With the “moderation” discourse strengthened during the presidency of recently elected Hassan Rouhani, pragmatism will be enhanced in Iran’s regional policy. This development will weaken the existing “mutual threat” perception between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is rooted primarily in the policies of both countries in response to regional issues. Such a development will also consequently strengthen relations between the two.
Some analysts believe that because of the sectarian Sunni-Shiite divide and the geostrategic goal of Tehran and Riyadh of containing the other’s regional role, strengthening relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will not be an easy task. The reality, however, is that their bilateral relations are not marred by major sectarian or geostrategic differences, per se, but rather differences in these areas created by their reactions to regional events. That is, when the region is in crisis — such as the situation in Iraq following 2003, Syria’s current struggles and developments in Egypt following the Arab Spring — tensions between them have risen. Conversely, during times of relative regional peace, their relations have strengthened, for example, during the late 1990s.
The presence of a foreign actor such as the United States in the region increases the mutual threat perception between Iran and Saudi Arabia. US political and security policies in the region pit these two countries against each other. For example, the United States’ involvement in Iraq sowed the seeds for competition between them in the context of a sectarian Sunni-Shiite conflict. The Saudis still hold the United States responsible for setting the stage for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, resulting in Shiite trends close to Iran taking power and helping prepare for Iran’s so-called strengthened hegemonic role in the region.
One of the main reasons for deteriorating relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is their identical perception of “mutual threat” caused by closeness to the United States. Iran holds the Saudi government responsible for facilitating the political and security presence of the United States in the region, being an active agent in implementing economic sanctions against Iran, especially when it comes to replacing Iran’s oil exports in the international market, and generally cooperating in weakening its regional role.
Saudi Arabia views Iran’s involvement in regional issues, especially in Arab politics, in the context of an ideological and security threat combined with hegemonic and nationalistic aspirations. In accordance, the tacit cooperation and unwritten agreement between Tehran and Washington on the continuation of Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite government in Iraq or the possibility of reaching a nuclear deal typically would cause fear among Saudi leaders.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are key players in the region in terms of geographical centrality and in employing identical principles in their roles in the region. In terms of the former, both of them simultaneously impact security and political developments in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Peninsula, Levant, and Egypt and North Africa. In regard to the latter, both countries play their roles by connecting their values and principles to their regional policies. This is especially evident in their support of various Sunni-Shiite trends. Both maintain that the best position for preserving their interests in the region is where these two aspects of their conduct converge.
Since the Iranian Revolution, Saudi-Iranian regional relations have been influenced by the increase or decrease in the degree to which these two aspects of their foreign policy conduct is used in regional equations. Focusing more on preserving geostrategic interests and concepts such as regional stability, avoiding foreign interventions, and containing extremism has resulted in stronger bilateral relations between Tehran and Riyadh. Conversely, focusing on ideological ideals, such as supporting different Shiite and Sunni groups in Lebanon and Iraq, has weakened their relations.
With Rouhani’s election and the potential elevation of pragmatism in Iran's foreign policy, focus should be enhanced on the principle of preserving geostrategic interests and strengthening the cooperative and developmental discourse. In terms of policy implications, Tehran will be more concerned with domestic politics, such as bolstering national reconciliation, creating balance between political forces and improving economic conditions and international relations. In achieving its goals, the government will pursue an accommodative foreign policy in the region, especially toward Saudi Arabia. This development will help decrease the current mutual threat perception between the two countries.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are not interested in an intensification of sectarian or geostrategic regional rivalries. They are well aware that such rivalries will eventually be instrumentalized and used politically, draining energy from both sides. The result will be increased instability and growth of extremist trends in their backyard. Conflict between the two also provides an opportunity for other rival actors, such as Turkey and Qatar, to play an active role in regional issues at their expense, such as happened with the Syrian crisis, which is not currently welcomed by the Iranians or the Saudis.
The rise of the Shiite-Sunni conflict following the arrival of the Arab Spring has been harmful to both Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis fear that such a conflict might spill into its eastern, Shiite-dominated area, while Iran does not want the situation to harm its traditional policy of creating unity between Shiites and Sunnis in the Islamic world. Both countries are alarmed by the current policies of Turkey and Qatar in the Syrian crisis that are to a degree influenced by Western and US policies in the region. Acknowledging this threat, both countries have taken a few, minimalist cooperative steps on Syria.
Rouhani’s reliance on pragmatism in foreign policy will result in focusing on the bilateral aspects and geostrategic interests of the two countries' relations while simultaneously decreasing the value-based and mutual treat perception caused by regional developments. Of course, this does not mean that they will "de-ideologize" their regional policies, as the significance of their regional roles also lies in the ideological aspects of their foreign policies. But both countries will attempt to manage and control their identical principles to be used against one another in the regional issues.
Despite Iran’s numerous efforts to get closer to Saudi Arabia during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Saudis' sense of threat from Iran via the region increased because of numerous regional crises that drove Iranian behavior. That is, the crises created a circular situation in which Iran’s ideological presence only continued to increase because of its need to build coalitions with friendly Shiite factions in Iraq and with Hezbollah to preempt the threats in the region presented by Israel and the United States.
The moderation discourse in Rouhani’s foreign policy appears to offer Iran and Saudi Arabia an opportunity to strengthen their bilateral relations. The congratulatory message sent by the Saudi king, Abdullah, after Rouhani’s election victory was a positive move that reflects the government's hopes in redefining its relationship with Iran.
Focusing on mutual geopolitical interests, such as cooperating on security in the Persian Gulf, working together on nuclear energy and combating terrorism and extremism, among other things, can remove Iran and Saudi Arabia from the current mutual threat perception in the broader Middle East. This development could be a good start for further regional cooperation between the two countries on such issues as finding an acceptable political solution to the Syrian crisis or even resolution of the current political turmoil in Egypt.
Kayhan Barzegar is the director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran and a former research fellow at Harvard University. He also chairs the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran.