Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have not been this high since the end of the Iran–Iraq War 27 years ago. For those acquainted with the situation, it is not difficult to understand the reasons for Saudi concerns over Iran. Iran has expanded to the extent where it now has a military presence in Saudi Arabia’s immediate environs: to the north in Iraq, and in Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor Yemen, while its affiliates are active as opposition groups in Bahrain to the east. Iran is also present in Syria where it is directly managing the conflict there on behalf of the Assad regime. Iran is investing plenty of its manpower and funds in a project which seemingly aims to lay siege to the Gulf countries.
If it hadn’t been for this tension, the Iranian leadership, including its most high-ranking officials—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani—would not have politicized the recent tragic Hajj stampede. They must know that such incidents are possible during the pilgrimage, which draws in around 2.5 million people. Iran’s politicizing of this tragedy aims to incite Iranians against Saudi Arabia and justify Tehran’s foreign escapades.
Iran’s other protest against Saudi Arabia concerns what it calls “the Saudi war” in Yemen. Iran objects to this intervention despite the approval it has gained from all the UN Security Council’s members approved and dozens of Islamic countries. Iran has realized that its investment in supporting the Houthi rebels—who are a small group—is now evaporating into thin air after the rebels were close to seizing power in Yemen following their coup and capture of the legitimate Yemeni president. “Saudi intervention” blocked the path of Iranian military supplies destined for the Houthis by sea and by air as it shut down the Al-Hudaydah port, shelled the runway of Sana’a Airport, and sought the help of the US Navy to impose naval inspections on supplies from Iran by sea.
There is also an indirect confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Syria as forces from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are directly leading militias from Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan to fight in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. This has led to the worst tragedy in the history of the region; more than a quarter of a million people have been killed and 12 million displaced.
Meanwhile, Iraq is about to turn into a third frontier in this Saudi–Iranian nexus. This is extremely dangerous considering how obvious and brazen Iranian domination over the Baghdad government has become and the presence of Iranian forces in several provinces in Iraq.
The Iranian government’s increased appetite to expand its activities in the Middle East contradicts US statements that Tehran’s recent nuclear deal with world powers will turn Iran into a country preoccupied only with its domestic affairs—thereby giving up its foreign adventures and seeking to cooperate for the sake of economic openness in order to improve the quality of services it offers its citizens. What is happening now is the complete opposite of that.
Escalating tensions in Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran are a warning sign that the situation in the region will get markedly worse unless both countries work to put these relations in a context governed by standard diplomatic protocols.
The nuclear agreement has led to increased concerns from Arab countries, as it has ended economic and military sanctions that were imposed against Tehran. This has intensified disputes between Arab countries and Iran and has also worsened the bickering that exists in the media and in diplomat circles.
The surge in tension calls for improving means of communication—not the opposite. The reasons and motives behind this tension must be understood, otherwise we can expect regional disputes in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and other countries to continue. We will also get the added problem of sectarian tensions—though in any case it will not be easy to banish away religious strife after the political disputes end. Still, both sides can no longer afford to allow these tensions to spiral out of control.