On April 6, 2023, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran announced the restoration of diplomatic relations and signed a joint statement.
As major countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran have had a long history of conflicts. This historical reconciliation cannot be simply summarized out of the needs of the two countries for their practical interests. It should also be found in the history of exchanges between the two countries.
In the late period of World War I, the legendary Ibn Saud, with the help of the British, fought against the Ottoman army and rose rapidly in the oasis in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. After the war, the power of Ottoman Turkey withdrew from the peninsula, and the Saudi family defeated the Hussein family who tried to monopolize the fruits of victory, and established the state of Saudi Arabia in 1927 (the country was officially named “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” in 1932). During this period, the Qajar dynasty in Iran was also replaced by the military group under the leadership of Reza Shah. The new regimes of Iraq and Saudi Arabia were successively established and contacted.
During the period between 1989 and the “Arab Spring”, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, passed away. Iranian leaders began to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy and actively established a new type of cooperative and friendly diplomatic relationship with neighboring countries including Saudi Arabia. , the relationship between the two countries tends to ease, showing a new trend of tortuous development but “fighting without breaking”.
During the half century between the founding of Saudi Arabia and the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have grown from scratch, and the desire for cooperation is greater than confrontation and conflict. Saudi Arabia and Iran are respectively pursuing Ibn Saud’s “peaceful and neutral foreign policy” and Reza Shah’s “principle of good neighborliness and friendship and establishing a good surrounding environment”. After the end of World War II, the two countries had pursued pro-American diplomacy and cooperated in jointly promoting the Islamic world view.
The establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has not been easy. Before the 1930s, due to Saudi Arabia’s economic backwardness and Iran’s belief that Saudi Arabia took a contemptuous attitude towards the holy places of Islam, it refused to recognize the legal status of Saudi Arabia. It was not until 1929 that the two sides signed a related treaty of friendship. 1929 is also considered to be the starting point of Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy, which opened the tortuous and complicated in-depth exchanges between the two countries.
After that until the eve of World War II, there was no major disturbance in the relationship between the two countries. After the end of World War II, the pattern of the Cold War quickly formed, and the atmosphere of the US-Soviet struggle for hegemony spread to the Middle East. Iran and Saudi Arabia realized that the Soviet Union’s southward movement threatened the country’s political power and ideology. . The development of pro-US diplomacy has contributed to the exchange of visits between the heads of state of Saudi Arabia and Iraq and the warming up of bilateral relations.
After the end of World War II, military revolutions that overthrew the monarchy successively occurred in countries such as Egypt and Iraq, and the Arab nationalism advocated by Nasser and other political rookies became popular.
A new trend has emerged in the development of Saudi-Iranian relations. The two countries joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in order to jointly fight against the “pan-Arabism frenzy” led by Egypt, which brought the relationship between the two countries to a new height.
In the 1970s, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran continued the previous trend of cooperation-based development. For example, the two countries cooperated on the Iraqi issue. Saudi Arabia also secretly supported Iran’s plan to subvert the Iraqi government, and Saudi Arabia and Iraq jointly helped the Gulf countries resist Leftist influence etc.
The breakdown of relations between the two countries during the Khomeini era
After half a century of friendly exchanges between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the outbreak of the social revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty and the subsequent establishment of the Islamic regime in Iran under the leadership of Khomeini interrupted this trend.
During the decade from the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 to Khomeini’s death in 1989, Iran’s foreign policy remained strictly guided by the radical principles of Supreme Leader Khomeini, driven by the United States and its allies’ efforts to stifle the nascent Iranian regime. Increased efforts to contain Iran. As Saudi Arabia, which has close ties with the United States politically and economically, it is naturally difficult to stay out of it.
After the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, the six Gulf countries established the Gulf Cooperation Council under the call of Saudi Arabia to jointly resist the spillover of the influence of the Iranian revolution. The two countries even broke off diplomatic relations in the final stage of the war.
Finally, the two sides also had serious differences on the issue of civil pilgrimage.
The Hajj pilgrimage conflict in 1987 had an extremely adverse impact on the exchanges between the two countries from official to non-governmental. In 2015, the conflict between the two countries around the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca resumed, once again causing the two countries to accelerate towards a break.
The Saudi-Iranian relationship in the first ten years after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran was mainly radical and tense, which was quite different from the Saudi-Iranian relationship during the Pahlavi dynasty. The eight-year war between Iran and Iraq has exacerbated Saudi unease, and the ideological differences between the two countries have also made the two sides gradually drift away from the road of peaceful exchanges. On the whole, the second stage of the development of Saudi-Iranian relations can be summed up as “swords of tension”.
From the warming up of the relationship to the crisis of severing diplomatic relations
After Khomeini’s death, Iran was in the recovery period after the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The war caused huge damage to Iran’s economy, and the decline in national power forced Iran’s top leaders to strive for a stable external environment by easing foreign relations.
In the “post-Khomeini” era, Iran generally pursues the principle of pragmatism in diplomacy. The then President Rafsanjani once said: “The current era is the era of establishing international organizations and international relations. If we break this connection, we will not be able to survive. We should not make enemies for no reason.” Rafsanjani
’s The rhetoric suggests that there is huge room for improvement in relations with neighboring countries. Saudi Arabia also publicly released a signal of relaxation, expressing its hope to improve relations with Iran in all aspects and resume normal diplomacy between the two countries. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iraq has gradually begun to warm up after experiencing the freezing point of the severance of diplomatic relations in 1988.
In 1991, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein sent troops to raid Kuwait, allowing Iraq to surpass Iran in an instant and become the biggest threat to the surrounding areas of Saudi Arabia. Iran also seized the opportunity to support the government-in-exile of the invaded state of Kuwait and host tens of thousands of Kuwaiti refugees. Since Kuwait is one of the important followers of Saudi Arabia in the Arabian Peninsula and even in the Middle East, Iran’s move is obviously conducive to indirectly improving relations with Saudi Arabia.
With Saddam’s “assistance”, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced the restoration of diplomatic relations, and subsequently conducted a series of high-level mutual visits. The two countries exchanged views and reached preliminary consensus on the number of Hajj pilgrims, Gulf security and mediation of sectarian conflicts. After Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah came to power in 1995, he more actively sought to improve relations with Iran, and met with top Iranian officials to convey friendly messages. The follow-up exchanges of visits between senior officials of the two countries became more frequent.
In the 21st century, the relationship between the two countries has seen a new gap due to the expansion of US military operations in the Middle East.
At this time, the relationship between Shay and Yi became more diverse and complicated. The outbreak of the “Arab Spring” further exacerbated Saudi Arabia’s sense of insecurity towards Iran, a challenger to the regional order, and eventually led to the severance of diplomatic relations between the two sides in 2016.
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia spent money and guns to support the opposition in Syria and confronted the Assad regime supported by Iran. In 2015, only two months after Salman inherited the Saudi throne, he sent the air force to bomb the Yemeni Houthi armed forces aided by Iran, and gradually upgraded to sending a large number of ground troops.
Compared with the situation of relying on US military support during the Gulf War in 1991, the Saudi government at this time has changed its passive defense and tended to be tough in the Middle East game with Iran. And Iran is not to be outdone, and continues to provide support to Shiite political forces in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen through organizations such as the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Internally, it has accelerated the development of nuclear weapons, which has also caused it to be sanctioned or boycotted by many countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Regarding Iran’s “nuclear possession” program, the United States has been trying to achieve checks and balances on the latter through sanctions and dialogue. During the second term of the US President Barack Obama’s administration, dialogue with Iran to resolve its “nuclear possession” issue prevailed, and a comprehensive agreement was reached in July 2015. Iran has slowed down the development of nuclear weapons in exchange for the withdrawal of some sanctions by Western countries led by the United States.
However, for Saudi Arabia, the traditional ally of the United States in the Middle East, the temporary rapprochement between the United States and Iran has put great pressure on the Riyadh authorities, which were originally committed to playing the role of mediator and profiteer of the conflict between the United States and Iran, and prompted Saudi Arabia to start Explore a diplomatic path free from American influence.
In 2016, despite the objections of Iranian and American officials, Saudi Arabia insisted on executing its domestic Shia dissident Nimr, which directly caused Iranian people to attack and burn the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad. Although Nimr is a Saudi citizen and an Arab, he enjoys high prestige among the Shiites in the Middle East. Even the Supreme Leader of Iran, Khamenei, wrote a letter to the Saudi royal family to plead for his life in 2014. The execution of a person whom Iran valued so much by Saudi Arabia became the last straw that crushed the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In January 2016, Saudi Arabia withdrew its diplomatic personnel and formally severed diplomatic relations with Iran on the grounds that its embassy in Iran was attacked. Since then, the two sides have resumed peaceful contacts under the mediation of countries such as Iraq and Oman.
Looking back at the century-old history of the game between Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the Middle East, we will find that although the two countries have certain differences in their attitudes towards the United States, the development of nuclear weapons, and sectarian relations, these contradictions may even evolve into a severance of diplomatic relations through occasional disputes. However, the idea of a sovereign state and the ideological trend of war weariness are deeply rooted in the hearts of the people, so that the two countries should still take national interests as the starting point in their exchanges.
This determines that the two countries will not easily escalate the “proxy war” in regions such as Yemen and Syria into a direct “hot war”. Despite the ups and downs in the relationship between the two countries, there is always room for improvement and recovery.
As the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia said: “Iran is an Islamic country, mutual cooperation under the same framework is in the interests of both countries.” Obviously, there is more room for debugging than blatantly breaking off diplomatic relations.