The following is taken from an article in US based Foreign Policy, 13th November 2015:
The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has existed for decades. Furthermore, further afield in Syria, they back opposing armed factions. In Yemen, the Saudis are now 8 months (now ten months, at time of writing this post) into a bombing campaign of Houthi rebels, which they accuse Iran of supporting (more information on this conflict provided in another Make Me Aware article).
In Lebanon, there is a tug of war between the political party Hezbollah (Shia) with its links to Iran and those parties that find themselves allied to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have been long term US allies and are none too happy with the recent US nuclear accord with Iran. Tensions also arose shortly before Christmas, in September 2015, when some Iranian pilgrims were killed in a stampede whilst on a religious pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. More than 400 Iranians were killed in this stampede (Mecca is the heartland for both sides of the Islamic faith: Sunnis and Shias). Saudi Arabia refused to return most of the 464 bodies that were trampled during the pilgrimage. This is a bone of contention as Shias memorialise their dead and Sunnis don’t, so to not have the bodies returned is a veritable bone of contention.
(There was also the more recent issue at the beginning of this year when an Iranian Sunni cleric was one of 47 people executed in Saudi Arabia for alleged terror related offences. This killing resulted in the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran where protests ensued. Saudi Arabia responded by recalling their diplomats from Tehran and by giving Iranian diplomats who were in the Iranian embassy in Saudi Arabia 48 hours to leave. The Shia cleric had a large following amongst Saudi Shia youth).
Saudi-Iran ties before the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
The two countries got on quite well, seeing a common enemy in Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser with his views on pan-Arabism; not to mention Saddam Hussein’s Baathist nationalism. There were still some issues. For example, the Iranian Shah at the time irritated the Saudi king for saying that he wanted Iran to be the leading power in the Gulf region and for advancing territorial claims in the Gulf. Relations however between the two were mostly cordial and the two powers conceded a number of zones of influence to each other. In 1962, the Shah offered the then Crown Prince Faisal, of Saudi Arabia, military assistance when the Egyptians invaded Yemen. This offer was declined.
The Iranian Supreme Leader has questioned the ability of the House of Saud, an ally of the West, to protect Mecca and Medina (both located in Saudi Arabia), and has often called for a joint Islamic committee to take over that responsibility. Saudi Arabia considers itself to be the Custodian of the two holy mosques.
After the 1979 Revolution in Iran, relations between the two countries worsened. It awoke dormant Sunni-Shiite rivalries. There have been some historical attempts at reconciliation since that date. In 1995, the then Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani sent his ambassador for talks in Germany to meet the then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah (who became King a decade later). They reached a security agreement which lasted until the election of the more hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. The Iranian ambassador at the time, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, told Foreign Policy (from the University in Princeton, where he is now a research scholar), that he believed they could find a way today again, having had that experience.
The issue is not just Saudi Arabia and Iran: you have to link Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq also. Here there are greater complications. Talks commenced last year in relation to the civil war in Yemen and later talks in Vienna, involving both countries, took place vis a vis Syria. Animosity between the two countries could hamper these negotiations.
BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’ had an interesting perspective on this on Monday 4th January 2016, shortly after the tensions arose following the execution of the Iranian Shia cleric. The program can be listened to on the Radio 4 I Player on the listen again feature. Here is the link:
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