By: Alexander Decina
There is an abundance of Middle East analysts and experts drawn to the idea of eternal conflicts. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, they learned the words “Sunni” and “Shia” and decided that this “1,400 year-old fight” is the defining conflict in the Middle East, disregarding the nuance of the important issues of the region. As Saudi Arabia and Iran recently rowed over the execution of a prominent Shiite sheikh and the subsequent storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and as the two countries continue their proxy war in Syria, the experts have re-invoked the Sunni-Shia conflict, positing that Saudi Arabia and Iran—the purported champions of Sunnism and Shiism respectively—have always hated each other. This grand sentiment distracts from what is actually a petty fight: Saudi Arabia is giving Iranian hardliners ammunition to undermine the moderates and prevent Iran from getting close to the West, thus protecting Saudi Arabia’s place in the region.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have indeed been rivals since well before the 1979 Iranian Revolution. From the days of the shah, the two countries argued over regional dominance and oil policy—the same issues they continue to squabble over today. But just because these countries have been rivals it does not mean they have always been mortal enemies. Even after the Iranian Revolution, there have been multiple periods in which Riyadh and Tehran have worked to improve relations and attempt rapprochement—all in the midst of ongoing tensions and conflicts.
In the mid-1980s and throughout the 1990s, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a prominent opponent of Supreme Leader Khamenei—worked with then-King Fahd and then-Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to increase the number of Iranian pilgrims on the hajj and to improve Iran’s relations not only with Riyadh but also with the other countries in the Gulf. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, then-President Khatami made more progress than Rafsanjani, holding amicable talks on oil policy and even forming a security pact in April 2001, pledging to cooperate in fighting terrorism and to keep out of each other’s internal affairs.
As Rafsanjani and Khatami have reached out, they have always been constrained by Iran’s hardliners in the Principalist party and the Supreme Leader. With the Supreme Leader’s veto power over every move they might make, the moderates’ attempts at rapprochement have only existed to the extent that Khomeini and now Khamenei have allowed. The Supreme Leaders’ decisions on this have been based on ensuring their own survival. Today, Khamenei wants to do whatever he can to reduce the level of volatility against him and the clerical establishment in Iran. He balances improving oil policy and Iran’s economy, which keeps protestors off the streets, with appeasing Iran’s hardline Principalists, who have always viewed him skeptically due to his lack of religious credentials.
Khamenei’s biggest appeasement to the hardline Principalists was entering the fray in support of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential elections. This backfired after 2009 when demonstrators protested not only against the president but also against the Supreme Leader himself—a rare sight in Iran.
Khamenei could have nullified President Hassan Rouhani’s surprise win in 2013. Rouhani’s plans for moderation and rapprochement with regional neighbours and the West were, and still are, a threat to the hardliners in Iran. But with the combination of the possibility of sanctions relief and fear that quashing Rouhani would lead to demonstrations like the ones in 2009, Khamenei allowed Rouhani to take office. Iranian forces loyal to the Supreme Leader could surely have put down another round of protests, but at what cost? A repeat of 2009 would have led to even more animosity directed at Khamenei and the establishment.
Since coming to power, Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have made attempts at outreach similar to those of Rafsanjani and Khatami. The two have made requests for official visits and have urged dialogue with the other Gulf countries. And yet Saudi Arabia has been far less receptive to their efforts than it has been towards the previous Iranian leaders—especially since King Salman took power. Rather than entering talks in earnest as it did in decades past, Saudi Arabia has taken more aggressive Syria and oil policies to bleed Iran. The Gulf monarchy has also engaged in an extensive campaign in Yemen to open a new front against its rival (though Tehran’s support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen has always been fairly inexpensive, so the Saudi-led campaign does very little to actually hurt Iran).
Why is Saudi Arabia rebuffing Rouhani and Zarif? After last year’s nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia believes that Iran, for the first time since 1979, stands a real chance to reintegrate into the international community—possibly giving the United States and the West the option of another powerful ally in the Middle East besides Saudi Arabia. The likelihood that Iran’s moderates will be able to accomplish this is still quite low. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia perceives this as a real enough possibility that it is willing to act on it to protect its standing.
Calling reform and moderation in Iran an uphill battle is an understatement. The Saudis, of course, know this and are using it to their advantage. In its aggressive Syria, Yemen, and oil policies, and now in executing Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, Riyadh is strengthening the position of Iran’s hardliners, giving the clerical establishment ammunition to undermine Iran’s moderates without inciting protests against it like the ones in 2009.
This ammunition gives the hardliners good footing for the upcoming Majlis and Assembly of Experts elections on February 26. They are able to frame the moderates’ efforts to improve Iran’s relations with the world as weakening the country at a time when the region is more unstable than ever before. Furthermore, if lower oil prices undermine the benefits of sanctions relief on the economy, they can argue that the moderates have weakened Iran’s position with no real payoff. The announcement that Iran’s Guardian Council—which is controlled by the hardliners—has just disqualified an unprecedented number of moderate and reformist candidates, including the late Supreme Leader Khomeini’s grandsons, Hassan Khomeini and Morteza Eshraghi, shows the hardliners are feeling particularly bold—a bad sign for Iran’s moderates.
The Saudis are all too happy to strengthen Iran’s hardliners and have shown they can do so successfully, but they do this at their own peril. If Saudi Arabia continues its aggressive Syria and Yemen policies, it will create more radicalism and more terrorism that will spill out of those countries and will affect not only other countries and the West, but also the kingdom itself. According to the IMF last October, if Riyadh continues its aggressive oil policies and keeps the price below $50 per barrel, it will run out of cash reserves in fewer than 5 years. Earlier this month, crude fell below $30 per barrel, the lowest it’s been since 2003. Saudi Arabia’s new direction under King Salman is recklessly shortsighted and is making its traditional allies in the West and in the region uncomfortable—even if they’re not ready to voice this publicly yet. If Riyadh is truly worried about maintaining its positioning, it should look on itself rather than Iran.
Alexander Decina is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. He previously worked for the Tripoli, Libya-based Sadeq Institute and for the Sustainable Democracy Center in Beirut, Lebanon.