It has been almost 100 years of difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran, when first signed Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty in 1929, but inactive due to dispute over religious practices or Pahlavi’s recognition of Israel, until the late King Faisal Bin Abdulaziz visited Iran in 1966 to strengthen relationships between neighboring countries. The two countries enjoyed several corporations in many fields and established multinational Islamic institutions, including the Muslim World League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and Organization of the Islamic World Congress. The rapprochement in the Saudi-Iranian relations that time emerged maybe because of Iran’s approach of secularism. The state of difference, then, has been diminished due to the decrease of religious rivalry between the two countries and opened new prospects for corporation as they both have waterfronts on the Arabian Gulf, in addition to common regional interests.
The Rolling Saudi-Iranian Rivalry and the Ideological Factor
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the new leadership in Tehran brought new doctrine to the region based on the so-called Velayat-e Faqih [Supreme Leadership], which, according to the international relations, disabled any key attempts for democratization in the country, and faded then the concepts of the Republic and to some degree, the Islamic one.
As the extremist ideological nature has overshadowed Iran since clerics took the throne, conflicts rose again in the region between the newly leading Shiite country against Saudi Arabia, the major Sunni country to ignite a state of rivalry that seemed always to be religious and ideological since then. Iran considered itself as a guardian for all Shiites in the world, which make it develop outlaw mechanisms and illegitimate justifications in order to increase its influence among the countries of the region and the world.
Almost all regional countries have a Shiite key component in them, especially the Gulf States, a matter that made these states concern about their national security and inner stability against the inter-state Iranian project. Therefore, the ideological rivalry become a reason among others for conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, including national security concerns, economic competition, and regional and international primacy.
Whomever looks at the situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, will say that impossible to solve the mutual conflict. However, there are many signs indicate a possible future rapprochement between the two rival countries:
- There are two presidential eras in 1990s have witnessed mutual and various corporations, where the diplomatic index was exceeding the ordinary levels for any neighboring conflicted countries.
- The time-to-time continues gestures between the two countries for the desire to rapprochement including the –partial- acceptance to the efforts of mediation, such as the recent ones by Iraq and Pakistan.
- The state of consensus among academics, intellectuals and specialists on certain issues such as normalization and, somehow, secularization of relations. In addition, the readiness for open dialogue to reach the point of building initial confidence, which can open higher level of discussion upon recommendations.
- History mentions that Saudi Arabia had always open hands for peace and stability and still. On the other hand, Iran has the intention to fix the regional situation; the clue lies with the recent Hope Initiative that President Rouhani suggested in the United Nations.
- Both Saudis and Iranians realizes that security in the Arabian Gulf must include all parties. No peace process can be achieved without either Saudi Arabia or Iran, so they believe dialogue and consensus is major way to reach the state of regional stability.
- The Iranian government understands that it became embroiled with massive regional criminal files in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, where the Iranian projects of influence became clues for further international isolation.
How to Resolve the Iranian Current Dilemma?
Nowadays, Iran is in an uncomfortable situation, while it passes through the era, where JCPOA is collapsing, new sanctions rolled down, Trump Administration’s maximum pressure, and the international and regional isolation is shredding what remained of the Iranian economy amid the COVID-19 crisis, which has worsened the situation inside the country.
Perhaps Iran has used its revolutionary diplomacy in a perfect way to win the JCPOA with p5+1, but has definitely failed to use diplomacy in the region especially Saudi Arabia and this maybe returns to:
- The dual-process of decision making inside the Iranian political system that makes the sense of dealing with two governments, one is internationally official and practice the desired etiquette and show the innocent face. The other is a brutal extremist entity, which engage with the IRGC to control the country and decide the final word the domestic and foreign policy, in addition to radiating military and political threats that foster any diplomatic official effort with world.
- The inner desire within the political system to further ignite the sectarian factor in the Gulf States according to national security allegations, which makes always any efforts of building confidence with Iran impossible.
- Excluding the public opinion and desire to live in a stable Iran with a stable surrounding. Any public engagement on any level can give new hopes for higher level of engagement.
Iran needs now to recalculate its strategic regional perspective, change the principles, and transform the inner atmosphere of conflict towards secularizing relations with the neighboring countries, especially the GCC countries, to rebalance the nature of treatment in line with international relations and regional common interests, not the ideological ones. A matter that will bring the country to an infinity aggravated conflict, not just with Saudi Arabia, but also with international community.
Riyadh as a Last Resort amid Severe Crises
As Saudi Arabia is passing through a significant era of development and openness towards the international community, Iran has the opportunity to get out of the grim situation through dialogue and consensus with its neighbors in Riyadh.
The Iranian government has the diplomatic ability to engage with Saudis in high-level discussions to initially break the isolation and pursue building of confidence with Riyadh through disabling needless policies, which will reduce its massive expenditures abroad and satisfy its people and benefit a positive regional environment.
Reconciliation in the Arabian Gulf, especially with Saudi Arabia, will facilitate Iran’s return to interact normally with international community. Riyadh can offer all regional parties a path of peaceful coexistence through:
- As Iran’s isolation further tightened, Saudi Arabia passes through multiple channels of openness to the world at all fields. Riyadh can took the hand of Tehran to the new global era of opportunities to achieve sustainable development and welfare of people in the region.
- The successive crises that hit the Iranian economy starting from US withdrawal from the JCPOA, to re-imposing new sanctions, the Trump’s Maximum Pressure and recently COVID-19 pandemic, have worsened the situation inside the country and raise the possibility of another wave of massive demonstrations against the political system. The cooperation with Riyadh can save the Iranian economy and perhaps make the Middle East a major hotspot for business for the two neighbors.
- Opening channels of dialogue with Tehran’s major rival in Riyadh will make many countries restore the state of confidence and rethink about investing again in the country.
- Iran can leave the regional files, return to its borders, and care more about its people to avoid more financial and material causalities. The monarchy in Riyadh has the experience to deal with the regional countries, fix the damage and lead the process of reconstruction.
Many initiatives have been put on the table of the two countries, but the only one that can be achieved is the one contains open dialogue on both sides of the Arabian Gulf, insures the security of the Gulf, preserve the full sovereignty of regional countries, in other words, a stability-for-stability diplomatic initiative. Iran should exploit any efforts for mediation with Saudi Arabia and fix the regional status to adopt and achieve such initiative.