While there have been several rounds of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia in recent weeks, part of an ostensible attempt to temper tense relations between the two countries, a genuine reconciliation between Tehran and Riyadh is not likely.
Saudi King Salman confirmed at the end of September that the two countries have been in talks, but said that any “progress depended on respecting sovereignty, not meddling in internal issues, and ending support for terrorist organizations and militias.” This was a strong hint at Iran’s continued support for the Houthis in Yemen, as well as for Hezbollah Al-Hijaz.
The kingdom’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, revealed on Oct. 3 that the fourth round of talks had taken place on Sept. 21 in Iraq. Although the discussions “remain in the preliminary phase,” he hoped they would lay the groundwork for further clarification of issues between Iran and Saudi Arabia, said Farhan. At the same time, the Saudi foreign minister stressed that the kingdom supports the continued international effort to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh, for his part, noted that Iran and Saudi Arabia had contacts on a “regular basis,” and said that the recent talks in Baghdad focused on bilateral relations and had achieved “good progress” on regional issues.
An Iraqi diplomatic official familiar with the details of the agreement said that “the last round of talks between Tehran and Riyadh took place inside Baghdad International Airport” and that the atmosphere was “very positive.” He said that Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi government’s foreign affairs adviser, were present.
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have known ups and downs. Both countries claim regional Islamic hegemony, and they are on opposite sides of the historic Shi’ite-Sunni divide. Recently, Saudi Arabia’s concern has increased because of the growing shadow of Iran’s nuclear program and the lowering of the U.S. posture in the region. The latter is exemplified by the recent removal of Patriot missiles and THAAD air-defense systems from Saudi Arabia, the possibility of a U.S.-Iran mutual return to a renewed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
To express its growing dissatisfaction with U.S. Middle East policy, Saudi Arabia signed a military agreement with Russia in August 2021, during a meeting in Moscow between Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu.
Iran, which considers itself a defender of Shi’ites in particular and Muslims in general, is very sensitive to the situation of Shi’ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province of the Saudi kingdom and assists them in various military and political ways. For its part, Saudi Arabia surreptitiously supports Sunni organizations inside Iran, mostly in Khuzestan Province and on Iran’s eastern border.
The 2016 Saudi beheading of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, one of the kingdom’s most senior Shi’ite religious leaders and the leader of the Shi’ite protests following the “Arab Spring,” brought the historical tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia to new heights. With Iranian support, the sheikh criticized the Saudi royal court (“liberate Palestine, not Bahrain”) and expressed support for Iran. Al-Nimr was eventually executed along with 46 other people charged with involvement in terrorism.
Following the execution and the resulting harsh criticism against Saudi Arabia by the Iranian leadership, an Iranian mob broke into the Saudi Embassy compound in Tehran and set it on fire after taking down the kingdom’s flag. Saudi Arabia, for its part, was quick to announce the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran. Iran went so far as to change the name of the street where the Saudi Embassy was located (Boustan Street).
Saudi Arabia also severed relations with Iran in 1988 (relations resumed after the 1991 Gulf War), accusing it of subversion. In July 1987, Saudi security forces clashed with Iranian pilgrims during an “infidel condemnation” ceremony performed by Iranian pilgrims during the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which has since been a source of tension between the two countries. During the riots, hundreds of Iranian pilgrims and several members of the Saudi security forces were killed. (Iran avenged their deaths in a series of attacks against Saudi diplomats abroad.) Dozens of more pilgrims died in the panic and stampede that erupted. In September 2015, hundreds of pilgrims were killed again in Saudi Arabia, and Iran accused the kingdom of “mismanagement that led to the disaster” and the deaths of more than 40 Iranian pilgrims.
After surviving the Trump administration’s sanctions regime, Shi’ite Iran has undertaken a regional resurgence, advanced its nuclear program and is even on the verge of “accepting” the United States back into the nuclear deal on its terms (lifting all sanctions). Iran is anchoring its grip on countries bordering Saudi Arabia, mainly Yemen and Iraq, and in Lebanon, where Saudi Arabia has influence. For its part, Sunni Saudi Arabia seeks to stabilize the crumbling post-Arab Spring region to ensure its own internal stability and standing in the Muslim world, while following with great concern the Shi’ite revival to the east (Iran, Iraq) and south (Yemen), as well as the waning of U.S. interest and influence in the region.
The tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Muslim world are unlikely to be bridged, at least not in the coming years, and are even being exacerbated by the dramatic developments taking place in the Middle East. These are expressed both within the political boundaries once designed by the colonial powers and now being reshaped in demographic changes involving ethnic minorities, refugees and a return to tribal elements, and in geostrategic changes such as reduced American involvement in the Middle East, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and increased Russian involvement.
From time to time, Iran and Saudi Arabia try to present a semblance of “business as usual” and attempt to improve bilateral relations, but beneath the surface, and intensified by current developments in the Middle East, yawns the gaping religious chasm between the two countries. Tehran and Riyadh are on a permanent collision course, for now in secondary arenas (Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan) but in the future possibly also directly.
Saudi-Iranian relations in particular, and the Arab world’s relations with Shi’ite Iran in general, will continue to be characterized by the religious division between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which is the dominant factor that has defined these relations for centuries. Within this framework, the execution of a senior Shi’ite official in Saudi Arabia, the Israeli-Arab conflict, and peace agreements between Israel and the Gulf states will also affect the various arenas throughout the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, which has its back against a wall, and given the blunt American about-face in the region, will continue to try to be a financial counterweight in Syria and Lebanon, as well as a military one in the Persian Gulf.
Iran will continue to press its advantage over Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab world through its nuclear program and geostrategic power, which has recently gained Western recognition—or, in simpler terms, a looming Shi’ite bomb. In doing so, Iran will succeed, from its perspective, in correcting a historic injustice stretching back to the beginning of Islam: The disparaging and condescending attitude of Sunnis toward Shi’ites.
Iran seeks to define and even present a suitable Shi’ite Islamic alternative to compete with the West and with Israel, which it considers to have been “planted” in the heart of the Middle East region. If Iran completes its nuclear program and secures a bomb, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries will have to settle for an American nuclear umbrella (despite recent doubts and concerns raised by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states about the depth of the American commitment to the kingdom) or a Pakistani guardianship (“the first Sunni Islamic bomb”), or may even choose to conduct their own nuclear program and start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
In March 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Saudi Arabia. More than contributing to calming tensions, the 24-hour visit exposed the deep divisions surrounding their relationship. For now, despite Iran’s open satisfaction with the progress of relations stemming from Tehran’s sense of security after recent developments in its nuclear program and its regional and international status, and Saudi caution, given the uncertainty in its relations with the United States, a genuine Saudi-Iranian reconciliation does not seem to be on the table.
IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Acumen Risk Advisors.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.