Building Bridges over the Persian Gulf

While the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia runs deep, pragmatic cooperation on issues like Yemen can help to build bridges

Madrid ‒ Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia spiked earlier this month, with protesters storming the Saudi embassy in Tehran after the execution of a Shia cleric in the Kingdom. This is just the latest manifestation of the deep-rooted rivalry between the two Middle Eastern powers. But while their mutual enmity is longstanding, it is far from age-old, as it is sometimes portrayed. Given their common interests, a return to cooperation, though highly challenging, is not impossible.

Although it has been essential in establishing their national identities, these countries’ sectarian divide – Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s leading Sunni power, while Iran is majority Shia – has not always been an element of confrontation in the region. It was not until 1501 that the Safavid dynasty established Shi’ism as the official religion of Persia, thereby distinguishing itself from its Sunni Ottoman neighbors, which were occupying part of their territory. During the subsequent two centuries, Persia confronted the Ottoman Empire – the heart of the Sunni caliphate – for regional supremacy.

In 1932, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established, it adopted Wahhabism – a school of Sunni Islam – as its official creed. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and Iran established diplomatic relations. In the 1960s and early 1970s, their security and political cooperation deepened, owing to a shared interest in confronting radical movements that threatened their monarchies. As they worked to limit Soviet-style communism’s advancement in the Arab world, they emerged as key Cold War allies of the West, especially the United States.

In the late 1970s, however, a sectarian battle of identities flared up. Saudi Arabia, supported by the financial gains brought by rising oil prices, started expanding its security efforts by exporting Wahhabism. And it perceived a direct threat after 1979, when Iran’s Islamic Revolution toppled the Shah and the new regime declared itself to be the leader of Shia worldwide. In response to Iran’s call for the liberation of all Shia, Saudi Arabia redoubled its efforts to spread Wahhabism, intensifying the struggle between the two powers.

Though conflict has not erupted into direct confrontation, there has been no shortage of proxy battles, beginning with the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. More recently, it has shaped the course of Syria’s civil war, in which Iran backs President Bashar al-Assad, who represents the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, while the Saudis are supporting anti-Assad Sunni forces. In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition has used airstrikes to beat back the Houthis, Iran-backed Zaidi Shia rebels fighting the Sunni-led government – a conflict that has already claimed some 6,000 lives.

But, as in the past, the latest confrontation between the two powers is related to domestic developments. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently undergoing important political and economic transitions that could leave their regimes vulnerable.

Iran, gearing up to elect a new parliament and Assembly of Experts (which chooses the country’s Supreme Leader) in February, remains in dire straits economically. The unemployment rate reached 11.4% in 2014, and is considerably higher among young people. The international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has now led to the lifting of sanctions; but the economic benefits are yet to be widely felt.

Of course, if President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to open Iran to the outside world continue, those benefits ultimately will be widely felt, fueling the growth of the middle class. But for precisely that reason, more conservative elements within Iran’s government are deeply suspicious of Rouhani’s reformist agenda, viewing the potential emergence of a more worldly, pluralistic society as a serious threat to the regime’s survival.

Indeed, although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ratified the nuclear deal last year, he has repeatedly declared that he still mistrusts the US. In addition, the conservative-controlled Guardian Council – which comprises six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by the parliament – has rejected 99% of reformist candidates for the upcoming election. It thus appears that parliamentary opposition to Rouhani’s reforms is set to intensify.

Saudi Arabia, too, is at a turning point. Last year, following the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who ruled for a decade, his half-brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ascended to the throne. Salman has since been shifting governmental responsibility to Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. These changes at the top are occurring in a context of severe economic decline brought on by the collapse of world oil prices; budget revenue has been depleted to the point that the fiscal deficit reached 15% of GDP last year.

In this unstable context, leaders in both Iran and Saudi Arabia seem to believe that continued confrontation will help sustain them in power, not least by reinforcing the notion that more change, especially in the form of increased economic or political openness, would be dangerous.

Friendly (or at least constructive) relations between both powers would thus appear to be a remote possibility, at least for the foreseeable future. But steps can be taken that might at least prevent tensions from escalating further. Khamenei’s condemnation of the attack on the Saudi embassy, which he called harmful for the country and Islam, was noteworthy in this sense.

Even with such steps, Iran and Saudi Arabia are highly unlikely to reach an agreement on Syria in the next round of international talks. But progress toward ending the war in Yemen – which is at an earlier stage than the Syrian war, and entails fewer international and regional interests – is possible, especially given Saudi Arabia’s economic travails. The key will be agreement on a cease-fire, as a precursor to a long-term resolution of the conflict.

While the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia runs deep, instances of pragmatic cooperation on specific issues like Yemen can help to build bridges. Doing so would benefit the entire region.


Javier Solana was EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of NATO, and Foreign Minister of Spain. He is currently President of the ESADE Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.

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