[Translate to English:] Eine Menschenmenge im Wallfahrtsort Mekka steht vor dem Kaaba, einem quaderförmigen Gebäude im Innenhof der Heiligen Moschee in Mekka.

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Political hardliners boosting tensions

Sunnis against Shi’ites, Saudi Arabia against Iran – the Middle East is rife with tensions carrying unpredictable effects. In the last installment of our BTI Summer Series, guest author Jan Claudius Völkel explains the political and religious conflicts between the two countries.

On September 9, millions of Muslims will once again set out on their pilgrimage to Mecca. But one thing will be different than before: Iranians will this time be unable to participate in the so-called Hajj, which ends at the holy site in Saudi Arabia. In the last year, political tensions between the two countries have simply become too great.

Paradoxically, the success of Iranian moderates has played a key role in this escalation. In July 2015, they succeeded in concluding the nuclear deal between Tehran, the current nuclear powers in the U.N. Security Council, Germany and the European Union. As a result, a majority of the U.S. and EU sanctions against Iran were lifted. However, while this step was positive in itself, it has since induced hardliners in Iran and Saudi Arabia to seek to stabilize their supremacy in both countries.

Positive change in Iran

In Iran, the August 2013 presidential changeover from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hassan Rouhani ushered in a comprehensive reorientation, particularly in the area of foreign policy. The current BTI country report on Iran describes external relations as "more relaxed and friendly." With Rouhani’s repeated Jewish New Year’s greetings on Twitter, an altogether more positive tone has settled into place in Tehran.

This welcome thawing was strengthened further early this year: In the parliamentary elections, many voters cast ballots for moderate deputies, and a parliament well-disposed toward Rouhani has subsequently bolstered the president in his positions and expanded his narrow latitude for reforms.

Missiles, not negotiations

However, the Guardian Council, under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei, still wields final decision-making power in Iran, and remains a stronghold of conservative values and policy ideas. Critical notes have increasingly been heard particularly from Khamenei himself, directed at the West’s slow implementation of promises, and with growing frequency questioning the nuclear deal overall. In March 2016, he wrote on his website that Iran’s future lies with missiles, not negotiations, thereby defending a renewal of missile tests that month that had drawn sharp international criticism. These had been carried out by the Khamenei-supported Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which according to the BTI report controls broad swathes of the Iranian economy, and is beyond the president’s control. Rouhani’s moderate new course is thus being undermined by the conservative camp, which is growing increasingly fearful of losing its political, economic and societal influence.

Course change for Saudi foreign policy

For its part, Saudi Arabia is wary of the expanded foreign-policy options and increased economic flexibility gained by Iran through the abolition of most Western sanctions. The antagonism between Sunnis (Saudi Arabia) and Shi’ites (Iran) has been a fundamental driver of Saudi foreign policy since the 1979 Iranian revolution. In this regard, nothing changed with the 2015 transfer of power from 90-year-old Abdullah to the then-79-year-old Salman in 2015, or with the 2012 death of longtime Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a well-known hardliner.

The rulers in Riyadh had come somewhat to terms over the years with Tehran’s limited regional influence, exerted through the Iran-supported Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and the similarly Iran-allied Syrian President Assad. However, since the rise to power of a Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq (2005), the confrontation of Bahrain’s Sunni royal family by massive Shi’ite demonstrations (2013), and the brief seizure of control by Shi’ite Houthi rebels in Yemen over a broad portion of that country’s territory, including the capital, Sanaa, the Saudi leadership decided to intervene militarily in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. This marked a fundamental break with previous strategy, which was to use the provision of financial support to exert influence in other countries, but not military resources.

Power struggle in Riyadh

In this regard, the prime mover behind King Salman is his son, Mohammed bin Salman, who as current deputy crown prince is seeking to use this uncompromising stance to edge out the crown prince ahead of him in the succession, Mohammed bin Nayef. Bin Nayef currently serves as interior minister, and is regarded as comparatively prudent. Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive intervention in its neighboring countries is therefore not simply due to external forces, but also to internal political-power interests in the innermost royal circle.

The increasing repression of Shi’ite citizens within Saudi Arabia should also be seen in this context. This community comprises an estimated 15% of the population, living predominantly in the eastern portion of the county, and thus in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich regions. They have little access to public services or public offices. The strict Wahhabi orientation of the Saudis’ Sunni Islam regards Shi’ites simply as heretics who are not entitled to equal treatment. The execution of well-known Shi’ite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on 2 January 2016 was intended as a clear signal warning against the increasing protests by Shi’ites facing discrimination. In the end, however, it led only to massive international criticism, and Shi’ite youth are expected to continue rebelling against the Saudi royal family. This knowledge is unlikely to lead to any fundamental reorientation of the Saudi policy on Shi’ites.

"No one within the Saudi elite seems committed to substantial political change."

BTI Saudi Arabia country report

Against one another instead of allied against ISIS

In this regard, the degree to which Shi’ites in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia are in fact directly supported or even controlled by Iran is unclear. What seems certain, however, is that as Saudi hardliners direct ever-greater efforts against the Shi’ites, this population will in fact look to Iran for support. If Rouhani’s reform policies were to fail there, a further escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be certain to result. In this case, a military confrontation between the two heavily armed countries could no longer be ruled out, with altogether unforeseeable consequences for the entire region.

These continuous conflicts over regional dominance have led both rivals to neglect a new and very real existential danger. The Islamic State has already carried out repeated attacks and assassinations within both countries. But instead of coming to agreement on how to fight this terrorist threat, the hardliners in both the Saudi and Iranian camps have preferred to cast mutual allegations of blame.