3Qs: Growing tensions between Saudi Arabia, Iran

Europe In CrisisRela­tions 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.

Image by Greg Grinnell/Northeastern University

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.

5 comments

  1. This a no-​​nonsense assess­ment of the sit­u­a­tion in east Asia (I use the real geo­graphic des­ig­na­tion of the region as opposed to the term Middle East, which was arbi­trarily chosen by the British Impe­ri­alism in the early 20s.) The ani­mosity between Per­sians and Arabs dates back to the Median empire about 2700 years ago. The Per­sians treated the Arabs as a sort of lower human beings. And when the Arabs were lucky to defeat the Per­sian army about 1400 years ago, in retal­i­a­tion they treated Per­sians as infi­dels and put mil­lions of Per­sians to death (by decap­i­ta­tions). These mutual feel­ings will never cease.

  2. An Excel­lent piece by one of our promi­nent spe­cial­ists in the field. Not only the com­plex set of issues involving this clash of two aspiring powers in the Middle East, but also the mate­rial and poten­tial con­se­quences for such a clash. Two points I wish were dealt with in more details in this piece are the near absence of any vis­ible role for the peo­ples of the Middle East in crises sur­rounding them. Such con­flicts are man­aged by those in power in the Gulf region with no input by the mas­sive pop­u­la­tions there.
    The other issue is the attempt by many States to dupli­cate in the Middle East the futile macho func­tion as a regional Super­power. Israel’s dom­i­nance spurred Turkey’s effort to rise as a super­power, and then a host of other coun­tries have been com­peting for that silly and tragic func­tion. The col­lapse of Iraq and Syria, the mar­gin­al­iza­tion of Egypt, and the pos­sible dis­in­te­gra­tion of Saudi Arabia are some of the dis­plays of that com­pe­ti­tion.
    And thanks to the writer of the piece for raising very engaging questions.

  3. This is a very par­tial article. It takes an almost unequiv­ocal pro-​​Iran slant, both in the analysis and in the rec­om­men­da­tions. By being so one-​​sided, schol­arly cred­i­bility is undermined.

  4. Very good analysis about the irony of Iran’s oppo­si­tion Western inva­sion of Iraq while, Saddam Hossian was the number one enemy of Iran before the Iraq inva­sion by George W Bush. How­ever, there is an impor­tant point missing in these three Q&As. The the­o­log­ical dif­fer­ences between Iran and Saudi Arabia (sunni vs. shia) is not iso­lated from their polit­ical dif­fer­ences. They are actu­ally 2 sides of the same coin because the polit­ical plat­form or struc­ture in both coun­tries are based on two opposing foun­da­tions of Islamic The­ology. Whabism financed by Saudi Arabia is basi­cally a polit­ical and reli­gious move­ment against the Shia doc­trine. In some cases, Wah­bism is much more extreme than shia move­ment and whabism has many inter­esting forms of plat­forms also fighting against each other. For example, Al-​​Quida orga­ni­za­tion and Tal­iban formed in Pak­istan are also extended plat­forms of Wah­bism for expan­sion of Orthdox Islam out­side Saudi Arabia. Tal­iban was actu­ally orig­i­nally founded by the Saudi financed Madrassas in Pak­istna (the Saudi Arabia still does). With the same token, the ISIS is also a mil­i­tant wing of the Whabi move­ment sup­ported by Saudi Kingdom, but in dif­ferent form and under the table. That is why, the ten­sion between Iran and Saudi Kingdom is nothing new from both polit­ical and the­o­log­ical con­text. It will con­tinue to get worse with no suc­cessful medi­a­tion by Western powers or the UN secu­rity council. The rea­sons are mainly two:

    First, the Secu­rity council vetoing power mem­bers will never agree on pro­posal by world leaders. Russia and China will cause more prob­lems in bring res­o­lu­tion on the table.

    Second, the con­cerned par­ties in the middle-​​east, espe­cially Iran, Saudi Arabia and other neigh­boring victim coun­tries out of this chaos will never trust the western powers to negotiate.

    Con­se­quently, the polit­ical chaos driven by their the­o­log­ical dif­fer­ences will even­tu­ally trans­form these tow coun­tries (along with Iraq, Syria, and Yemen already) into failed states. These two coun­tries have already in huge trouble except they are still living on oil money. But the con­tin­uous decline of oil price and the chaotic sit­u­a­tions will prob­ably derive them into more tur­moil states in the next decade or so. That is the reality of any coun­tries which do not value to build human cap­ital assets to sus­tain peace, human dig­nity, jus­tice, and eco­nomic pros­perity for all citizens.

  5. This article is rather one-​​sided. I have written below a paragraph-​​by-​​paragraph com­ment, which most def­i­nitely should be pub­lished as a coun­ter­point, though I sus­pect will not.

    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.

    ***This sets the tone: Saudi Arabia fears Iran; Iran’s con­cerns are rel­a­tively minor, and jus­ti­fied by mis­treat­ment of pilgrims.

    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.

    ***True; but fails to men­tion that Iran also enforces rigid reli­gious prac­tices, and represses reli­gious minori­ties, although not all equally.

    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.

    ***This para­graph blames the Saudis for low­ering oil prices finds virtue in raising prices of oil; taking the side of exporters as opposed to con­sumers is irra­tional and par­tial. Why is the pur­suit of higher oil prices an Iranian virtue?

    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.

    ***True; and may be a con­tributing factor to the present esca­la­tion; but cer­tainly a minor though lam­en­table episode in the his­tory of recent vio­lence in the region, espe­cially in com­par­ison with the Syrian civil war which has killed hun­dreds of thou­sands and where the Saudi and Iranian regimes sup­port opposing and equally vio­lent sides.

    Saudi Arabia has joined Israel in opposing the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal.

    ***Guilt by asso­ci­a­tion. The insin­u­a­tion is that the Saudi posi­tion is auto­mat­i­cally wrong because it coin­cides with that of Israel. This can only be inter­preted as a device to gain sym­pathy of the anti-​​Israel crowd.

    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.

    ***Mostly true. But yet the writer cannot refrain from taking sides in the hor­rific Iran-​​Iraq war.

    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.

    ***This state­ment is unsup­ported. It is depen­dent of the coun­ter­fac­tual “the Middle East would have been in peace if Western coun­tries had not inter­fered during the Arab Spring”, which is not ver­i­fi­able and most likely false.

    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.

    ***This is irrel­e­vant to the Iran-​​Saudi issue under discussion.

    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.

    ***This takes an unequiv­ocal stance in favor of Assad. What­ever one may think of the Amer­ican, French, and British stance on Syria — it was cer­tainly deeply flawed — the Syrian regime is geno­cidal, and the sup­port it receives from Putin and the Iranian regime has nothing to do with human values.

    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.

    ***This is a non-​​sequitur. The bru­tality with which the death penalty is dis­pensed by Saudi courts — matched or exceeded only per­haps by that of Iranian courts — has very little direct con­nec­tion with the acts of Dash and other Sunni extremist orga­ni­za­tions. It is not that Dash is incensed about the treat­ment of Shias in Arabia or some­thing like that.

    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.

    ***The article assumes an imag­i­nary sce­nario in which the US is all-​​powerful to create trouble in the Middle East — nothing could be fur­ther from the truth! — and uses it to present as a solu­tion that the US should back unequiv­o­cally the side of the Iranian and Baath regimes, by force if nec­es­sary. Why should the US defend the Assad regime with such ded­i­ca­tion? Is it because of our national inter­ests, to because of its pris­tine human­i­tarian record? Hard to believe. More likely it just just so hap­pens to be the side suits the author’s preference.

    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.

    ***That article closes with a feeble attempt at even-​​handedness. Sorry, this is not how the real world works, and it is not how intel­lec­tual aca­d­emic debate should go.

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