Iran, Saudi Arabia relations: When China brokered peace
The messenger may not be perfect, but the message of what a thaw in Iranian-Saudi frosty relations portends for the world, particularly the Middle East, is a welcome development.
Last Thursday, diplomatic Iranian and Saudi officials, meeting in Beijing, agreed to restore flights and formal diplomatic exchanges to end their over three decades of spat, which reached its crescendo after Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric, Nimr al Nimr, in January 2016, protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. As a result, Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Tehran.
The Saudi action had irked the government and people of Shitte-dominated Iran, leading to the invasion of the Saudi Arabia mission in Tehran. The then Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, had also denounced Saudi leaders. The Beijing deal was generally welcomed around the world with international relations experts praising it as a step toward reducing tensions and bolstering regional security.
In Iran, particularly, there is the temptation to deconstruct the deal as a defeat for the United States of America and Israel. The regional rivals are now committed to reopening embassies in Tehran and Riyadh by May 2023, after ties were severed seven years back. The deal, brokered by China, also included the implementation of a security cooperation agreement signed in 2001 and a 1998 pact to enhance cooperation on trade, investment, technology, and culture.
Iranian-Saudi Regional Rivalry
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been regional rivals for more than three decades, with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman saying, on May 2, 2017, in a televised interview, that it was impossible for Riyadh to have a dialogue with Tehran.
“Its (Iran’s) logic is that Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for the arrival of the awaited Mahdi and they must control the Muslim world,” Salman said.
Tensions date back to the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Saudi monarchy, which based its legitimacy on Islam, felt its dominance threatened by the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Relations were strained throughout the 1980s, as Saudi Arabia quietly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq eight-year war. Tensions, however, eased slightly under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,1989-1997, and Mohammad Khatami,1997-2005, who sought to improve Iran’s relations with its neighbours.
But this effort only lasted briefly as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 and reverted to a hardline stance on foreign policy.
The Arab Spring in 2011 further aggravated tensions, especially in Bahrain, where Shiites protested against the Sunni royal family. Saudi Arabia sent troops to quell the uprising and blamed Iran for provoking the unrest.
Tehran tried to improve relations with Riyadh after President Hassan Rouhani’s election in 2013. But the two countries clashed over regional conflicts, particularly in Syria and Yemen.
In September 2015, hundreds of Iranians were killed in a stampede during the annual hajj ritual in Saudi Arabia. Tehran accused Riyadh of mismanagement, and Saudi officials accused Iran of playing politics in the aftermath of the tragedy. This was closely followed by the execution of Nimr al Nimr, the invasion of Saudi’s missions and consequently, the formal termination of diplomatic relations.
Tensions further escalated after the two cut ties. Saudi Arabia opposed Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile advances. In 2018, it threatened to pursue nuclear weapons if Iran produces a bomb.
In September 2019, Riyadh blamed Iran for a drone and cruise missile attack on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government vowed to respond to the “terrorist aggression.” Iran denied any responsibility for the attacks. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had cautioned that Tehran would respond to a U.S. or Saudi retaliatory strike with “all-out war.”
In 2021, Iran and Saudi Arabia began a sporadic dialogue that was mediated by Iraq. Oman was also involved in facilitating diplomacy. But Tehran and Riyadh failed to reach an agreement in five rounds of talks in Iraq between April 2021 and April 2022.
Timeline Of Troubled Relations
1980-1988: Iraq invaded Iran, prompting an eight-year war. Saudi Arabia appeared publicly neutral but reportedly made three of its ports available to ship military equipment to Iraq.
1981: Iranian pilgrims clashed with Saudi police after chanting political slogans in Makkah and Medina. Iranian officials accused Saudi authorities of discriminating against Iranian pilgrims.
May 1981: Six Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain, formed the Gulf Cooperation Council, in part as a security response to the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war.
1982: Saudi Arabia reportedly supplied Iraq with $1 billion per month in aid.
May 1984: Iran attacked a Saudi oil tanker in Saudi waters, in retaliation for Iraq’s attempts to interfere with Iran’s oil shipping. Saudi Arabia shot down an Iranian Phantom jet over Saudi waters.
1987: Shiite pilgrims clashed with Saudi police during the annual hajj, resulting in a stampede. At least, a total of 400 people died in the clashes, including more than 200 Iranians. In response, Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies in Tehran.
1988: Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran over the hajj clash.
1988-1990: Iran boycotted the hajj after Saudi Arabia reduced the number of Iranian pilgrim visas in response to the clashes in 1987.
1990: Saudi Arabia sent aid to Iran after an earthquake killed 40,000 people.
1991: Riyadh and Tehran restored diplomatic ties.
1989-1997: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president and took a more conciliatory stance towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Trade and direct flights between the two countries increased.
1997-2005: President Mohammad Khatami came to office and introduced a period of outreach to the Gulf. But Saudi officials became wary of Iran’s growing influence in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
1997: Crown Prince Abdullah attended the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Tehran, becoming the most senior Saudi official to visit Iran since 1979.
1999: Iranian President Khatami met with Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. He became the first leader to visit Saudi Arabia since 1979.
2001: Iran and Saudi Arabia sign a security pact on terrorism and drug trafficking.
2005-2013: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power and took a more hardline stance on foreign policy. Tehran and Riyadh increasingly sought to boost their regional influence through proxy battles in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
2011: The Arab Spring fueled bilateral tensions. Saudi officials accused Iran of inciting protests in Bahrain against the country’s Sunni royal family. The kingdom sent 1,000 troops to quell the uprising.
2011: The U.S. Justice Department charged two Iranians with attempting to murder Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel al Jubeir.
2012: A series of protests against anti-Shiite discrimination erupted in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for the protests.
2014: Saudi authorities issued a death sentence for Nimr al Nimr, a Shiite cleric involved in the 2011 protests. Iranian officials denounced the conviction.
March 2015: Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign in Yemen. Riyadh claimed the airstrikes were a response to Iranian support for the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that took over large parts of the country in 2014. But the exact degree of Iranian support for the Houthis was debated.
July 2015: Iran and the world’s six major powers reached a deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. Saudi officials publicly endorsed the deal, despite past reservations.
September 2015: A stampede in Mina during the annual hajj killed at least 2,000 people, including hundreds of Iranians. Tehran accused the Saudi government of mismanagement and threatened legal action.
November 2015: Iran and Saudi Arabia both attended Syrian peace talks in Vienna, along with more than a dozen other nations. Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Saudi counterpart, Adel al Jubeir, reportedly got in a heated argument during the talks.
January 2016: Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, a prominent Shiite leader who supported anti-government demonstrations, along with 46 others for alleged terror-related offences. The move stimulated protests and condemnation from Shiites in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Lebanon, and Yemen.
In Iran, protestors burnt part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and stormed the compound. Demonstrators tried to attack the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad. Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Bahrain, and Djibouti severed diplomatic ties with Iran. And the UAE downgraded its relations with the Islamic Republic.
May 2016: Saudi Arabia and Iran failed to reach a deal over security and logistics concerning the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah. Saudi officials accused Iranian counterparts of walking out of talks despite offering solutions to the Iranian demands.
Iran had barred its pilgrims from travelling to Makkah to take part in the annual Hajj after claiming Saudi Arabia had failed to guarantee the safety of its citizens. This was primarily in response to the Hajj stampede that occurred the previous year and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, most of which were Iranian.
September 2016: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the Kingdom of “murdering” pilgrims during the 2015 Hajj. Khamenei criticized Saudi management of the pilgrimage, calling on Iranians and other Muslims to hold them accountable.
March 2017: Saudi Arabia announced that Iranian pilgrims would attend and participate in that year’s annual Hajj after an absence in 2016 due to tensions between the two countries.
April 2017: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran was ready to establish good relations with all neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia.
May 2, 2017: In a televised interview, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said there was no space for dialogue with Iran due to its ambitions “to control the Islamic world,” and its desire to spread its Shia doctrine.
May 3, 2017: Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, reacts to the Saudi prince’s comments. “These comments are proof that Saudi Arabia supports terrorism and seeks confrontational and destructive policies in the region and towards Iran.”
May 4, 2017: Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, sends a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Security Council President Elbio Rosselli describing Prince Salman’s remarks as “unlawful and inflammatory.” He asks Guterres to circulate the letter as a document of the U.N. Security Council.
May 7, 2017: Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan responded to Prince Salman’s comments in an interview with Al Manar TV. “We recommend them (Saudis) not to make any ignorant move, but if they do, we will not leave anywhere intact except Mecca and Medina,” he said.
Late May 2017: President Trump visited Riyadh, where he signed a $110 billion arms deal. In a joint statement, Saudi Arabia and the United States “agreed on the need to contain Iran’s malign interference in the internal affairs of other states, instigation of sectarian strife, support of terrorism and armed proxies, and efforts to destabilize the countries in the region.”
May 27, 2017: Supreme Leader Khamenei condemned Saudi Arabia for trying to “gain the friendship of Islam’s enemies” (e.g., the United States) but dealing harshly with Muslims. “They oppress their own people in this manner and oppress the people of Yemen and Bahrain in other ways. But they are going to perish,” he said in a speech marking the start of the holy month of Ramadan.
June 5-22, 2017: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations and imposed trade and travel bans with Qatar for its alleged support for terrorism. The group issued 13 demands for Qatar to resolve the dispute. The demands included shutting down diplomatic posts in Iran, expelling members of the IRGC and only conducting trade and commerce with Iran that complied with U.S. sanctions.
June 7-11 2017: At least 12 people were killed and 46 were wounded in twin terror attacks on the Iranian Parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. This so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility, but Iranian officials blamed Saudi Arabia for the attacks, pointing to Mohammed bin Salman’s May remarks threatening to bring the battle to Iran.
June 17-22, 2017: The Saudi Arabian coastguard fired on Iranian fishing boats in the Gulf, killing one fisherman and arresting three, according to Iranian media. Two Iranian boats were fishing in Persian Gulf waters and were pushed off course by waves, an interior ministry official said.
June 24, 2017: Iran condemned a suicide bombing near the Grand Mosque in Mecca, offering assistance in combatting terrorism.
August 13, 2017: Saudi Arabia asked Iraq’s prime minister to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh. “During our visit to Saudi Arabia, they also asked us to do so, and we said that to [the] Iranian side. The Iranian side looked at this demand positively,” Iraq’s interior minister said.
Mid-August 2017: Iran sent pilgrims to the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca for the first time in two years.
August 23, 2017: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said Iran and Saudi Arabia would exchange diplomatic visits potentially after the conclusion of the Hajj pilgrimage in the first week of September.
August 30, 2017: Iranian President Rouhani accused Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorists in Yemen and Syria. “Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and their support of terrorists in Yemen and Syria are main hurdles to improving ties between Tehran and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia should stop backing terrorists,” Rouhani said.
September 5, 2017: Saudi Foreign Minister al Jubeir rejected the idea of Iranian rapprochement, despite Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s claim last month that diplomatic visits would occur between the two countries in September. Iran would have to change its policies before relations could improve, al Jubeir said.
October 13, 2017: Saudi Arabia supported President Trump’s decision to de-certify the nuclear deal, citing the move as a way to confront Iranian aggression in the region.
November 2017: Saudi Arabia charged Iran with an act of war for a missile fired at the Saudi capital by the Houthis in Yemen. Iran denied any links to the attack.
January 16, 2018: Houthi rebels said they fired a short-range ballistic missile toward a regional airport in the Saudi border province of Jizan. Saudi defence forces said they shot down the missile over Jizan. “This hostile action by the Houthi group, which is backed by Iran, proves the Iranian regime’s continuous support for the armed Houthi group by providing them with capabilities, which is in violation of UN resolutions,” said spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, Colonel Turki al-Malki.
February 2018: Saudi Arabia supported a UN draft resolution by the United States, Britain and France that would condemn Iran for failing to stop Yemen’s Houthi rebels from obtaining ballistic missiles.
March 15, 2018: Saudi Arabia said it will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does so. “Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a CBS interview. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi blasted the crown prince for his remarks. “He has no idea of politics apart from bitter talk that emanates from a lack of foresight … His remarks do not deserve a response, because he is a delusional, naive person, who never talks, but with lies and bitterness,” Qassemi responded.
March 29, 2018: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called for more economic and political pressure on Iran, saying it was needed to avoid a direct military confrontation in the region.
April 9, 2018: Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami responded to Saudi Arabia’s late March comments in the Wall Street Journal, saying the crown prince had fallen into the trap of the illusion of power. “Those words have been said by a man who has little experience in state affairs,” Hatami said.
April 10-11, 2018: In a visit to France, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accused Iran of supporting terrorism in the region. “Saudi rulers have made themselves as notorious as Zionist regime’s officials in being epitomes of crime and aggression in the region,” Bahram Qassemi said in response.
April 14, 2018: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the United States of creating ISIS with Saudi money.
April 30, 2018: Following U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Riyadh, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the United States of encouraging Saudi Arabia to confront Iran.
May 1, 2018: Saudi Arabia does not pose a threat to Iran, according to a senior Iranian commander. “The elements of national power of the Islamic Republic are superior to the elements of national power of Saudi Arabia and the country does not have the potential to pose a threat against Iran,” Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi said. “If the Saudi military might was superior, they could have defeated the Houthis in Yemen, but they have been defeated in three years of unequal war in Yemen.”
May 3, 2018: In a YouTube video criticizing the Iran nuclear deal, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif cited defense spending by Saudi Arabia and alluded to its support for terrorism. “We still spent a fraction of countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on defense. And our missiles have a shorter range than those of Saudi Arabia,” Zarif said. “And unlike U.S. allies in the region, who have brainwashed, financed and armed groups such as al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS, we have been pivotal in defeating these extremist thugs.”
May 9, 2018: Saudi Arabia supported President Trump’s decision to withdraw the Iran nuclear deal.
May 26, 2018: Saudi Arabia froze new business with Germany in response to Berlin’s pro-Iran policies and accusations that Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy constitutes “political adventurism.”
August 6, 2018: Saudi Arabia permitted Iran to send a representative to Riyadh and establish an office representing Iranian interests in the kingdom. Officials agreed that the office would be set up in the Swiss Embassy.
September 24, 2018: IRGC Commander Gen. Hossein Salami vowed revenge for an attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz two days earlier. He implicated the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel to the attack.
December 9, 2018: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman rebuked Iran during a GCC summit over its interference in other countries’ domestic affairs.
April 20, 2019: Iran and Saudi Arabia participated in a summit hosted by Baghdad to ease regional tensions.
June 12, 2019: Saudi officials blamed Iran for a Houthi attack on Abha Airport. The kingdom “will take urgent and timely measures to deter these Iranian-backed terrorist Houthi militias,” said the Saudi Foreign Ministry. Tehran denied any involvement.
July 31, 2019: Foreign Minister Zarif announced that Iran was prepared for bilateral talks with Saudi Arabia. “If Saudi Arabia is ready for dialogue, we are always ready for dialogue with our neighbours,” said Zarif, “We have never closed the door to dialogue with our neighbors and we will never close the door to dialogue with our neighbours.”
September 14, 2019: Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for twin attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. But Washington and Riyadh blamed Tehran.
October 1, 2019: Saudi Arabia asked Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to mediate a meeting between representatives from the kingdom and Iran.
February 16, 2020: Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said that Iran must change its behaviour for talks to take place.
June 29, 2020: Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal called on the international community to extend the arms embargo on Iran.
September 23, 2020: King Salman condemned Iran for spreading “chaos, extremism and sectarianism” across the Middle East and urged a “comprehensive” worldwide solution to prevent it from obtaining weapons of mass destruction.
November 17, 2020: Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir warned that Riyadh could pursue a nuclear weapon if Iran obtains one.
April 9, 2021: Iran and Saudi Arabia held direct talks five years after severing diplomatic relations. The talks in Baghdad were mediated by Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al Kadhimi.
August 28, 2021: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met his Saudi counterpart Faisal al Saud on the sidelines of the Baghdad summit to discuss resuming bilateral talks.
September 22, 2021: In his address to the United Nations, King Salman expressed hope that talks with Iran will yield a “tangible outcome to build trust.”
April 25, 2022: Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that Iran and Saudi Arabia held their fifth round of talks in Baghdad on April 21. “The talks were progressive and positive,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said. On the same day, Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said that the two countries agreed on a 10-point memorandum of understanding.
November 9, 2022: Intelligence Minister Esmail Khatib warned Saudi Arabia against interfering in Iran’s internal affairs. Iranian officials had blamed Riyadh for inciting anti-government protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, on September 16.
December 2022: Iranian officials had refused to meet with Saudi diplomats amid anti-government government protests in Iran, according to Iraqi officials. They noted that Tehran blamed Riyadh for the unrest. “The Iranian-Saudi negotiations have stalled, and this will have a negative impact on the region,” said Amer al Fayez, an Iraqi lawmaker.
March 10, 2023: Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic ties seven years after severing relations. The regional rivals committed to reopening embassies in Tehran and Riyadh by May 2023.