The struggle between Riyadh and Tehran has worsened conflicts from Yemen to Syria, and is spreading further afield, writes Harvey Morris
Middle East watchers scouring for a speck of hope in that benighted region focused on this year’s Hajj pilgrimage for evidence that the hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the underlying faultline in so many of its troubles, might finally be on the wane.
Iran boycotted the 2016 pilgrimage, when bilateral tensions condensed into a heated dispute over the safety of its citizens at Mecca, but some 86,000 Iranians joined fellow Muslims for this year’s ceremonies. In subsequent remarks that amounted to one of the most conciliatory statements to pass between the two countries, Ali Ghazi-Askar, head of the Hajj organisation in Tehran, told an Iranian student news agency: ‘There are always differences arising among countries, but the important thing is for the parties to resolve differences through dialogue and negotiation.’
Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran in January 2016, after the storming of its embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad in reaction to Riyadh’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric. Though he was perhaps the harshest critic of the ruling al-Saud dynasty among the kingdom’s Shia minority, his death sentence was the occasion rather than the underlying cause of the collapse in diplomatic relations.
As the major powers in the Gulf, the two states have been more or less permanently at odds since even before the 1979 Islamic Revolution elevated Iran into Saudi Arabia’s rival for the hearts and minds of Muslims. Given some of the negative consequences of the so-called Arab Spring – civil wars in Syria and Yemen, a return to autocratic rule in Egypt, and the opportunistic rise of so-called Islamic State – this rivalry has evolved into a proxy regional war.
The Yemen conflict is stalemated and turning into one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters, with mass starvation and a cholera epidemic. In Syria, President Hafez al-Assad has survived what once looked like his certain overthrow, thanks to the intervention of his Iranian and Russian allies. Riyadh may therefore be said to have little to show for an uncharacteristic outbreak of foreign policy adventurism. Hence the ripples of Saudi-Iranian rivalry have spread beyond the immediate region, as the Saudis encourage and cajole reluctant partners actively to take sides.
Riyadh’s ‘with-us-or-against-us’ stance in regard to its rivalry with Tehran has been evident in its current spat with its Gulf Co-operation Council partner, Qatar. Traditionally warm relations between Doha and Tehran were a central factor in this year’s diplomatic crisis, in which the Saudis and other close Gulf neighbours cut ties with the Qataris, accusing them of supporting terrorism from Syria to Gaza, Egypt and al-Qaeda. The breaking point came when Doha paid a reported $700m to Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq for the return of a group of Qatari hostages.
Elsewhere, Saudi pressure has spilled over into domestic politics in Pakistan. The issue is whether Islamabad should meet Riyadh’s request to join the Saudi-led coalition in the war against Yemen’s predominantly Shia-led Houthi insurgents. The National Assembly voted for neutrality in April, with Imran Khan among politicians arguing that Pakistan should act as a peacemaker and not a participant.
Saudi sponsorship of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) announced at the end of 2015 – the so-called Muslim Nato – has meanwhile raised concerns, not least within some of its 41 participating countries, that its underlying focus is on confronting Iran. Riyadh announced at the outset that Pakistan would participate, although the news appears to have taken even the Pakistani foreign ministry by surprise.
The respected retired Pakistani army chief, Raheel Sharif, has since been appointed to head the alliance of predominantly Sunni-led countries. However, critics at home suggest that participation in an organisation more focused on promoting Saudi interests than fighting terrorism risks alienating Iran as well as exacerbating Sunni-Shia relations in Pakistan itself.
In broad historical terms, the regional rivalry in the Gulf dates as far back as the incomplete conquest of ancient Persia by the armies of the Arabian peninsula – incomplete if only in the sense that it failed to replace the Persian language with Arabic. Persia’s subsequent embrace of minority Shiism provided an enduring catalyst for conflict.
Despite the evident universalism of their pan-Islamic message, Iran’s ayatollahs have shown themselves curiously attached to this millennia-long imperial legacy. Small wonder, then, that Iran is frequently accused by its neighbours of trying to re-establish the Persian Empire. A counter-argument is that Iran’s meddling in the region is less empire-building than a strategy of defensive depth practised by a regime that had from birth been surrounded by hostile neighbours.
In the modern era, cross-Gulf competition predates the notional starting point of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Under the late Shah, Iran pursued a hegemonic strategy in the region, and used its domination of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries to boost world oil prices at a time that the Saudis wanted them stable. Little over a year after the Islamic Republic was established in the wake of the Shah’s fall, the forces of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded at the start of an eight-year war in which Riyadh actively supported Baghdad, while officially professing its neutrality. That conflict ended in a draw, despite Saddam’s claims of victory, in the sense that the ayatollahs’ regime survived.
Iran sided with Saudi Arabia, however, when the Iraqi dictator invaded Kuwait in 1990, and the rapprochement led to pledges of co-operation and exchanges of visits. The improved atmosphere lasted through the decade, with the late King Fahd urging other Gulf countries in 1999 to follow Riyadh’s lead in improving relations with Iran, only for the relationship to sour almost from the start of the new century. Among the causes were the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, when most of the perpetrators were Saudis, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ‘War on Terror’, even when it was not called that.
Iran’s sponsorship of Shia terrorism in Iraq, its continued support of Hizbollah in Lebanon, as well as some opportunistic aid proferred to al-Qaeda, were among the factors that restored the Tehran-Riyadh relationship to its previous level of hostility. The Saudis also perceived the hidden hand of Iran behind a rebellion of Yemen’s Houthis that broke out in 2004, on the basis of little evidence apart from Tehran’s pro-Houthi rhetoric.
It is ironic that, by viewing the Yemen crisis in terms of its regional conflict with Iran, the Saudis may have encouraged Tehran to become more actively engaged. Saudi Arabia intervened in the civil war in 2015 to back President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had been ousted by the Houthis from the capital Sanaa, and recent reports suggest Tehran has stepped up its military support to the Shia-led group. In Syria, meanwhile, such support is much more direct: Iranian and Hizbollah boots on the ground have been as vital to preserving the Assad regime as has Russian bombing.
Outside governments seeking to maintain relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran are forced to walk a diplomatic tightrope to avoid being dragged into the regional dispute, particularly after world powers signed a deal with Iran on its nuclear programme. But on this, as on other issues, President Donald Trump is the wild card, having denounced the nuclear agreement at the UN and describing Iran as a ‘rogue regime’.
In their search for hopeful signs, Middle East watchers need to keep scouring.