Tensions Between Saudi Arabia and Iran

by Navid  Felker

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been involved in disputes for many years. They have been rivals for decades. Saudi Arabia is the powerful Sunni capital and Iran is the Shiite power. As well as religious differences, the two countries also have opposing geostrategic interests.

The US-allied conservative Sunni monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula were first threatened after the 1979 Iranian revolution and the beginning of the anti-American Islamic Republic.

The two natural resource-rich nations have been on opposite sides of most conflicts in the region. Indeed, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had the financial backing of Saudi Arabia during the Iran-Iraq war in the eighties.

Iraq gradually started to lose its power after the Gulf War at the start of the nineties and Iran and Saudi Arabia became the main regional powers.

Last January, Saudi Arabia and Iran cut all diplomatic ties after Iran stormed the Saudi embassy following the execution of a Shiite cleric.

When the Iran nuclear deal negotiations were taking place, Saudi Arabia expressed its concerns. Tensions between the two nations got worse and worse. Qatar also entered the rhetoric and Saudi Arabia eventually cut ties with it in June this year over concerns that it is supporting extremism and working with Iran.

However, tensions hit a peak at the beginning of the month when Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, announced his resignation from the Saudi capital where he had fled to. He announced that one of the reasons for his resignation was Iran’s “grip” on Lebanon through Hezbollah.

Just hours after this, Saudi air defences intercepted a missile that was fired from Yemen. The missile was destroyed.

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accused Iran of “direct military aggression”, despite Iran’s denials.

The current tensions are because of the proxy confrontation between the two nations in several other countries such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

In Syria and Iraq, as the fight against ISIS draws to a close, the threat from their common enemy has decreased and their contempt for each other has increased.

Tensions have also been on the rise since the election of United States President Donald Trump last year. Trump, from even before he took office, has never minced his words about Iran and has been very outspoken about the Iran nuclear deal. This has emboldened Saudi Arabia and has given legitimacy to its concerns over Iran and its regional belligerence.

After the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, Iran became the main threat to stability in the region. Arab states were portrayed as particularly vulnerable and Iran called the Saudi royal family into doubt regarding its sustainability and services as guardians of the holiest cities in Islam – Mecca and Medina after a stampede at the 2015 annual pilgrimage.

Despite the ever-increasing tensions, many doubt that there will be a military confrontation. It is expected that Saudi Arabia will push for more sanctions against Iran following the latest missile attack.

It is also in each of their best interests not to engage in conflict – Iran is still reeling after the conflict with Iraq and Saudi Arabia is tied up in Yemen.
Only time will tell how this conflict will pan out.