Global Independent Analytics

How relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran reached a breaking point

The two neighboring countries have never had sincere friendship, but the intensified tensions in recent months have a lot to do with the United States

Jessica Schulberg for Huffington Post discusses the reasons and causes of Saudi-Iran confrontation.

Although the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been uneasy, their recent decision to cut diplomatic, trade and touristic ties seems at least surprising. Despite their constant fights over hegemony in the Middle East region the countries so far somehow managed to keep up adequate communication.

Still the real reasons that have caused such a result remain unclear. On the one hand, the Saudi officials estimate their move as a proper response to the attacks on its affiliates in Tehran and Mashad. On the other hand, the attacks were triggered by execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr who was liquidated by the Saudis.

Schulberg provides the experts’ opinions on the issue: “James B. Smith, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, dismissed the Kingdom's move as little more than a natural reaction to the embassy attack. “If Iran is not willing to accept the bilateral agreement of protecting foreign citizens on their soil and their embassy, it’s impossible for Saudi Arabia to continue diplomatic relations," Smith told The Huffington Post. “I don’t think it’s a strategic signal -- this is actually very cut and dry."

Fahad Nazer, a former analyst for the Saudi embassy in Washington, described the embassy attacks as “the proverbial last straw” after years of escalating tensions. “When one looks at the hotspots around the Middle East, whether it is Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Lebanon, they will find that Saudi Arabia and Iran are supporting opposite sides in virtually all of them,” said Nazer, who is now an analyst for the intelligence consulting firm JTG Inc.”

 However, some affirm that Saudi officials could have foreseen a backfire that would be stirred among Shiite affiliates after the execution of Nimr. The chances are that knowing the probability of such an outcome, they could have commanded to implement maximum security precaution in the days following. The embassy siege has also done its part in the unraveling conflict by delivering a perfect excuse to cut all the ties with Tehran.

A previous cooling in relations occurred when Iranian rebels attacked the embassy of Saudi Arabia, and the diplomatic communications have been postponed until recent warming in U.S.-Iran relations. Latest geopolitical trends seem to turn away from the Saudi with the U.S. adjoining closer with Iran, one of the main backers of Bashar Assad. In 2013 Barack Obama at the last moment decided not to punish Assad for chemical weapons use and it was an early sign of the softening of the U.S. approach to the Syrian dictator. Since then the U.S. aggression towards Assad has evolved into subtle hint of confrontation.

“The nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S., and five world powers added to those fears. Although rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran is still a distant prospect, the nuclear accord demonstrated some level of normalization between Iran and the international community -- in addition to providing the country with billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

More recently, the Obama administration delayed imposing new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program, which Saudi Arabia views as a sign that the deal would lead the U.S. to compromise with Iran on issues other than its nuclear program,” Schulberg continues.

Unlike his predecessor, Saudi Arabia’s king Salman has supervised more contentious foreign policy: he clearly demonstrated that in case the U.S. will not confront Iran, the Saudis will. He affirmed his intentions when he has declined an Obama’s invitation to discuss the Iranian nuclear agreement. Under his tenure a bombing campaign in Yemen against fighters allied with Iran was authorized, and the king does not seem to give in under Obama’s administration quiet pressure. Analysts suppose that by last summer it was clear that his policies resemble of a departure from the Kingdom’s typical cautious and behind-the-scenes diplomacy; instead he expressed his readiness to fight out in the open.

Schulberg concludes: “U.N.-led peace talks on Syria are scheduled to begin in Geneva on Jan. 25, and this will be the first time that Iran is invited to join the negotiations. It was a significant milestone for the U.N. to get Iran and Saudi Arabia, two of the outside parties most invested in the Syrian conflict, in the same room for negotiations at all. Now, however, some fear that the growing rift between Riyadh and Tehran could endanger already the already complex and fragile talks. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy for Syria, is meeting with officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran this week to urge them not to unwind the progress that's been made in the peace process so far, though that progress has been largely symbolic.”

However, it is believed that no diplomacy is likely to have significant effect on the unraveling civil war.

EXPERT OPINION

Navid Nasr

Smith makes a good point about the bilateral agreement between nations about protecting foreign citizens on their soil. But one can turn the argument around against the Saudis as well. The Mina Massacre at this year's Haj seems to have been caused by the Saudis' deliberate and willful disregard for the welfare of normal pilgrims. People were herded together in order to make room for "dignataries" and "VIPs" to fulfill their religious obligations without being too uncomfortably close to the hoi polloi. 2000 ordinary Muslims were killed, including over 150 Iranians. In the end, the Saudis didn't so much as spit on the corpses but instead chose to blame the supposed inferior culture and intellects of African pilgrims for not following their instructions clearly, and then decided to blame the nefarious machinations of the Iranian "fire-worshippers" and "magians" for plotting the massacre in the first place.

Also, I'm not sure about how much of a thaw there is now between the US and the Kingdom and how much a warming there is between Iran and the US. With regards to the former, US weapons are still the primary vehicle for the devastation that has been visited by the Saudis on Yemen this year and US mercs (Blackwater or whatever they're calling themselves these days) are also playing a huge role on the ground. And with regards to the latter, sanctions relief is a huge plus for Iran but making travel to and back from Iran for Iranian-Americans a huge hassle will still create difficulty for the country. Iran obviously does not financially rely on its huge expat community the way a country like El Salvador does, but, political differences aside, Iranian expats in the US *are* a boon to the Iranian economy in many ways.

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Miray Aslan

I do not think that neither the reaction of Iran nor Saudi Arabia is surprising. First of all,  Saudi Arabia and Iran rarely solve any problem via diplomacy and  indeed the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia has not descended but sped its pace. Considering the last few decades, we saw conflicts in Lebanon and Iraq and today they support opposing sides in Syria and Yemen.

Bahrain and United Arab Emirates which are part of Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC)  formed in May 1981 against the backdrop of the Islamic revolution in Iran, and Sudan cut relations with Iran. Turkey's President Erdogan who is not impartial either, said the executions are domestic issue of Saudi Arabia .  Turkey and the Saudis  are setting up  a strategic cooperation council. Bahrain, Turkey, UAE and Sudan are  also  members of the 34 nation-members Islamic military alliance, which was announced by Saudi Arabia earlier in December. Some are asking the question of "is the region entering a version of the Thirty Years War"?  My answer is no since they are already in it but the teams play their football matches on neighbouring fields.

Finally, I think U.S tried to react in a noncommittal way as usual, called both sides to calm down the tension, announcing Saudi as a friend but criticized from the point of human rights at the same time. U.S does not want to disturb its relations with Saudi Arabia which is a part of the coalition.

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