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Why Iran and Saudi Arabia will jaw-jaw but not war-war

Despite increasingly tough rhetoric and a breakdown in diplomatic relations, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia appears to be looking for a new fight.
Iranian protesters hold pictures of prominent Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration against the execution of al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, at Imam Hussein square in Tehran January 4, 2016.  REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.  - RTX20Z33

TEHRAN, Iran – “You must understand that they [Iranians] are not Muslims, they are sons of Magi [Zoroastrians], and their hostility toward Muslims, especially the Sunnis, is an old one.” These are the words of the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz Al Sheikh, delivered Sept. 6. The unprecedented remarks are said to have been a response to the hajj message the Iranian supreme leader released the preceding day. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had stated, “Saudi officials are trying to cover up their enmity and hatred of the faithful and revolutionary people of Iran by talking about politicization of the hajj. They are small and pitiful devils who are very afraid of jeopardizing the interests of the big Satan, the United States.”

Although Iranian President Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013 with the promise of easing tensions between Iran and other countries in the region, what is currently taking place between Tehran and Riyadh cannot in any way be considered a de-escalation. In his first press conference after being elected, Rouhani emphasized that Iran and Saudi Arabia are neighbors and brothers and therefore should forge closer relations. This ideal scenario remains an ideal. Exchanges between Iran and Saudi Arabia show that far from brotherly relations, the two sides openly consider the other the enemy.

The regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is at a point where the two countries no longer even enjoy diplomatic relations. The immediate incident leading to this point was the January execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities by Iranian protesters. Other contributing factors include last year's hajj stampede, which left hundreds of Iranians dead, the sexual molestation of two Iranian youths while on the same pilgrimage and the Saudis' military intervention in Yemen.

Al-Monitor spoke with Javid Ghorban-Oghli, former director general of Middle East affairs at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, about these tensions. “The root of this conflict is the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Ghorban-Oghli said. “This process began after the [2003] downfall of Saddam Hussein and the regional imbalance that it created. The rivalry started between Iran and Riyadh in their neighboring regions, and after the Arab Spring, the rivalry transferred to Syria, and it intensified.”

Ghorban-Oghli believes it is not helpful to try to determine which side is perhaps more responsible for escalating tensions. “We will not achieve anything by trying to look for the guilty party,” he said. “We should look for a win-win pattern of engagement similar to what was used during the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. When a house is burning, we should first try to put out the fire and then look for the responsible person.”

Saudi arms purchases have recently dramatically increased. According to an estimate by the firm IHS, Riyadh planned last year to buy defense equipment worth close to $10 billion, a whopping 42% increase compared to 2014 purchases. One of the reasons for the increase is the kingdom's military intervention in Yemen, but given the staggering size of the increase, is it conceivable that Saudi officials have another possible military conflict on their minds, that is, one with Iran?

No Iranian officials, including military commanders, have publicly broached the idea or possibility of armed conflict with Saudi Arabia. The closest to such a statement was a rare warning, on June 20, by Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of external operations for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to the Saudi-allied rulers of Bahrain. Soleimani said, “The supporters of Al Khalifa should know that insulting Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim and the continuation of pressure on the people of Bahrain is the beginning of a bloody uprising, the consequences of which will be the responsibility of those who legitimize the arrogance of the rulers of Bahrain.” This message, Soleimani’s harshest to a neighbor to date, implicitly targeted Saudi Arabia in light of Riyadh having dispatched troops to crush Arab Spring protests in Bahrain.

Earlier, on April 5, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, had asserted, “The IRGC’s answer regarding Saudi audacity in Bahrain is awaiting an order.” The most recent comments regarding this issue were made by Ali Fadavi, commander of the IRGC’s naval operations. On July 16, Fadavi rejected the idea of enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, saying that it was “the enemy’s” plan to pretend as if Iran now considered Saudi Arabia, rather than the United States, as its main adversary. Fadavi also emphasized, however, that if necessary, Iran could deliver irreparable blows to the Saudis.

Nosratollah Tajik, Iran's former ambassador to Jordan, told Al-Monitor, “As far as domestic affairs are concerned, especially given the generational gaps and new demands, the Saudi government is walking on a minefield. Iran should plan for an active and influential foreign policy by avoiding policies driven by slogans and adopting a coherent, comprehensive and intelligent strategy.”

There is, of course, the question of whether war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a credible possibility. In this regard, Ghorban-Oghli said, “I hope that this is not the case, and I hope that wise people on both sides will step forward and prevent a war from taking place.” He added, “It is probably better if a mediator manages the [dialogue] process. We should remember that these tensions neither benefit Iran nor Saudi Arabia, only arms dealers, and more so, Israel.”

At a meeting at the Center for International Research and Education of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sept. 13, Maj. Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, former commander of the IRGC (1997-2007) and now special adviser to Khamenei, said, “Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States are aware of Iran's geopolitical importance. They want to create tension in order to diminish our successes in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. We should avoid tension as best we can. I also suggest that Iran expand its relations with Oman, Kuwait and even Qatar. We should additionally exercise patience regarding the Saudis. We should not, under any circumstances, look for more tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia.”

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