The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has, for many years, been a constant in the Middle East. It is a mix of geopolitics and religious sectarianism. Both countries vie for influence in their shared region, with religion and politics impacting on each other.
The 1979 Iranian revolution intensified this divide with a religious/revolutionary fervour added to it for the discomfort of the established order in the Sunni Arab countries. It didn’t, however, translate into any immediate threat to Arab monarchies as Iran-Iraq war engulfed these two countries for much of the eighties. It was, nevertheless, perceived as a potential threat.
The presence of a large Shia population in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and their perceived susceptibility to Iran’s influence, as well as Shia majority in Bahrain’s Sunni-led monarchy, have often led to persecution and repression of the Shias; further embittering their relations.
After the fall of the Shah of Iran and the new clerical order in Iran, its relations with the US deteriorated sharply. Indeed, the US encouraged and equipped Saddam Hussein’s Iraq into attacking Iran to hopefully destroy the new political order in Iran.
But, despite the horrific Iran-Iraq war causing huge casualties in Iran and overall destruction, the clerical regime still survived.
Iraq was impoverished from the war. When some of its Arab lenders, like Kuwait, wanted repayment of their debts, Saddam Hussein sought to solve the problem forever by attacking Kuwait to annex this oil-rich country.
Having failed to make any headway against Iran, where the war ended in a stalemate, Saddam sought through seeking to annex Kuwait to become the dominant economic and political force in the Middle East.
Iran’s economic blockade fit into the US’s Middle Eastern strategy of prioritising Israel and Saudi Arabia
But the US didn’t want Saddam’s Iraq to control the Middle Eastern oil fields, which led them into the first Gulf War; resulting in Saddam Hussein’s comprehensive defeat, just short of his overthrow, probably because President George Bush (senior) hadn’t planned an alternative political order
Therefore, Saddam Hussein was just tolerated, with Iraqi people, especially children, suffering the most from international sanctions, including that on medical supplies.
As we know, the task of overthrowing Saddam was left to Bush senior’s son, President George Bush, who attacked Iraq in 2003. But that is a different story, opening another hornet’s nest, which is still being played out.
Under President Obama, an attempt was made to work out some sort of a breakthrough with Iran, while maintaining close political and security ties with traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
As Iran’s nuclear program advanced, the Obama administration sought to limit it to peaceful research under the 2015 nuclear deal, signed by Iran with five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, UK, France, Russia and China) plus Germany. And Iran adhered to its part of the deal.
While this was generally welcomed as a positive development, it was considered bad news in Saudi Arabia and Israel. There, the entire approach was in favour of continuing, and even ramping up further the international regime of international economic sanctions.
Iran’s economic blockade was supposed to bring down the clerical regime or bring it to a humiliating climb down so that it entirely gives up its nuclear program. This fit into the US’s Middle Eastern strategy of prioritising Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Under Obama, the broad strategy remained the same with Israel and Saudi Arabia as security partners, but to address the issue of Iran’s nuclear program to limit its weapons potential with very low enrichment capacity. This, Iran followed, as was attested by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
With Obama gone, Trump decided to undo much of his predecessor’s legacy, including the Iran nuclear deal. He described it as the worst ever deal and wanted it renegotiated. And to bring this about, Trump scrapped the 2015 nuclear agreement, re-imposed even more sanctions, sent a naval force threatening Iran and inviting it to re-negotiate without prior conditions.
In other words, Iran was offered the choice of accepting a new deal amounting to a virtual surrender of its sovereignty. Iran is refusing to accept the US dictation and the situation is combustible.
Saudi Arabia and Israel are pleased with the turn of events from Obama’s time and hope that US’ continued economic sanctions and warlike pressure will bring Iran to its knees and might even bring down the clerical regime.
At the same time, the US is pressuring Europe to be part of an international naval fleet to patrol the Persian Gulf, especially the Strait of Hormuz, in the wake of the seizure of a British oil tanker by Iran.
This was apparently as tit-for-tat for the British navy’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker in the seas around Gibraltar, allegedly for breaking international sanctions to ferry oil to Syria.
It is a very tense situation and there is no knowing how it will end. Saudi Arabia (and Israel) will be very pleased with the turn of events under Trump. But things are not as rosy in the Saudi kingdom, which I might explore in a subsequent article.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia