Relations between the two regional superpowers Iran and Saudi Arabia never had a simple nature throughout history. The two Middle Eastern countries have long-standing conflicts that are associated with a whole set of problems. In fact, countries differ in their religious, economic, and political views. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a Sunni monarchy, whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran is a Shiite center of the world. Both countries are the largest producers of energy and constantly compete for oil and gas on the market as their basic export products. The main context of Iran-Saudi relations is the fact that over the last decade, the Middle East region has become one of the most explosive and unstable regions of the planet. The development of these conflicts has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, the emergence of millions of refugees, and the destruction of the economy and infrastructure. Further escalation of the Middle East conflict is a threat to the spread of terrorism and instability on a global scale. However, the history of their relations has many complex features and characteristics. The goal of this essay is to analyze the history of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The diplomatic relations during the 1920-1970s

Iran and Saudi Arabia established their diplomatic relations with the Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty that they signed in 1929 (Al-Saud 34). In essence, their relations started only in the 1960s because of the country’s differences in religious beliefs and the confirmation of the Israel power by Iran. In 1966, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia went to Iran with the purpose of consolidating the forces of the Middle East country (Al-Saud 34). The Shah of Iran Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi reacted to this act and visited Saudi Arabia. As a result, such policy became the basis of their diplomatic relations. Besides, both rulers had identical beliefs at the expense of their cooperation. Thus, with joint efforts, they established the Organization of the Islamic World Congress, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the Muslim World League (Al-Saud 34). In 1968, both countries agreed on demarcation agreement (Badeeb 75). After Great Britain stopped to have influence on this issue, Iran and Saudi Arabia accepted full liability for peace in the Persian Gulf. Apart from this, Shah negotiated with King Faisal in order to encourage him to develop the major systems and modernize institutions. Thus, their diplomatic relations were calm and sensible in the 1960s (Badeeb 81). However, the first part of the1970s was marked with first negotiations and disagreements that were rather difficult. First, Saudi Arabia was concerned about the dominant military force development of Iran and the disputable repossession of territories in 1971 (Badeeb 85). In addition to this, Saudi Arabia was not interested in Iran’s emergence as a regional power. Second, Iran planned to build their special security system, but Saudi Arabia resisted this attempt aiming to make the bilateral security system with other countries in the region. Finally, the countries held different positions on the issue of OPEC price growth in 1976 and 1977. Iran, for instance, argued and criticized the sharp increase in the cost (Badeeb 84). Therefore, the diplomatic relations between the countries during the 1960-1970s had some minor disagreements, but they were still transparent, friendly, and efficient compared to the subsequent development of this process.

The diplomatic relations during the 1980s

After the Islamic revolution in 1979, the relations between the two regional superpowers in the Middle East acquired a character of regional rivalry (Mabon 55). The several major factors contributed to the worsening diplomatic relations between the two countries in the early 1980s. First, it is the ideological differences between the regions. At the beginning of the 1980s, Shia and Sunni version of Islamic fundamentalism were recognized as official doctrines in both states (Mabon 60). However, the ideology of political Shiism has a clear revolutionary orientation, while the Wahhabi political doctrine has a conservative and protective character. The leader of the Iranian revolution Ruhollah Khomeini used a term “American Islam” in his work in relation to the Saudi political model. According to him, this term was initiated by the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf, and in contrast to the true Islam, it is combined with the despotism and Zionism (Mabon 73). Furthermore, Khomeini criticized the competence and moral qualities of the Saudi royal family. In his theoretical writings, Khomeini opposed the principle of monarchy that, in his opinion, is not suitable for Islam.

Second, it is the contradiction between the two countries that was caused by an ethnic and religious factor. Basically, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies had a significant Shia minority. Thus, the Shia community in Saudi Arabia was estimated from 10 to 15% of the population (Mabon 87). Shiites inhabited the oases of Qatif and Al-Hasa in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom – the territory of which holds much of the Saudi oil fields. Moreover, they were exposed to discrimination on the territory of the Kingdom, and Saudi government did not have Shiites among the ministers (Mabon 82). The followers of this denomination were not represented in the command positions in the armed forces and intelligence services of Saudi. The cities of the Eastern Province did not have Shiites as a mayor or a chief of the district police.

Third, the acute geopolitical situation in the Middle East has affected diplomatic relations between the two countries. The slogan “export of Islamic revolution” of Khomeini’s revolutionary government has led to the concerns regarding possible Shiite revolution in Iraq followed by the spread of Iranian expansion in other Gulf countries (Nonneman 144). Such agitation resulted in an alliance between the conservative Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and the leftist-nationalist Baath regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq (Nonneman 144). In fact, Saudi elite supported the Iraqi aggression against Iran in September 1980 and provided significant financial and economic aid during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. Hence, the Kingdom of Iraq has allocated a credit line for thirty billion dollars (Nonneman 145).

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In 1981, the Saudi leadership created the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Persian Gulf in an attempt to rally the monarchical regimes of the Persian Gulf due to a hypothetical Iranian threat. At the same time, the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran has given new impetus to the Saudi-American relations (Badeeb 110). Saudi Arabia has become the main strategic partner of the United States in the Muslim world and one of the main allies of Washington in the Middle East. The presence of the US military in Saudi Arabia during this period served as an additional concern for Tehran, which was against the deployment of US forces along their borders. Anti Saudi political rhetoric in Iran was further intensified after the event that occurred in Makkah (Badeeb 111). During Hajj, some of the Iranian pilgrims in Mecca tried to organize a demonstration with slogans in support of the Islamic revolution. The demonstration was subjected to a cruel dispersal by the Saudi security forces, which killed 252 Iranian citizens. In 1988, the Saudi government terminated diplomatic relations with Iran, which resulted in a fact that Iranians were unable to make the pilgrimage to Mecca (Badeeb 112). Therefore, the diplomatic relations of these countries during the 1980s became of a sharp and disruptive nature.

The diplomatic relations during the 1990s

Diplomatic relations between the two largest countries in the Middle East began to change gradually after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the beginning of “Operation Desert Storm” in 1990 (Keynoush 45). In this case, the geopolitical goals of Tehran and Riyadh have coincided with an effort to weaken Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which has become the main threat to the countries. In 1990, Tehran condemned the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait, and during the voting period in the UN, they supported the imposition of international sanctions against Iraq. In April 1991, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati had a visit to Saudi Arabia (Keynoush 56). During the negotiations with King Fahd bin Abdel Aziz, he proposed the formation of a comprehensive security system in the Persian Gulf based on the alliance between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. He criticized the GCC for passivity due to which there was Iraqi aggression. Consequently, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs proposed to include his native country in the composition of this international organization.

Despite the fact that the Saudi leadership did not give a direct answer to the Iranian proposal, relations between the two countries were gradually normalized. The countries restored diplomatic ties and closed the issue of the Hajj. The next milestone in the development of Iran-Saudi relations has become a session of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1997 (Keynoush 57). Regardless of the criticism of Saudi Arabia by Iran due to the Riyadh’s commitment to a strategic partnership with the United States, Saudi Arabia and its allies did not boycott the conference. Moreover, one of the leading members of the Saudi elite, a Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal headed Saudi Arabia delegation. During his visit, he had a conversation with the leaders of Iran on the topic of confidence-building measures between the two countries. It eventually resulted in the official visit of Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami to Riyadh in 1998 (Keynoush 59).

The Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who led the country since 1996, contributed to the strengthening of the Saudi-Iranian relations in the 1990s. In that period, Abdullah established a good personal relationship with the president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his family. An opponent of the normalization of bilateral relations was another Saudi prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz (Keynoush 60). He organized a terrorist attack on the American military base in Dhahran for the prosecution of the Iranian side and attempted to destroy a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In May 1998, the countries signed a comprehensive cooperation agreement according to which programs of cooperation between the two countries in economy, culture, and sports were proposed. In the same month of 1999, Khatami visited Saudi Arabia during his tour of Arab countries (Keynoush 62). In the course of his conversation with the authorities of the Saudi Arabia, he discussed a possible increase in oil prices within OPEC, the situation around Iraq, and regional security in the Persian Gulf. The relative détente in US-Iranian relations that existed at the time led the Saudi elite to continue further rapprochement with Tehran. Therefore, the diplomatic relations in 1990 were more or less normalized although there were some acute disagreements.

The diplomatic relations during the 2000s

Despite the security treaty between the countries in 2001, their relationship began to deteriorate. In reality, the changes in the Middle East in 2003-2006 contributed to a sharp deterioration in relations between the two key Middle East regional countries (Sidda Goud and Mookherjee 87). The reasons were associated with opportunistic and unilateral US actions that changed the political map of the region. The main explanation for such action was the American occupation of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime. After these changes, the Iranian influence in Iraq began to increase with the prospect of re-formatting of the regional political map. By 2005, the countries got a possibility of forming the Shiite crescent with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon (Sidda Goud and Mookherjee 91). For the first time, Jordan’s King Abdullah voiced a term “Shia crescent” when he noticed that recent geopolitical configuration is destabilizing the countries in the Persian Gulf.

The new government in Iraq in 2005, which was dominated by representatives of the Shiite parties, marked increase in Iranian political influence in Baghdad (Sidda Goud and Mookherjee 114). Additionally, this situation has led to the transformation of Iraq into the first in the history Arab Shiite state. These events in Iraq were accompanied by strengthening of the Iranian-Syrian strategic partnership. However, the Shiites rise to power would have been impossible without the assistance of the American occupation administration that tried to ensure the safety of American troops. This fact became the reason for the weakening of confidence in the Saudi-American relations. Much dissatisfaction in Riyadh resulted in signing the Iran-Iraq agreement on military cooperation in 2005 (Sidda Goud and Mookherjee 115). In the same year, Lebanon became another element of the collision between the Iranian and Saudi geopolitical goals. After the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanese society has divided into opponents and supporters of Syrian troops that stayed in the country. The forces that were disaffected by Syrian domination of the country, have united in the Coalition on 14 March, and supporters of Damascus made the March 8 Alliance.

Strengthening of Iranian influence in Iraq has raised a number of Saudi concerns about Iran’s policy objectives in the region. First, it was related to the fear of creating a Shiite crescent that connects Iran with Mediterranean (Sidda Goud and Mookherjee 117). Second, the Saudis began to consider Iran’s policy as a means to turn the Persian Gulf into the Shiite oil lake. The real threat was connected with the fact that Iran could include Bahrain and the Saudi province of Sharqiyah in its zone of influence. These strong Saudi suspicions were caused by the fact that a faction of the Iranian neo-conservatives led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad started to rule the country (Sidda Goud and Mookherjee 120). They abandoned the concept of Khatami’s “dialogue of civilizations” and started an aggressive policy toward the United States. Finally, the Iran’s nuclear program, which was initially peaceful, also fueled concerns about the Gulf oil monarchies. The ruling circles of these countries were gradually concentrated on the confrontation with Iran. Basically, a number of statements by Persian Gulf heads of states serve as an evidence for this process.

In addition to the geopolitical rivalry between the two Middle Eastern countries, a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites also plays an important role in diplomatic relations (Wehrey, et al. 13). The level of tension between the two communities has reached its peak over the last five hundred years (Wehrey, et al. 16). In some cases, the sectarian conflict is caused by the rivalry of the communities for the possession of power and property (Wehrey, et al. 24). On the other hand, the propaganda activities of extremist Salafi preachers from the Persian Gulf contribute to religious hatred toward the Shia. Therefore, the beginning of the 2000s marked a dramatic decrease in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

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The diplomatic relations during the 2010s

Iran and Saudi Arabia began unprecedented interference in the internal affairs of Syria and favored opposing political forces. In fact, these factors delayed the civil war in the country. Nevertheless, these countries have different views on the situation, and the disagreements on Syria undermined their diplomatic relations. Iran supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Saudi Arabia is the main sponsor of the Syrian opposition (Keynoush 116). At the request of the Iranian government, military movement “Hezbollah” actively participated in the fighting in Syria on the side of the Bashar al-Assad’s government. In addition to the indications from Tehran to intervene in the civil war in Syria, internal reasons also prompted the actions of the “Hezbollah.” The leader of the movement Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah argued that the Syrian jihadists would come to the territory of Lebanon in any case (Keynoush 119). Nasrallah also noticed that “Hezbollah” is involved in the Syrian conflict to ensure the security of all Lebanese citizens. Apart from “Hezbollah,” the Iraqi Shiite militias are also fighting to support the Assad government. Consequently, Iran is substantially helping Syrian government with economic situation. At the same time, the Saudi side is providing considerable assistance with money and weapons to the radical Islamist groups in Syria. In March 2014, the decree of King Abdallly proclaimed a terrorist group “Dzhabhat en-Nusra” as a banned organization (Mabon 126). However, in 2012-2014, with the help of the Minister of Awqaf Nayef Al-Ajmi, the Saudi authorities have assisted the organization. A new military association “Jaish al-Islam” was established in 2013, and the composition of this group included some jihadist groups and Kurdish Islamic Front under the tutelage of Saudi intelligence. As a result, this group has brought fifty thousand fighters with great financial abilities (Mabon 135).

Another factor that has complicated their relationship was the situation in Yemen, where Shiite militiamen seized power in the country by overthrowing the Saudi government. From the Saudi Arabia’s perspective, Iran was behind the militias. This conflict has also become a serious problem in restoring their diplomatic relations. In essence, Yemen’s Zaidi Shiite dominated in the Northern provinces that amounted to a third of the country’s population. In the 1990s, the Yemeni Shiites enjoyed the patronage of President Ali Abdullah Saleh (Mabon 139). He supplied them with weapons and encouraged their limited autonomy in the north, with the center in Sa’ada city. However, since 2004, the situation has changed when the government forces attacked Shiites. In total, there were three wars between the central government and the country’s Shiite House during 2004-2014 (Mabon 146). Thus, such situation demonstrated that their diplomatic relations were in a deteriorating state. Furthermore, the conflict in relations with the Shia house was caused by internal factors. Among them were an economic factor that characterized by extreme poverty and underdevelopment and a tribal factor that accommodated the desire of Shiites to revenge on Hashid tribes for the overthrow of the Yemeni monarchy. However, during the armed conflict in 2009, the Shiite rebels underwent a direct-armed confrontation with the Saudi army and won it. This event has caused great concern in Riyadh.

The deterioration of Iranian-Saudi relations will prolong the suffering of the people of Syria and Yemen. In both cases, the resolution of the conflict through diplomacy looks far from the reality, because the two major powers in the region are willing to reduce each other’s influence. The reaction of the international community to this situation was expected. The Saudi allies such as Bahrain are either limiting diplomatic relations with Iran or are planning the full break. The major world powers encourage both countries to do everything possible to improve the situation. The US foreign policy has a clear bias towards Asia because of the “shale revolution.” Thus, the US is less dependent on the main suppliers of hydrocarbons, and their intervention is questionable (Mabon 157). As a result, the diverse support of foreign countries has also intensified diplomatic relations between the countries. Therefore, the beginning of the 2010s marked the further decrease in diplomatic relations that led to the series of conflicts in the main regions of the Persian Gulf.

The diplomatic relations in present time and future

Diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia went into decline during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A large number of conflicts have brought the country to a critical point in their diplomatic relations. In early 2016, Saudi Arabia announced the execution of a death sentence against 47 people accused of terrorism and its propaganda. The death of Shia preacher, who was among those people, became a serious impetus for the popular discontent (Alsultan and Saeid 67). On January 3, Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran (Alsultan and Saeid 76). After these actions, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia – Adel al-Dzhubeyr said that the kingdom terminates the diplomatic relations with Iran. The representative of Saudi Arabia in the United Nations Abdullah al-Moallem noticed that diplomatic ties with Iran would be restored when Tehran ceases to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. The severance of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran destroys all possibilities and expectations to solve urgent problems in the region. Thus, all local conflicts in the region continue to grow. This situation affects the stability of the Middle East and the refugee issue.

The current nature of interaction between Iran and Saudi Arabia is strained. Performances of higher officials and foreign ministers of both countries demonstrate the complexity of the situation. In fact, states have deteriorated diplomatic relations provoking each other resorting to force and using different political actions. Syrian confrontation between different political-military forces is one of the main factors of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, because the two sides assisted hostile armed groups (Alsultan and Saeid 75). However, the civil war in Syria is only one of several areas of the Iranian-Saudi diplomatic confrontation, which actively began to develop with the aggravation of conflicts in the Middle East at the beginning of the twenty-first century (Alsultan and Saeid 78). The value of the Syrian conflict and its consequences are still important for both countries aspiring to regional leadership in the Middle East. The difference in the geo-politics, religious and economic interests, and security for Tehran and Riyadh continue to exist and undermine diplomatic relations between the countries.

Owing to the continuation of differences between the states, their diplomatic conflict will develop further. A manifestation of this process is the fact that Bahrain, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates also severed diplomatic relations with Iran (Alsultan and Saeid 82). Furthermore, the civil war in Syria and Yemen will likely worsen. Among other diplomatic consequences, there may be the inability of the peace process in Syria. Fortunately, the emergence of a direct conflict has a minor possibility. Saudi Arabia can adhere to the power scenario only if it would have more options to transport oil. In this case, the possible outcome of the diplomatic conflict continuation in the Middle East will be the rise in oil prices and the downturn in the global economy (Alsultan and Saeid 85). Currently, the diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a serious and urgent problem of world society. Therefore, the history of diplomatic relations between these regions has a wide range of complex reasons and consequences.


The history of diplomatic relations between two major Middle Eastern countries is characterized by geopolitical, religious, and ideological rivalries. First, Saudi Arabia negatively perceives the regime of the Islamic Republic in Iran, which was established in 1979. Second, the diplomatic relations trigger a conflict between the two states with both striving for the domination of political elites in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. Therefore, Iran and Saudi Arabia are in a state of proxy war, and they have military clashes in other countries supporting different sides of the conflict. Third, sectarian Sunni-Shiite conflict complicates the relations between the two countries. These contradictions are in the center of conflict interest. Moreover, Iran and Saudi Arabia have mutual distrust. The countries are afraid of growing diplomatic, military, and political forces because the position on the world oil market and in the region is the most important element of their prosperity. These factors have started to evolve from the beginning of their diplomatic relations history and became the basis of their further rivalry and confrontation. The situation between the two countries became very tense after Saudi Arabia has broken its diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016. Thus, the current situation is the most serious and acute in the history of their diplomatic relations. Consequently, the history of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia has many different reasons and implications.

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