Almost immediately after the triumph of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini and the new Iranian leadership turned against Saudi Arabia and its ruling family. Iran’s supreme leader accused the “House of Saud” of “distorting the Islamic spirit … The Saudi monarchy has totally turned into an American satellite and Saudi Arabia has been rapidly becoming Americanized in every respect.” Later, The New York Times quoted him as saying, “Mecca is now in the hands of a group of infidels who are grossly unaware of what they should do.” Yet, the chastised Saudis paid back in kind, calling the Iranian leadership on Radio Riyadh a “corrupt bunch of thieves” that had created a “slaughterhouse” in Iran and was degenerating Islam. The “Iranian butchers are a mentally distorted and ignorant gang, agents of Satan, who behave as [if they are] going nuts, as a fascist regime.” One might think of these statements as lapses of the early post-revolutionary period; otherwise both governments would still be insulting each other today.
Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamene’i, Khomeini’s successor, did not tire of calling on “all of the oppressed people of the world such as those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Africa and America” to follow the Iranian example and get rid of their oppressors. Such comments have triggered Saudi accusations that Iranian-backed militias have been behind the unrest in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, the Gulf region, and Lebanon. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal frankly told reporters in May 2008 that “Iran’s actions support the violence in Lebanon.” When traditional Arabian-Persian dualism, the Sunni-Shi‘a dichotomy, discordance in trade and economy, differences in foreign policy orientation, and other matters are considered alongside these mutual accusations, a picture of Iran and Saudi Arabia as “eternal” rivals, as tireless gamecocks, emerges almost inevitably. Yet, is it accurate?
We should remember the 1960s and 1970s, when Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi and the Saudi kings Faysal and Khalid — united by the interest in ensuring a stable flow of oil — developed a staunch partnership in the fight against leftist and radical-nationalist influences in the Gulf region. Additionally, from 1968 onwards, both countries became cornerstones in US President Richard Nixon’s attempt to appoint “deputies” for certain strategic areas of the world (the Nixon Doctrine). Both Iran and Saudi Arabia were suitable, as they both were conservative and anti-communist. In addition, they had the potential — although in different ways — to assume regional leadership functions. Ultimately, Iran and Saudi Arabia formed two solid pillars, together supporting a conservative and pro-Western policy in the region. There was no place in the world during the 1970s where the Nixon Doctrine was more evident than in the Gulf. More importantly, the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia was never as friendly as between the years 1968 and 1979.
However, if 1979 was the year in which the Iranian-Saudi relationship took a turn for the worse, then the Islamic Revolution was the linchpin. Similar to all “great” revolutions in modern times, the Iranian revolution developed a strong universalist approach — assuming the role of a model for the world’s Muslims and demanding a leading position within the umma. This directly challenged the core identity of the Saudi state and ruling family. The Al Saud did not fear Shi‘a ideas and visions as such, but were extremely upset about the fact that the competition had now primarily shifted to the field of religion, an area previously seen as their monopoly. The Iranian revolutionaries claimed that the Al Saud led only an isolated sect and were therefore not worthy to secure the safety of Islam’s holiest places; that Arabs acknowledged Iran’s spiritual primacy as the “Redeemer Nation;” and that Iran was more committed to Islam and was more capable of interpreting it. These claims must have been seen as an attack at the heart of the Al Saud’s pretension to rule — an attack more dangerous than republicanism, nationalism, or socialism had been. Without doubt, by making religion the most important tool in the struggle for hegemony in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian leadership had hit the bullseye. To make things even worse for the Saudis, Ayatollah Khomeini stated several times that Islam and a monarchy were mutually exclusive and that a monarchy was a deviation of Islam’s content and intention.
The war between Iran and Iraq (1980–88) worsened the situation. During the conflict, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Tehran, supported Iraq, and helped create an Arab alliance against Iran. The experience of being besieged and isolated by the Arab camp — which was decisively influenced by Saudi Arabia — has affected the Iranian leadership ever since.
Considering the fact that the basic nature of both regimes did not change throughout the 1990s, the remarkable détente between Tehran and Riyadh during this decade must come as a surprise, or even as disproof of previous assessments. Diplomatic relations were restored in 1991, and negotiations between both governments, ranging from political and economic to security matters, became commonplace. Yet, two distinctive developments have to be taken into account. First, Saddam Husayn’s Iraq, by occupying neighboring Kuwait and directly threatening the Saudi Kingdom in 1990, turned out to be a more acute enemy of Saudi Arabia than Iran had been in the previous decade. Saddam’s aggression led the Saudis to close ranks with Iran. Second, a more pragmatic leadership had taken power in Iran after the de facto defeat in the war with Iraq and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Internationally isolated and even confronted with the danger of extinction, the new leadership around Supreme Leader Khamene’i, President ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Foreign Minister ‘Ali Akbar Velayati concentrated their efforts on the reconstruction of Iran and put national interests above matters of religion or the “export of the revolution.” It was President Mahmud Ahmadinejad who tried to reverse Iran’s overall foreign policy direction after 2005 by proclaiming a “Renaissance of Imam Khomeini’s ideas.” Relations with Saudi Arabia promptly deteriorated.
The periods of more or less “normal” relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia prove that enmity between both countries is not inevitable, but is rather due to specific circumstances. If an aggressive hegemonic pretension is dressed in a religious or ideological garment, the rivalry is especially tense, whereas in periods where “normal” national interests prevail, the political system in the Gulf region has achieved a balance. The Third Gulf War (2003) has severely disturbed the triangular balance between Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia by considerably weakening Iraq. Thus, détente and stability in the Gulf is not only a concern for Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also for Iraq. Yet, this is another story.