To listen to politicians and pundits in Washington, Iran and Saudi Arabia are on the verge of war. Conventional wisdom in Washington claims the reason is Iran’s “nuclear weapons program,” viewed as a “threat” by leaders in both Tel Aviv and Riyadh.
The nuclear scenario as presented by its proponents has two aspects: First, it is claimed that a nuclear armed Iran might launch an atomic bomb at Saudi Arabia. Second, it is claimed that a nuclear-armed Iran might trigger an “arms race” throughout the Middle East.
“Perhaps the only thing longer than Iran's animosity toward the United States is its hatred of Saudi Arabia,” wrote neoconservative scholar Michael Rubin, a resident at the American Enterprise Institute.
The October 11 article was echoed by another equally foreboding piece in Foreign Affairs that same day.
“The Saudis recognize that, once armed with nuclear technology, Iran will have a clear and fundamental strategic advantage,” warned Mohsen Milani. “As a result, Saudi officials have threatened to pursue a bomb should Iran successfully develop one.”
In fact there is no evidence of any move by the Saudi government to pursue such an effort. And while it is true that Iran and Saudi Arabia have had disputes over many years, these tensions have little or nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program.
Land, Religion, History
Actual disputes between Iran and Saudi Arabia fall into three broad categories, these being territorial, sectarian and historical. None involve nuclear issues.
The principal territorial dispute involved the islands named aptly: Arabi and Farsi—small islets in the Persian Gulf claimed by both nations. The dispute was resolved in 1966 as the result of a state visit by then Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to Riyadh, who agreed to delineate the sovereignty of each nation over the territorial waters surrounding the islands, but not the continental shelf underneath.
Sectarian differences are perhaps the most serious matter creating tension between the two nations. The most conservative Sunni Muslims in Saudi Arabia—members of the Wahhabi and Salafi movements—openly reject Shi’ism as legitimate Islam. Extreme religionists in these groups have occasionally opined that killing a Shi’a adherent is a blameless act, akin to killing a non-Muslim.
The sectarian tension is exacerbated by the fact that hundreds of thousands of Shi’a Muslims live in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province—the province in which the bulk of Saudi Arabian petroleum reserves are located. Last year’s protests in neighboring Bahrain – which hosts a majority Shi’a population—also sparked concern among Saudi rulers of a possible “Arab Spring” in their own kingdom. Most were quick to blame Tehran, though without substantiation.
An incident in 1987 brought these tensions to the surface in a particularly dramatic fashion. During the annual pilgrimage (the Hajj), Saudi officials attacked demonstrators in front of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The demonstrators were ostensibly protesting Saudi support of Iraq in the long Iran-Iraq War. In the melee approximately 400 persons were killed, two-thirds of whom were Iranian.
The Saudis effectively cancelled the Hajj rituals that year. As a result Iranians attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran resulting in the death of one Saudi official. The Saudis cut diplomatic relations with Iran, making it impossible for Iranians to obtain visas for performing the Hajj.
As terrible as incidents like this are, Iran has assiduously worked to repair broken relations with the Saudis. A comprehensive cooperation agreement was signed between the two states in 1998, followed by a 2007 state visit to Riyadh by current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. That visit came on the heels of a trip to Tehran by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, known for his pro-American sentiments.
On his visit, Prince Bandar expressed the interest of the Saudi government in building and maintaining good relations with Iran. As Professor Paul Aarts of the University of Amsterdam writes for the Middle East Institute in October 2009, Iran and Saudi Arabia have a largely pragmatic relationship based on mutual interest, including the import of Iranian agricultural products and the adaptation of Saudi oil-field technology.
Such friendly gestures seem to contradict statements from 2008 by Saudi King Abdullah, released by Wikileaks two years later. In those documents, King Abdullah is quoted as urging the United States to “Cut off the head of the snake," referring to Iran.
Yet Abdullah’s mercurial private views seem to extend to most leaders in the Islamic world – including Pakistani President Zardari, whom he describes as the greatest obstacle to Pakistan's progress.
Two years earlier, in 2006, Abdullah was awarded Pakistan’s highest civilian honor, while in 2011 Pakistani Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia, describing the trip as having “renewed Pakistan’s bonds with Saudi Arabia.”
Clearly, King Abdullah’s private pronouncements are at odds with his government’s public position.
In light of this overall pattern of harmonious improvement, incidents such as the FBI-claimed Iranian “plot” to assassinate Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubeir in October 2011 seem far-fetched and improbable as most Middle East and security experts have claimed. Likewise occasional negative statements from one or another Saudi ruler regarding Iran—likely cheap sops both to U.S. officials who want to hear this, and to extremist Sunnis in the Kingdom—seem out of place in the overall pattern of accommodation.
Taken as a whole, the Iranian-Saudi relationship looks much like the relationship between any two strong neighboring states. There is some rivalry, occasional misunderstandings but continual contact and attempts to repair the damage.
The fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia share custody of the Persian Gulf, and thus have a special responsibility in this regard was recognized by the U.S. government before the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 when the two nations were seen as “Twin Pillars” in a bulwark against Soviet influence. The Soviets are gone, but the relationship remains today.
William O. Beeman has lived and conducted research in the Middle East—especially the Persian Gulf region—since 1968. He is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and author of The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. (University of Chicago, 2008). His blog: “Culture and International Affairs” is found at http://www.wbeeman.com
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