What do the Iranians think of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and Iran: difficult rapprochement

Diplomatic channels were cut for four years, and now they are apparently talking to each other again. Since the second week of April, high-ranking representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia have been negotiating information from the "Financial Times" and, according to several news agencies, well-shielded and secretly with each other in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. In early 2016, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic relations with Iran after the kingdom's embassy in Tehran was attacked by an angry crowd. For a year now, despite all the rivalries, both governments have repeatedly expressed their willingness to resume official communication channels.

In fact, the two rival regional powers have many reasons and pressures to talk to one another. Not only because the change in the White House in Washington could lead to some shifts in priorities in the region. Both countries are also under enormous economic tension. Especially due to the low oil price at the end of 2020, Saudi Arabia recorded a national debt of around 33 percent of gross domestic product.

Passers-by in Iran's capital Tehran - the crisis can be felt everywhere

The US sanctions put even greater pressure on Iran, which is also hard hit by the corona pandemic. There, the national debt at the end of the year was over 40 percent. The difficult economic situation of many Iranians is also putting enormous domestic political pressure on the government. According to the Lebanese newspaper "Al-Akhbar", which cites Iranian sources, the talks that have now started will continue next week in Baghdad and should address numerous areas of conflict. Here is an overview.

Syria

The two states reacted differently to the Arab revolutionary year 2011: Iran viewed the uprisings as a continuation of its own revolution of 1979. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, saw them as a fundamental threat to the established order, especially with regard to the conservative monarchies on the Gulf Peninsula. With Syria, however, from the perspective of Riyadh, things were different. Because there the protest was directed against a regime with which Saudi Arabia had always had a difficult relationship.

The Saudi leadership has always been bothered by the secular socialist course that Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current President Bashar al-Assad, had taken during the Cold War. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria positioned itself against the US forces, with which Saudi Arabia was in turn allied. After 2011, Saudi Arabia supported the Syrian opposition, even when jihadist groups such as the "Islamic State" increasingly prevailed there.

Iran, on the other hand, supported President al-Assad, in whose government he saw a valuable ally in his foreign policy in the region. In addition, the Syrian ruler belongs to the minority Alawis, who are considered part of Shiite Islam in a broader sense, while the majority of the population is of Sunni descent. From Tehran's point of view, Syria under Assad was and is a central component of the Iranian sphere of influence, which extends to the border of Israel. That is why Tehran supports the Assad regime to this day. After Assad had the upper hand in the war, Iran can now directly assert its interests in Syria. Saudi Arabia does not have this option.

Close partners: Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (left) and Syria's ruler Bashar al-Assad

Yemen

In Yemen, too, Saudi Arabia and Iran are indirectly opposed to one another. Like Iraq and Lebanon, Yemen is one of the countries in which Iran is trying to increase its influence through support for Shiite groups. In Yemen these are the Houthis living in the northern parts of the country. Accordingly, Saudi Arabia sees the rebels as a militia devoted to Iran that is being equipped and trained by Tehran. The Saudi military has repeatedly intercepted rockets fired by the Houthis and declared that they were produced in Iran. The USA also made corresponding allegations, the Iranians denied them.

For its part, Saudi Arabia supports the official government of Yemen. To this end, it has headed an international coalition consisting mainly of Sunni states that has been actively involved in the fighting since 2015. This mission is largely responsible for the misery of the population in Yemen: 80 percent of the population - more than 20 million people - are, according to UN figures, dependent on humanitarian aid. At the moment, Saudi Arabia is apparently striving to end the war.

Iran, on the other hand, uses its connections to the Houthis to put pressure on Saudi Arabia on its southern flank. Attacks by the Houthis thus support Tehran's position in the competition between the two states in the Gulf. Technical facilities for the Saudi oil processing industry had been attacked there repeatedly in recent years.

Sea of ​​Flames: An oil refinery in eastern Saudi Arabia after an alleged Iranian attack in September 2019

Nuclear program

With its nuclear program, Iran has caused considerable concern among its neighbors, particularly Israel and the states on the Arabian Peninsula. The Iranian government has repeatedly claimed that it is pursuing exclusively non-military goals. But she was just as unable to convince her Western interlocutors as the Gulf States - and also repeatedly made martial threats against Israel. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly stated that it reserves nuclear weapons in the event that an Iranian nuclear bomb cannot be prevented. "That is definitely an option," said the Saudi State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubair, to the German Press Agency in November 2020.

A few days ago, Iran announced that it had started enriching uranium to 60 percent. The nuclear agreement concluded in 2015, but terminated by Donald Trump in 2018, had only granted Iran an enrichment of 3.67 percent. If Saudi Arabia is also upgrading nuclear weapons, this could lead to an arms race in the entire region.

Israel

Saudi Arabia and Iran also have significantly different positions with regard to Israel. This was shown, for example, on the occasion of the normalization efforts between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain on the one hand and Israel on the other in the summer of 2020. Saudi Arabia is facing a difficult situation: Outwardly, the kingdom likes due to its status as important Islamic country - there are the cities of Mecca and Medina, holy to the Muslims - have not (yet) committed to normalizing relations with Israel. On the other hand, however, there are many indications that this is exactly what the leadership in Riyadh wants.

For example, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to Israeli aircraft in September last year. In addition, the two countries have long been in talks with each other. According to unconfirmed press reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi city of Neom in November last year. The establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab states such as the UAE was clearly approved in Riyadh.

Iran, on the other hand, is strictly against all normalization efforts with Israel. "The UAE have betrayed the world of Islam, the Arab nations, the countries in the region and Palestine," declared the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in September. With this position, Iran should try to gain reputation in the Arab world, at least in that part of the Arab population that is also against normalization. At the same time, Iran sees rapprochement between Israel and some Gulf states as a military threat. Israel, it is concerned, could supply weapons and digital equipment aimed at Iran and its military and nuclear program.

Again and again cause for dispute: the Muslim pilgrimage "Hajj"

Denominational competition

Saudi Arabia and Iran both claim to be religious leaders in the Islamic world. The Sunni Saudi Arabia can point to considerable plus points: The Islamic religious founder Mohammed was born in the area of ​​today's kingdom, and the two most important holy cities of Mecca and Medina are also located there. The Saudi king officially bears the title of "servant of the holy places of Islam". In addition, the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world follow the Sunni direction.

Shiite Iran, which was later Islamized, cannot refer to central locations. The city of Qom is considered a center of Shiite scholarship. There are also Shiite shrines on Iranian territory. But the most important pilgrimage sites are not to be found in Iran, but in Iraq, in Najaf and Kerbala. Before the corona pandemic, millions of Iranians made pilgrimages there every year.

In the past few years, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran was sparked by the so-called "Hajj", the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. There was a mass panic there in 2015, in which over 700 people were killed. At the time, Iran gave Saudi Arabia considerable complicity in the misfortune. When Saudi Arabia drew up a new security concept the following year, Iran refused to adopt it. As a result, Iranian pilgrims could not take part in the Hajj. Incidents like these show that religious and cultural competition can also trigger or further heat up serious tensions between the two countries.