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Meaningless Saudi-Iran Rivalry – OpEd

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Strange phenomenon

It is indeed strange that Islamic nations Saudi Arabia and Iran keep confronting with each other on flimsy issues.

At the outset, one can call this phenomenon being insanity or simply nonsense the way the supposedly Islamic leaders Saudi Arabia and Iran keep fighting over cooked up issues or mere suspicions, ignoring even the sincere mediatory efforts of Turkey to bring them together and jointly launch a joint alliance to defend the destabilized Muslim nations and protect the interests of entire Islamic world

Oil and petrodollars have empowered the Arab nations and Iran to insult and belittle each other, providing enough opportunities to the enemies of Islam led by USA and Israel to celebrate their joint victory against Islam. They have already murdered millions of Muslims in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Arab nations in the name of war on terror which in reality means a permanent fascist war on Islam.

However, Saudi Arabia which looks up USA as their real lord and Israel as their most trust “worthy” strategic partner, though even Americans do not trust the Jews, and Iran which promotes a war front among the Shiite nations though not targeting Sunni world.

It is true entire Islamic world cannot provide any real opposition to US-Israeli military prowess but falling at their liquor-pork feet shows the weakness, wickedness and hypocrisy of entire Islamic world.

But that Saudi Arabia and Iran contribute sizably to the global and regional tensions makes things worse for the humanity beyond global Muslims.

Seemingly unending and shameless Saudi-Iran rivalry is a black spot on the image of Islam, though the enemies of Islam are obviously very happy about the perpetual Sunni-Shiia sectarian crisis in West Asia, negatively affecting the Muslim nations.

The USA and Europe have serious differences over many issues but they fight like street dogs so as Saudi-Iran do as a fashion. USA and Russia have serious differences that only a direct war could solve but they don’t go to war directly. Saudi Arabia, in order to impose its will on Arab world and Iran nations, is seen in a perpetually conflictual siltation with Iran- a sisterly nation to Arab world. .

It should be clear even to school children that anti-Islamic forces and media promote and fuel the Saudi-Iran conflict which itself is a misunderstanding of Islam and an anomaly. However Saudi kingdom and Iran- both important producers of oil -promote capitalism as a central part of their own versions of “Islamic” system.

In the region’s geopolitical shift Iran’s influence continues to grow, and Saudi Arabia pursues unsound foreign policies to appease USA and Israel while domestic discontent like high unemployment grows. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s desire to repair relations with Iran is a strategic move and has nothing to do with Islamic brotherhood

The enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a persistent feature of Middle Eastern geopolitics. Both states hold regional standing: Iran has a large population and a long history of nationhood, while Saudi Arabia holds significant oil reserves and is custodian of Islam’s holiest sites.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are in a rhetoric and sectarian war, increasing the global oil prices. Any mediation efforts that lead to reducing the tension between them therefore will affect oil prices positively.

By the by, in infighting with each other, whom do Saudi and Iranian regimes try to appease?

It is a known fact that the reestablishment of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will bring stability not only to the West Asia region but will also steadily increase constructive ties among Muslim nations.

Apparently, nothing can proceed in Saudi Arabia, from a policy perspective, without the blessing of the hardline conservative religious establishment. Mohamed bin Salman has treated the religious establishment as allies against radicalism rather than as cultural adversaries. MBS’s argument that extreme religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution, is rather absurd.

In area, Saudi Arabia is bigger than Iran, but in population Iran is ahead of its rival by more than two and a half times. Gross domestic product per capita is US$24,847 and $14,403 for Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, but in military expenditure, Saudi Arabia, with $80.8 billion, again far exceeds Iran, which spends only $25 billion annually. While 8% of Iran’s population is Sunni, Shiites make up 10% of Saudi Arabia’s total population of 32.28 million. Yet the two leading powers in the Middle East have been engaged in proxy wars for decades.

To reset Saudi relations with US differently than existing today, Salman has now made a two long trip to USA and struck a military deal for huge cost. Whether or not the purchase of terror equipments from USA would help improve the ailing bilateral relations, USA would reassured of continued flow of Saudi money into Washington. However, USA any not revise its Iran policy to mend ties with Riyadh.

Origins of the Sunni-Shiite rivalry

Sunni and Shiia are the two major branches of Islam, but both prefer to ignore that and deliberately insult each other in order mainly to appease their bosses in the West.

Although Saudi Arabia and Iran are both Muslim-majority nations and follow and rule through Islamic scripture, their relations are fraught with hostility, tension and confrontation, due more to external interferences than to differences in their political agendas that are strengthened for their minor differences in faith.

It is a fact that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are seen to have aspirations for leadership of Islam, and have different visions of stability and regional order. The anti-Islamic forces have used that selfish interest rather than purely Islamic or spiritualistic, to generate tensions between them.

Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Iran, the predominant Shiite power, have a long-standing rivalry based as much in geostrategic interests much more than any religious differences. Facing off across the Gulf, the two energy-rich powers have for decades stood meaninglessly on opposing sides of conflicts in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are major oil and gas exporters and have clashed over energy policy. Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves and smaller population, has a greater interest in taking a long-term view of the global oil market and incentive to moderate prices. In contrast, Iran is compelled to focus on high prices in the short term due to its low standard of living given recent sanctions after its decade old war with Saddam’s Iraq.

Saudi Arabia is a right-wing conservative Sunni Islamic kingdom with a tradition of close ties with the USA and the UK. Iran is a Twelver Shia Islamic Republic founded in an anti-Western Islamic Revolution with close ties to Russia, China and Cuba.

There are few issues that keep them out of tune with one another.

The Sunni-Shiite divide between Saudi Arabia and Tehran is a crucial factor not just in conflicts between the two countries but various sects in Islam across the globe. .

Iran has even called into doubt the suitability of the Saudi royal family to serve as custodians of Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in Islam — especially after a stampede at the annual hajj pilgrimage in 2015 left hundreds of Iranians dead.

The Iranian revolution of 1979 and the advent of the Islamic Republic — with its fiercely anti-American slant — were perceived as a double threat to the conservative Saudi led Sunni monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula, allied with the USA. The 2011 Arab Spring uprising, which saw Iran support the demands of sizable Shiite minorities in Gulf monarchies, was another turning point, Arab states appeared vulnerable and Iran was then defined as the main threat to regional stability.

Earlier, in 1943, Saudi Arabia executed an Iranian pilgrim, Abu Taleb Yazidi, who allegedly threw his vomit on the Kaaba during the Hajj pilgrimage. Iran reacted sharply and broke diplomatic relations until 1946, when Ibn Saud took the initiative by writing a letter to Reza Shah urging the resumption of diplomatic ties. For the next nine years, the two countries walked on common grounds: Both were aligned toward the US and both had oil industries to develop. Then the year 1953 saw a new era of Saudi-Iran relations

The British decision to withdraw its military forces from the Persian Gulf region by 1971 was replaced by a new Western presence when US president Richard Nixon entered the Middle East arena with his “twin pillars” policy for regional stability. But the USA tilted in favor of Iran, making it a dominant military power, while promoting Israel as the superpower of West Asia region.

Iran’s ambition was visible in its territorial gains, which alarmed Saudi Arabia, with its repossession of three islands, the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa in November 1971, which was in direct conflict with the claims of the United Arab Emirates.

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 launched a radical Shiite Islamist agenda that was perceived as a challenge to Saudi Arabia. Tehran’s policy of supporting proxy war in Yemen and Syria alarmed the Gulf states led by the kingdom.

The 1979 revolution established a regime dominated by Shiite clerics hostile to the West and to the Saudi monarchy. The Iran-Iraq War, in which Saudi Arabia and its smaller Gulf neighbors supported Iraq, put further strains on the relationship. In the late 1990s, visits by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to Tehran and by Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and his predecessor Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to Riyadh helped eased relations. But it was not enough.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are poles apart in Islamic ideology, which is central to the foreign policies of both countries. As the guardian of the two holy mosques, Saudi Arabia represents Sunni Islam, which Tehran rejects. Under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s open intention to take over the two holy mosques from Saudi Arabia helped escalate enmity between the two. The 15-day Grand Mosque siege of 1979 by militants caused damage to the bilateral relationship, since Saudi Arabia perceived interference by Iran.

Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia proceeded without major incident. Ties improved in the 1960s, as cooperation grew in the face of the threats posed to both by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and by potential Soviet penetration. Another mutual threat was posed by the secular Arab-nationalist Baathists in Iraq, who took power in the 1960s.

The end of British military presence in the Persian Gulf region in 1971 was followed soon by the initiation of new US foreign policy in the region. President Richard Nixon initiated the “twin-pillar policy” in the Persian Gulf, whereby Iran and Saudi Arabia would operate together as local guardians of US interests in the region. Iran eagerly assumed the role of regional policeman, while Saudi Arabia played an important, but not dominant, role as a US ally in the Arab world.

Under the twin-pillar policy, cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia extended to joint operations under US guidance in defeating communist elements in North Yemen, Zaire, Somalia and Oman, but following the assassination of King Faisal in 1975, the Kingdom began to display a new approach towards oil, its major resource. The Shah declared publicly that oil had been undervalued for years and that OPEC urgently needed a price hike.

The Shah anticipated the Saudis’ cooperation, but, as the de facto leader of OPEC, Saudi Arabia declared in December 1976 that it would not increase the price of its oil. Saudi Arabia was thereby able both to increase its market share and to conform to Western economic interests. Meanwhile, the Shah was heavily reliant on high oil prices to limit a growing budget deficit and maintain high military spending. Domestic sentiment grew in Iran that the Shah’s economic programme had failed to meet the expectations raised by the oil-revenue windfall.

After the Iranian revolution in 1979, religion would be at the forefront of Iran’s state identity. Ayatollah Khomeini claimed broad Islamic support for the revolution and was quick to criticize the “decadence” of the Wahhabi Saudi monarchy. The claim that a Shiite theocracy would be the authoritative voice of Islam clashed with the Saudi Kingdom’s assumed religious legitimacy as the guardian of the two Holy Mosques, in Mecca and Medina. Iranian endeavors to use the media to mobilize Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority caused further concern in the Kingdom over Iran’s intentions.

So when Saddam Hussein made his first state visit to Saudi Arabia in August 1980, he received approval from King Khalid for his plans to invade Iran in the throes of political transition. Saudi Arabia provided billions in financial assistance to Saddam’s campaign and pressed for other Gulf States to follow suit. Direct attacks occurred midway through the war; Iran struck Saudi tankers, and the Kingdom responded by shooting down two Iranian jet fighters. In 1987, 275 protesting Iranians were killed in a riot and stampede in Mecca. By the end of the war, an estimated 750,000 Iranians and 500,000 Iraqis had perished.

Tensions after Iranian revolution

After the Iranian Revolution, relations deteriorated considerably after Iran accused Saudi Arabia of being an agent of the US in the Persian Gulf region, representing US interests rather than Islam. Saudi Arabia is concerned by Iran’s consistent desire to export its revolution across the board to expand its influence within the Persian Gulf region—notably in post-Saddam Iraq, the Levant and within further south in addition to Iran’s controversial, much debated nuclear program

The founder of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, was ideologically opposed to monarchy, which he believed to be un-Islamic. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, on the other hand, remains consistently conservative, not revolutionary, and politically married to age-old religious leaders of the tribes who support the monarchy and the king (namely the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) is given absolute obedience as long as he does not violate Islamic sharia law. Saudi Arabia has, however, a Shia minority which has recently made bitter complaints of institutional discrimination against it, specifically after the 2007 change in Iraqi governance and particularly after the 2011 events that spanned the region. At some stages it has gone as far as to call for overthrowing the king and the entire system

Iran and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations following an attack to Saudi Embassy in Tehran in 2016. Bilateral relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been strained over different geo-political issues such as the interpretations of Islam, aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, oil export policy and relations with the United States and other Western countries.

In the Syrian Civil War Iran has supported the Syrian government militarily and with billions of dollars of aid, while Saudi is a major supplier of aid to rebel groups. Both countries have accused each other of support for terrorism.

After the Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were ransacked by Iranian protesters, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on January 3, 2016.

On February 14, 2016, the government of Switzerland announced that it will represent Saudi interests in Iran and Iranian interests in Saudi Arabia. Switzerland has recently been the protecting power for Egypt and the United States since diplomatic relations were strained following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Tensions between the two countries have waxed and waned. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran soured particularly after the Iranian Revolution, the nuclear program, the 2011 alleged Iran assassination plot and more recently the execution of Nimr al-Nimr. There have also been numerous attempts to improve the relationship. After the 1991 Gulf war there was a noticeable thaw in relations. In March 2007 President Ahmadinejad of Iran visited Riyadh and was greeted at the airport by King Abdullah, and the two countries were referred to in the press as “brotherly nations”. After March 2011, Iran’s financial and military support for Syria during the Syrian Civil War, has been a severe blow to the improvement of relations.

On January 3, 2016 Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran, Iran was ransacked following the execution of Saudi-born Shia Islam cleric Nimr al-Nimr. The execution prompted widespread condemnation within the Arab World as well as other countries, the European Union and the United Nations, with protests being carried out in cities in Iran, Iraq, India, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey. Following the attack on its embassy in Iran, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran and the Saudi foreign minister said that all Iranian diplomats are to leave the country within 48 hours

The difference of political ideologies and governance has also divided both countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the principle of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, which holds that a faqīh (Islamic jurist) should have custodianship over all Muslim followers, including their governance and regardless of nationality. Iran’s Supreme Leader is a Shia faqīh.

Obviously, therefore, Turkey has taken a calculated risk in undertaking steps to unite Islamic nations to serve the cause of Islam against the wishes of USA-Israel led anti-Islamic world. This is ridiculous in the face of imperialist threats from anti-Islamic world.

Escalation of tensions

Apparently, the enemies of Islam that have been at work to weaken and destabilize Muslim nations, forcing even Muslims to make Islam look like a terrorist religion, have succeeded in making Muslim nations fight and hate each other. The crudest example is tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, viewing each other enemies.

So much so, Saudi Arabia is reportedly taking the help of arch foe of Islam Israel to defeat Iran.

The latest round of tensions began when Riyadh and Tehran broke off diplomatic relations in January 2016, after Iranians stormed Saudi Arabia’s embassy and consulate in response to the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. That followed the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and six world powers, which Riyadh feared was a step towards ending Iran’s international isolation.

The main cause of the current tensions is related to the proxy confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, particularly the wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Recent months have seen changes in these confrontations that appear to have brought the tensions to a head.

In Iraq and Syria, the increasingly successful campaign against ISIS has changed the situation on the ground. Offensives in both countries have forced the jihadists from nearly all the territory they seized in mid-2014.

As the threat from a common enemy “has imploded, tensions between these historic adversaries have escalated,” said Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northeastern University in Boston.

Rhetoric between the two grew increasingly belligerent, including over Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbor Qatar. Riyadh and several of its Sunni allies broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017, accusing Doha of support for extremism and links with Iran, claims that it denies.

In November, the animosity reached new heights. First, the Saudi-supported prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, in a broadcast from Riyadh announced his resignation, blaming Iran’s “grip” on his country via Shiite movement Hezbollah. Several hours later, Saudi Arabia said its air defenses near Riyadh intercepted and destroyed a missile fired from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is battling Iran-backed Shiite rebels.

That set off a fierce war of words between Riyadh and Tehran, with Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accusing Iran of “direct military aggression.” Tehran denied any involvement in the missile attack, with President Hassan Rouhani warning that Iranian “might” would fend off any challenge.

As Iraq looks to a post-ISIS era, Riyadh has been taking steps to build stronger ties with the country’s Shiite-dominated government. A flurry of visits between the two countries this year saw talk of a warming of ties, including a trip by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Riyadh in late October.

A war against Islam?

Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric does not necessarily reflect interest in war, consulting firm Eurasia Group said, pointing to a potential domestic reason for Riyadh’s combative tone.

The new Prince Mohammed is looking to leverage the nationalist rhetoric to solidify his position as he pursues an anti-corruption purge some see as an attempt to cement and strengthen his hold on power. At the same time, escalatory statements against Iran help shift the media attention away from the domestic power struggle.

The election as US president a year ago of Zionist Donald Trump has also contributed to the rise in tensions. Trump’s open hostility towards Tehran has released anti-Iranian energies in the Arabian Peninsula” and emboldened Riyadh. One of the Saudi demands on USA is to contain Iran’s influences in the region and elsewhere and, like Israel, it also wants USA to attack Iran and kill as many Shiites as Sunnis whom the US led NATO rouge states murdered.

Saudi Arabia was a key financial backer of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during his 1980-1988 war with Iran. With Iraq weakened following the 1991 Gulf War, Saudi Arabia and Iran became the two main regional powers. Religious tensions have heightened since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq under the pretext of searching for WMD and one Osama that brought the majority Shiites to power in Baghdad instead of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. The US president, who talks about rule of law and democracy, murdered President Saddam mainly for his anti-American stance. But the triclomacy of USA and Europe that could not be decoded by Arab rulers who enjoy huge wealth and have kept much of them in USA and UK, have divided them.

In Syria, meanwhile, the Iran-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad has over the past year managed to reassert control over large parts of the country by defeating, among others, rebel groups backed by Riyadh. “The Saudi-Iranian rivalry has become the organizing principle for Mideast alliances, reminiscent of how the Cold War divided countries along USA and Soviet lines.

While the increase in tensions has raised serious concerns, few expect an outright military confrontation. “A broader regional conflict remains unlikely, Riyadh would instead look to use the latest missile incident to push for further sanctions against Tehran. Both sides would steer clear of open conflict. Iran has experience of the war with Iraq … and Saudi Arabia is bogged down in Yemen, after failing to define the future of the Syrian revolution and counter Iran’s influence in Iraq.


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Dr. Abdul Ruff

Dr. Abdul Ruff

Dr. Abdul Ruff is a columnist contributing articles to many newspapers and journals on world politics. He is an expert on Mideast affairs, as well as a chronicler of foreign occupations and freedom movements (Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang, Chechnya, etc.). Dr. Ruff is a specialist on state terrorism, the Chancellor-Founder of Center for International Affairs (CIA), commentator on world affairs and sport fixings, and a former university teacher. He is the author of various eBooks/books and editor for INTERNATIONAL OPINION and editor for FOREIGN POLICY ISSUES; Palestine Times.

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