Iranian-Saudi Relations

When I read big news about the Middle East, there are mostly two states that are somehow involved in the story: Saudi Arabia and Iran, both struggling for regional hegemony in this region. For understanding the current bilateral relations, it might be helpful to take a look at the history of them. Here I will give a short overview.

First Relations Occur

Relations between those two countries start in 1929 with the signature of a Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty[1]. Not even 20 years later, both countries drifted apart. When Israel was founded in 1948, Iran recognized Israel and established close military ties with this new state, while Saudi Arabia, together with Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria fought Israel[2]. In 1962 Iran and Saudi-Arabia started to support the Yemeni royalists who were fighting Egyptian-backed Republicans in a bloody civil war between 1962 and 1970[3]. It was also in 1962 that the Iranian Prime Minister Ali Amini visited Saudi-Arabia, attended a pan-Islamic conference, visited Mecca and invited the Saudi King and the Saudi Ulama to visit Iran in order to overcome religious disputes[4].

Finally in 1966 the former Saudi ruler King Faisal and then Iranian ruler Mohammad Reza Shah visited one another, but to settle an issue about island possession (Iran claimed that the Hormuz islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa belong to Iran, while Great Britain and the Arab states claimed they are part of the Arab side of the Gulf[5]) in the Persian Gulf[6]. On January 16 1968 the British announced that they will depart from the Gulf. This left a security whole and the states surrounding the Persian Gulf were for the first time in their history responsible for the security there[7]. This decision was followed by an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that there should be no Great Power intervening in the Gulf again. What both couldn’t agree on was whether the Gulf was Arab or Persian[8].

British withdrawal from the Gulf

When the British declared that they would withdrawal in 1971, Iran yet again claimed that Bahrain should be part of their country. Despite this, London wanted the Arab sheikhdoms Bahrain, Qatar and what is today the UAE to form a federation, which Tehran obviously opposed. The ruler of Bahrain then asked Saudi Arabia for support, which received him as a head of state, further angering Tehran. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia even announced that he thinks the Arabs should fill the vacuum left by the British. One year after all those disputes, the Shah softened Iran’s stance towards Bahrain in 1969. He offered a referendum that would let it upon the residents of Bahrain to where they want to belong to. The Bahraini government rejected that and pointed out that this would lead to spreading tensions between Persians and Arab. Iran then declared that it would leave the United Nations if they would recognize Bahrain as a sovereign state. Together with the British government, the Bahraini government formed a mission to ask its residents anonymously whether they want to be independent, a British protectorate or part of Iran. Most people wanted independence and as tensions among the British indented Arab federation arose, Bahrain declared its independence in 1971 with Iran being the first nation recognizing this new state[9].

Saudi Arabia on the other side of the Gulf was more than happy with this deal since Bahrain is only 15 miles off the Saudi coast. Its intentions were to having an independent Bahrain with which it could have good relations to ensure security matters. In 1968 it even threatened Iran that an “attack on Bahrain would be treated as one on Saudi Arabia and met with all his country’s resources”[10].

In 1971 Iran annexed Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa. The UAE also claimed that those islands were part of its territory and the dispute remains until today[11]. Saudi Arabia disapproved this action, but didn’t want to risk threatening the relations with Iran, which were becoming better at this time[12]. Another dispute between the two big countries in this period of British withdrawal was Iran’s military modernization program and thus its military dominance in the region. Despite all this Saudi Arabia and Iran were close allies in the fight against Communism, posed by the Soviet Union, and against Arab Nationalism, especially proclaimed by Egypt’s Gamal Abd al-Nasser[13]. Nevertheless, both were always able to solve those issues and the period between 1968 and 1979 is widely seen as the best period of Saudi-Iranian relations in history[14].

Iranian Revolution 1979

The Iranian Revolution in 1979 radically changed those relations. The Iranian interim government immediately accused Saudi Arabia of being corrupt and an “American puppet” while Saudi Arabia accused Iran of trying to destabilize other countries through its “export of revolution”[15]. This became a problem for the Saudis since approximately 10% of the Saudi citizens are Shiites[16].

The new Iran also didn’t see Saudi Arabia in the legitimate position to control the two holiest sides of Islam, Mecca and Medina. Ideologically speaking, Khomeini was anti-monarch and pleaded for a rule of the cleric; both further challenged Saudi Arabia with its ruling royal family[17]. To make things worse, Iran wanted to guard those two cities together with the Saudis[18]. This way Tehran wanted to question the Saudi leadership over all Muslims and tried to establish itself as an alternative[19]. Since Islam was born in Saudi Arabia, Arabic is the language of Islam and because of hard-line Sunnis who see themselves as true Muslims and Shiites as heretics, Saudi Arabia has a “sense of superiority” [20]. Although the attempt to share the rule over Mecca and Medina wasn’t successful, Iran became popular among Shia Muslims[21].

When a war between Iran and Iraq broke out in 1980 it gave the Saudi government the opportunity to weaken the newly established Islamic Iranian Republic. Thus Riyadh immediately became an ally of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. One reason for this war was oil, but Saddam, a Sunni, also feared that a popular Shiite movement, inspired by Iran, might threaten his power in Iraq. In the years until the end of the war in 1988 the Saudi government supported Iraq with approximately 25 Billion US-$. It also encouraged other Arab states to follow its example. This led inevitable to tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which soured their relations for the next decades[22]. Furthermore the Saudis founded the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with the other five Gulf States to counterbalance the threat they saw in the new Iran[23].

Iran on the other hand used the predecessor of what is today the Quds Force to carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia, especially during the Hajj, the wholly Islamic pilgrimage[24]. During the first Hajj after the Iranian Revolution, the first Iranians demonstrated in Mecca against the ‘enemies of Islam’ which included the United States as well as Israel. Saudi Arabia on its side became very suspicious about Iran’s intentions. Those demonstrations were one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia supported Iraq in the 80s[25]. As for the Hajj, those demonstrations reached its peak in 1987 when Iranian pilgrims led siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca. In this process 317 pilgrims and 85 security forces were killed[26]. Tehran was angry that so many of its citizens got killed and questioned whether the Saudis could secure safety for pilgrims in the two holy sites[27]. It even went so far to state that the Saudis must be removed and “sent into hell” as they are not the legitimate protectors[28].

Death of Khomeini

When the internal and international settings changed with the death of the Islamic Republic’s founder Khomeini in 1988, the end of the Iran-Iraq war in the same year and the political-economic problems in Iran, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iraqi invasion in Kuwait in the early 90s, Iran’s foreign policy also changed. It tried to understand the international system and looked for its place in it. ‘Realpolitik’ became more dominant now, putting national interests over ideology[29]. As a result, relations improved. Embassies were reopened and high state authorities visited another. What was mainly contributing to this improvement was Iran taking the side of the Arab Gulf States against Iraq. Despite all this, some tensions remained[30].

In June 1996 a bombing took place in Saudi Arabia, outside the Khobar Towers, killing 19 US Air Force personnel. Both Washington and Riyadh blamed Tehran for being responsible and even a FBI investigation proved that Tehran trained the attackers. But the US and Iran were currently improving their bilateral ties and the FBI was told to withdraw its findings[31]. Thus King Fahd of Saudi Arabia went “so far as to encourage other Persian Gulf countries to follow its lead in improving relations with Iran”[32]. In 1997 the GCC opened its session with acknowledging that Iran intends to improve relations with the Arab Gulf Countries, although tensions with some countries over islands remained. Overall the GCC became more neutral towards Iran and took further steps to ease its stance towards Iran[33].

In May 1998 Riyadh and Tehran signed “an agreement that facilitated increased cooperation in economic, commercial, scientific, and technical fields, and was later expanded to include larger regional issues as well”[34]. Together Iran and Saudi Arabia possess 60% of the world’s proven oil reserves. Their close ties were thus proven in the OPEC while both countries were highly responsible for the world’s oil prices and the quotas for OPEC’s member states[35].

Iraq-War 2003

The biggest recent change in the power balancing of the Middle East was the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The immediate result was that the three most powerful states – Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – could not balance each other anymore. Before 2003 Iran and Saudi Arabia improving ties emerged in the shadow of Iraq’s aggressive role. Now, with Iraq braking away, Iran and Saudi Arabia were put directly against each other[36]. In the same year Iran’s nuclear program became public[37]. For the Saudis Iran dominating Iraq became the worst case scenario[38]. Iran as well as Saudi Arabia agreed that whatever happens in Iraq will change the political and economic future of the Gulf. As a result both countries tried to gain as much influence in Iraq as possible[39].

Iran’s basic purpose was to bring the majority of Iraq’s population, the Shiites, to power and by doing so installing a proxy next door. Yet some limitations of Iran’s influence became obvious. It succeeded in supporting Shiite groups when they benefited from Iran, but it failed to support them when they didn’t see a benefit from collaborating with Tehran. Nevertheless, those attempts seemed successful when Nouri al-Maliki became President of Iraq in 2010, leading a coalition of various Shiite parties[40]. Now in the aftermath of the Islamic State (IS) occupying large territories in Iraq all Iraqis agreed that al-Maliki was the oppressor of Iraq. As a result of his reign, Iraq is now divided. Shiites lost half of the country they were given to reign, the Kurds are fighting IS and the Sunnis are dominated by it. It will take years to have a peaceful Iraq again[41]. Nobody can make a forecast how Iraq’s future will look like, but Iran is still trying to hold on its grip over this country by sending its troops[42].

The most recent development was the Arab Spring, leading to several overthrows in some countries and in a bloody civil war in Syria. Riyadh as well as Tehran brand marked the uprisings either as legitimate or as an uprising led by foreign powers and thus an intervention in a state’s inner affairs. The Saudis saw the still ongoing protests, mainly by its Shia population[43], as illegitimate as well as the demonstrations in Bahrain which were claimed to be an Iranian controlled Shia uprising. Only in Egypt when the demonstrations became too popular it led the then Egyptian leader Housni Mubarak drop. On the other side of the Gulf, Iran’s stance towards the protests wasn’t that much different. It claimed that those in Egypt and Tunisia were inspired by the Islamic Revolution, while those in Syria were attempts by foreign powers to intervene in a sovereign state and is thus illegitimate. All this should be seen in the light of securing physical power in the region as well as “securing interpretative sovereignty over current events”[44].

So how does the future in the Middle East look like? Nobody can tell for sure, but the Islamic State gives them two possibilities: either both countries start a tighter cooperation. Or both countries use their influence among other countries or groups and it will lead to an even more divided Middle East. Some go even so far as to say that there is a new 30 Year’s War ahead of us, this time in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shias[45].

[1] Wrampelmeier, Brooks (1 February 1999). Saudi-Iranian Relations 1932-1982 in Middle East Policy. Retrieved 21 August 2013. (

[2] Ackerman, Harrison (28 November 2011). Symptoms of Cold Warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran: Part 1 of 3 in Journalism and Political Science 16. Retrieved 21 August 2013. (

[3] Al-Saud, Faisal bin Salman Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf (London: I.B. Tauris, 2003), p.8

[4] Ibid., p.9

[5] Ibid., p.9

[6] Ackermann (2011)

[7] Al-Saud (2003), p. 10

[8] Ibid., p.29

[9] Kechichian, J.A. Bahrain in Encyclopedia Iranica Online, retrieved 21 August 2014 (

[10] Al-Saud (2003), p.32

[11] Afrasiabi, Kaveh L. Saudi-Iranian Tensions fuels wider Conflict in Asia Times (6 December 2006). Retrieved 21 August 2014 (

[12] Al-Saud (2003), p.125

[13] Afrasiabi (2006)

[14] Ackermann (2011)

[15] Afrasiabi (2006)

[16] Council on Foreign Relations The Sunna-Shia Divide in Retrieved 22 August 2014 (!/)

[17] Jahner, Ariel Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Struggle for Power and Influence in the Gulf in International Affairs Review, Volume XX, Number 3 (Spring 2012), p.40

[18] Shehabi, Saeed The Role of Religious Ideology in the Expansionist Policies of Saudi Arabia in Madawi al-Rasheed (editor) Kingdom Without Borders (New York: Columbia University Press 2008), p.186

[19] Matthiesen, Toby Sectarian Gulf (California: Stanford University Press 2013), p.20

[20] Boucek, Christopher & Karim Sadjapour Rivals – Iran vs. Saudi Arabia in Carnegie Endowment Online, 20 September 2011. Retrieved 21 August 2014  (

[21] Matthiesen (2013), p.20

[22] Ackerman, Harrison (28 November 2011) Symptoms of Cold Warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran: Part 2 of 3 in Journalism and Political Science 16. Retrieved 21 August 2013 (

[23]Hussein, Abdurahman A. So History Doesn’t Forget: Alliances Behavior in Foreign Policy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Bloomington: Author House 2012), p.80-81 (

[24] Rubin, Michael Iran and Saudi Arabia’s hate-hate relationship in CNN Online (11 October 2011). Retrieved 22 August 2014 (

[25] Amiri, Reza Ekhtiari & Ku Hasnita Binti Ku Samsu & Hassan Gholipour Fereidouni The Hajj and Iran’s Foreign Policy towards Saudi Arabia in Journal of African and Asian Studies (5 October 2011), p.680

[26] Ackermann (2011)

[27] Jahner (2012), p.41

[28] Amiri & Ku Samsu & Fereidouni (2011), p.680

[29] Ibid., p.681

[30] Afrasiabi (2006)

[31] Rubin (2011)

[32] Ackermann (2011)

[33] Jahner (2012), p.43

[34] Ackermann (2011)

[35] Afrasiabi (2006)

[36] Jahner (2012), p.43-44

[37] Zeino-Mahmalat, Ellinor Saudi-Arabiens und Irans Regionalpolitik zwischen Ideologie und Pragmatismus (Hamburg: Giga-Institute 2009), p.1

[38] Gause, F. Gregory Saudi Arabia: Iraq, Iran, the Regional Power Balance, and the Sectarian Question in Strategic Insights, Volume VI, Issue 2 (March 2007), p.2

[39] Wehrey, Frederic (et al.) Saudi-Iranian Relations after the Fall of Saddam (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation 2009), p.60

[40] Eisenstadt, Michael & Michael Knights & Ahmed Ali Iran’s Influence in Iraq (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy 2011), p.ix

[41] Abdul-Ahad, Ghaith Iraqi politics needs an overhaul in The Guardian Online (15 August 2014). Retrieved 22 August 2014 (

[42] Deghanpisheh, Babak Iran’s elite Guards fighting in Iraq to push back Islamic State in Reuters Online (3 August 2014). Retrieved 22 August 2014 (

[43]Journeyman Pictures Saudi Arabia’s Secret Uprising (

[44] Zeino-Mahmalat, Ellinor The Role of Iran and Saudi Arabia during and after the Upheaval in the Arab World (KAS International Report 2013), p.27

[45] Goldman, David P. Sherman’s 300,000 and the Caliphate’s Three Million in Asia Times (12 August 2014). Retrieved 23 September 2014 (

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