Saudi Arabia and Iran: A Middle Eastern Cold War?

Andrei Popoviciu is a first year International Relations student in the War Studies department at King’s College London. He has a particular interest in conflict, human rights, international and regional relations with a special focus on Middle Eastern affairs. He is also the Social Media Editor of International Relations Today.


The conflictual relationship between the Islamic Shia Republic of Iran and the Sunny Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been thoroughly analysed by scholars and deemed to be one of the most enigmatic and controversial relationships in the Middle East. Aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, interactions with the West (especially the US), oil export policies, nuclear weapons programmes and involvement in regional conflicts have been the main headlines that guided and influenced the relationship between the two Muslim states that is yet to be considered stable. Their affairs are considered antagonistic and tense mainly because of the abundant differences in political ideologies and agendas that are reinforced by dissimilarities in religion and governance. The Sunni Kingdom is known to have potent ties with the US and western countries such as the United Kingdom whereas the Shia Islamic Republic is more of a region-focused actor that dismisses external intervention in regional affairs and is the harbour of anti-Western values. The turning point that unsettled the relationship of the two states was the Islamic Revolution in 1979, which created such a deep gap between the two that its reminiscences are felt even today. Relations eroded furthermore because of the Saudi Arabian ties with the US, which gave the Sunni Kingdom the title of the US interest focused state of the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, Iran is believed to worsen the diplomatic dialogue because of its keen interest on regional dominance and its nuclear programme. This piece endeavours to analyse the depth of the relationship and the variables that influence the dialogue between the two countries.

Affairs between Saudi Arabia and Iran have recently been tainted by the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The dispute arose in January due to the execution of the cleric in Riyadh on the 3rd of January, the incident setting a storm of protests and events that only worsened what is seemed to be an improvement in the relations of the two states. Nimr was executed in Saudi Arabia alongside other 46 people on charges of terrorism and incitement of violence in the Sunni Kingdom. Iranian protesters vandalised the Saudi embassy as a response and created a series of diplomatic reprisals and arguments. Iran was accused by Saudi Arabia of instigating a “sectarian strife” in the region and was heavily adjudged of interfering with Saudi affairs. This event reinforces the idea of a gap between the two and as Saeid Golkar, an Iranian expert at the Chicago Council on Global affairs told Al Jazeera “the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia is only getting wider by the day” making it “more difficult for the two nations to establish a rapprochement in the short term”. The Iranian public opinion called upon the Saudi decision and called it disgraceful. Ahmed Alibrahim a Saudi affairs specialist told Al Jazeera that “Saudi would not have cut its diplomatic relationship with Iran” if it weren’t for the attack on the embassy.

Furthermore, both nations are major oil & gas exporters and have clashed over energy policy repeatedly. They both have very different perspectives in this area, Saudi Arabia being focused more on long-term collaboration with the global oil market by setting temperate prices whereas Iran is more engrossed in a rather short-term initiative by setting high prices. This only shows the separation in perspectives and agendas on the aforementioned issue and strengthens the contrast between the two.

There have been occasions and efforts to try and resolve the diplomatic relationship but they were always worsened by the nations’ involvement in the Syrian conflict and other events and actions that are believed to have affected their relations. Fawas Gerges, head of the Middle East Studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) said that the current diplomatic conditions of the two countries will negatively affect the Syria talks and “nothing will come out” of them as Saudi and Iran are still conflictual. However, the two, declared that the escalating dispute would not affect international efforts to end the war in Syria and they will still be part of the plan endorsed by the UN Security Council.


But what could the long-term consequences for the Syrian Conflict and for the Middle East be? Could a more serious conflict be hold off because of the Syrian war? The instability between the two has posed serious questions on how allies will act in the region. It is important to recognise such variables as a conflict between the two would be disastrous and asymmetrical.

Moreover is it important, as stated above, to take into consideration the possibility of a military conflict. What would the prospects be in the case of war? Presumably, if the US stayed out of it, Saudi Arabia would lose. First of all, the monarchy keeps its military force low due to fear of being overthrown, hence Iran’s significant advantage when it comes to military power. Second of all, Iran owns a series of anti-ship missiles that are in air range of the Persian Gulf, thus being able to strangle Saudi’s petrol flow. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia’s pipeline wouldn’t be able to deliver the same amount of petrol that ships do through the gulf, this giving Iran the upper hand in the situation. Thirdly, the petrochemical industry of the Sunnis is within flying distance of Iran’s military base, this giving Iran the possibility to destroy the petroleum industry within days. Fourthly, Saudi Arabia has quite a significant population of Shias, building up to 15% of its 30,770,375. The minority could rise a huge issue of trust in case of a conflict, taking needed troops away from the combat with Iran. Of course, these factors are to be treated as hypothetical due to the fact that the US would never permit such events to occur without making use of every diplomatic option available.

Another important aspect of their relationship is religion. Is it the cause behind the uprising tensions and could it be one of the core reasons behind the conflictual states of the diplomatic dialogue of the two nations? When Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, it didn’t know how and if Iran’s Shia-dominated government would react. Hence, Iran and Saudi Arabia severed their diplomatic relationship, supposedly, due to their rooted religious beliefs which happen to differ. This supposition is very easy to make since the religious feud has been going on for hundreds of years; but are the reasons behind the execution related to the religious division between the two? Or is it the regional and domestic political agendas the reason behind every action both Arab states engage in? The Saudis see Iran’s nuclear deal with the US to be a threat to their regional dominance. Due to this deal, Teheran’s economy and its relations with the US are about to improve, thus making Riyadh aware of the benefits it is going to lose to Teheran (no more political, economic and military training from the US). Iran will not take Saudi Arabia’s place as a western ally but Riyadh will have to be more careful when countering Iran’s actions in this situation. Furthermore, Saudi power is on the decline, as it can be clearly seen by the military failures in Yemen, whereas Iran is slowly gaining political influence and regional power. Riyadh spent huge amounts of money and was still not able to defeat the other forces who do not have the western support, the money or the weapons to efficiently fight back, hence its wish to degrade Iran and restabilise their influence.

“Playing the anti-Shia and anti-Iran cards is a pretext for the Saudi government to crack down on domestic opposition, call on its regional allies to take sides against Iran, and deflect attention from its geopolitical, military, and economic failures. So far, their strategy might be working. However, trading short-term domestic stability for an indefinite period of regional instability is a roll of the dice. There is no guarantee that sectarianism can be reined in once it has been unleashed.”

 Reza Marashi, Vice News


Despite these insurgencies and the tense political atmosphere, the countries need to solve their issues by pursuing diplomacy and not through proxy wars, military combat or other strategies that might do both harm. It could be said that the west plays an important role in the two nations’ diplomatic dialogue and that without the US involvement in their relations a conflict could spark in the already unstable region.

I think mostly it’s going to be very important for Western actors to recognise the need to strike a balanced approach in this escalation.”

Ellie Geranmayeh, Iran expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR)

The ironic thing is that weeks before the current diplomatic hassle, Iran and Saudi Arabia were actually making noteworthy progress in their relations that would have paved the way for the arrival of Riyadh’s new ambassador to Teheran.

What is intriguing is the European Union’s stance in this conflict. The EU wants to maintain the continuous gas and oil flow to its Member States and to protect commercial interests in the region, but has neither the power nor the commitment to take sides in a long battle of egotistic intentions between Teheran and Riyadh. Hence, will the lack of consistency in both countries policies towards one another stop or will it continue until a third party intervenes? In other words, is foreign intervention necessary to resolve the diplomatic conflict between the two powerful nations or is it a regional issue that needs the sole attention of the two parties involve.



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