since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. Both countries welcomed the toppling of Saddam Hussein and helped reluctantly, to different degrees, in realizing the demise of their mutual enemy. However, they disagreed on Iraq the day after the invasion. Iran, fearing it might be next on George W. Bush’s list, made sure that the US would sink in the Iraqi quagmire for its own sake. With continued violence by terrorists and the resistance, coupled with the political vacuum and the flawed American efforts at state building in Iraq, Iran became the arbiter in Iraqi politics through sectarian Iraqi political organizations and militias of its own making. Though Saudi Arabia was hopeful that the political process in Iraq would at the end produce the necessary national reconciliation to build a sustained Iraqi state for all Iraqis, the sectarian policies of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during his two terms in office (2006– 2014) dashed that hope and paved the way for Iranian dominance over Iraqi affairs, which was completed after the withdrawal of American forces at the end of 2010. This was unacceptable to Saudi Arabia for the many strategic reasons: Secterianization of the polity in Iraq was a prescription for continued instability, with the danger of the disintegration of the Iraqi state on sectarian and ethnic bases; the spillover of such tendencies in the region was a real threat to Arab nation-states and their social fabric; having Iraq in Iran’s orbit represented an unacceptable change to the regional status quo; the spread of Iranian revolutionary influence in Iraq was a direct threat to Saudi national and regional security; and a stable, national Iraq that was on good terms with its neighbors was imperative for regional stability. Iran under Ahmadinejad did not heed to these Saudi concerns, which proved genuine, instead continuing to support al-Maliki’s policies, which led Iraq to the verge of collapse and disintegration. As of the writing of this paper, the Islamic State (IS) controls one-third of Iraqi territory and threatens all the countries of the region. The second issue of strategic importance that dominated Saudi-Iranian relations during Ahmadinejad’s presidency was the nuclear issue. With the revelation of the extent of the Iranian nuclear program, the Saudis tried, through strategic talks with Iran (2006–2007), to contribute to diffusing the crisis on this issue by convincing Iran to come clean on its enrichment activities and by helping to mediate negotiations with the international community and especially with the US 39 For a detailed account of these talks and meetings, ibid., chapter 5. 11 to avoid military action against Iran.40 However, Saudi efforts, including the proposal made in June 2007 to set up an enriched uranium bank in a neutral country to provide enriched uranium for Iranian and GCC nuclear projects, were in vain. Unconvinced, Saudi Arabia supported attempts at pressuring Iran on this issue. Saudi Arabia’s official policy centered on the creation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapon Free Zone (MENWFZ), and it therefore supported the P5+1 positions on Iran’s nuclear program and made it clear that failure to secure a good deal that guaranteed the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program would endanger the region through the proliferation of nuclear activities. Saudi Arabia also warned that it would consider going down the same path if it found itself between the atomic arsenals of Iran and Israel.41 This position contributed to the strain on the relations between the two countries during this episode. The third issue that dominated their relations and contributed to a state of tension and conflict was Iranian interference in Arab countries’ affairs, an issue as an old as the Iranian Revolution. By creating and supporting political groupings with sectarian bases in Arab states in order to influence the political process in these countries, Iran has weakened Arab nation-states. The nature of Iranian intervention in Syria in the face of the popular uprising that started in 2011 exposed the Iranian objective in creating such nonstate actors. By utilizing groups such as Hezbollah, Iran contributed to sectarianizing a conflict that was political by nature. With Saudi Arabia supporting the uprising and Iran supporting the regime, their differences became insurmountable without a major shift in their positions in favor of a transition toward a different political order in Syria. This was not possible during the presidency of Ahmadinejad, who saw the Syrian uprising as a conspiracy against the camp of resistance against Israel and the West. Other issues were also important, including the uprising in Bahrain and the GCC’s intervention to preserve its political order. Reports of Iranian assistance to the Houthis in Yemen were another cause of continued tensions between the two countries. And the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon and their different positions toward Arab Israeli conflict were further sources of disagreement. All these issues were complicated by rhetoric, threats, and occasional military maneuvers in the Gulf. In short, at the end of Ahmadinejad terms, Saudi-Iranian relations were at their highest stage of mistrust. The election of the reformist president Hassan Rouhani (2013–present) was welcomed by King Abdullah, who congratulated Rouhani and thanked him for his remarks during his campaign on how he would like to see improved relations with Saudi Arabia.42 However, all the issues dividing the two countries remain unsolved, and no progress has been made so far on any of them. 40 For detailed account of these efforts, see, Al Toraifi, pp243-250. 41 “Prince Hints Saudi Arabia May Join Nuclear Arms Race,” New York Times, December 6, 2011 42 “Saudi King Abdullah Felicitates Rohanis Victory in Iran Election,” Alalam, June 16, 2013, 12 The Way Ahead Saud Al-Faisal once said: “We are not pro or against countries. We are pro or against policies that countries follow...We don’t have an inherent opposition to Iran.”43 Therefore, improving the relationship is always possible whenever state’s interests prevail over ideological considerations. This was the case throughout the long troubled history of Saudi- Iranian relations during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and during the presidencies of Rafsanjani (1989–1997) and Khatami (1997–2005). It is no longer bilateral issues that divide the two countries; regional issues and their differences over these issues are the determinants of the future of Saudi-Iranian relations. Iran and Saudi Arabia are centers of power in the region, and they represent the sectarian divide in the Islamic world. It is thus their responsibility to find a way out of the deadlock in their bilateral and regional relations. Mistrust is the key problem, and if the two countries do not work together to create the trust needed to go beyond the current state of affairs, there is no chance of overcoming their differences. How, then, to move forward, transcend the occasional occurrences and headlines, and create mutual trust? Mistrust is mutual; confidence-building measures are not enough if they are not part of a strategic understanding that corresponding to the parties’ mutual concerns. Many proposals, projects, and ideas, including regional security architecture, have been presented to overcome this mistrust in the last three decades. None has materialized under the pressure of rhetoric, the exacerbations of events, and the absence of goodwill. I believe strongly in the validity and usefulness of the historical experience of divided Europe in the aftermath of WWII. In order to avoid any circumstances that may lead to a third world war, the Europeans have developed frameworks and institutions to enable them to achieve their ultimate goal, to manage crises and resolve outstanding issues between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, and to secure a peaceful atmosphere for coexistence among the different social, economic, and political systems and thus preserve the peace. In the Fifties Europe launched the idea of holding a general conference for European security and cooperation. Such a conference was held in Helsinki in 1975, and it adopted what is known as the Helsinki Accords or the Declaration of Helsinki.44 The most important part of this declaration is its Ten Principles: - Sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty - Refraining from the threat or use of force - Territorial integrity of states - Peaceful settlement of disputes - Nonintervention in internal affairs 43 Transcript of Charlie Rose’s interview with Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, available at 44 For the history of the accord, see 13 - Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief - Equal rights and self-determination of peoples - Cooperation among States - Fulfillment in good faith of obligations under international law - These principles have subsequently governed relations among the member countries. The signatory states committed to these principles have achieved the desired peace and led Europe of out the Cold War peacefully, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has become the most important framework in the management of relations among its members and affiliated states.45 A similar process with the same principles in the Middle East could likewise be the solution to the region’s challenges. Through such a principled process, Iran and Saudi Arabia could create an atmosphere of trust that would lead the two countries and their regional partners in the region to become good neighbors, friends, partners, and allies for the sake of peace, security, and tranquility for their people and across the region. 45 For the history of this organization, its work, and its achievements, sees

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