Reconciliation Between Iran and Saudi Arabia: An Opinion

Reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, two of the most powerful states in the Middle East, has been an issue implored by the international community. In an ideal world, if this were to happen, solving the Syrian and Yemeni crises would be dealt with in a safe manner, and most likely resulting in a positive outcome. This did become a partial reality- according to Reuters, Iranian minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammed Javad Zarif, stated Iran is ready to put aside its rivalries with Saudi Arabia to better the peace talks. He believes “Iran and Saudi Arabia can have shared interests in Syria.” As this seemingly points towards regional tension, it is a difficult statement to tackle because the problem is deeper than this. With the race to becoming a regional hegemon at the forefront, the background contains a sectarian Cold War between the two states, and religious tension is not something that can be settled at a peace talk like that of the Munich Security Conference, that has been underway since February 12th. The Sunni/Shiite tensions have placed Iran and Saudi Arabia in positions where they are not only fighting for regional hegemony, but also religious. Through both cold and combatant measures, this tension has dragged in many western states, including Russia, for intervention, only to have America supporting one side and Russia the other. The sectarian war has created a proxy for two bigger, rival states, which is also under scrutiny by the international community.

In April 2015, America lifted the nuclear-related sanctions it had against Iran, which was placed in order to minimize nuclear power. Both states compromised and entered an international agreement on the nuclear program. This not only marks the beginning of the reintegration of Iran into the international community, but also the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability. Saudi Arabia should not feel vulnerable- the state exports a little over $285 million worth of oil on a daily basis, versus Iran, which exports about $53.8 million. That being said, Iran was sanctioned for decades, so it has some catching up to do. The diplomatic ties between America and Iran, however, make up for it. To undermine and possibly stunt American policy in the east, Saudi Arabia will continue a military campaign against Iran in order to secure its position as a regional hegemon. This will revive the old order of sectarian disputes, which would benefit Saudi Arabia as the oppressive nature of the kingdom would contain and re-isolate Shiite Iran. A recent event that sparked the severance of ties between the states was the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was a Saudi Shia convicted of terrorist charges. This evidently created a religious uproar, as the execution also aimed to further oppress the Shia minority.

Going back to diplomacy, undermining American foreign policy will only further undermine Saudi Arabia’s. Zoning in on Syria, Saudi Arabia opposed America’s decision to not get involved in the conflict a few years ago. America viewed the Syrian battlefield as extremely complex since the government was fighting against rebel groups who were fighting amongst themselves. Furthermore, Syria has a professional army and air defence program, which outweighs the American military. Saudi Arabia has been supporting the rebel groups in an effort to overthrow Al-Assad’s regime, but failed significantly as ISIS was born amidst the mess. Their military campaign in Yemen also failed significantly. As this undermines Saudi foreign policy, igniting the sectarian dispute with Iran creates a sort of buffer, distracting the public from the other problems the kingdom has created.

In this picture, Saudi Arabia has, unfortunately, succeeded in terms of maintaining regional order. But this has cost the lives of millions, and displaced many more. Many Middle Eastern states are deeply rooted in religious tension, and there are religious undertones to any diplomatic and political action. With this traditional situation in mind, it’s not easy to say American intervention will help. As seen in the past, many Middle Eastern states have rejected American attempts of westernization and intervention in order to establish democracy across the terrain. States can be industrially westernized, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, but cannot turn into secular states just like that. According to a VICE article, Russia intervened in Syria in late 2015, in hopes to have a strong military presence that will ultimately influence the state when, and if, the Assad regime gets overthrown. The article even goes on to state: “Part of the Russian intervention also stems from a desire to avoid seeing the Syrian government dismantled…which could lead to a power vacuum that would look mighty appealing to groups such as IS.” Russia does have personal interests in this situation, but it is still trying to prevent rebel groups from completely destroying the state. America, on the other hand, has only endorsed air strikes against ISIS.

At the Munich Security Conference, Russia and America have expressed, according to a Guardian article, “a sort of joint ownership of the Syrian problem.” This is key because it further proves how fragile their intervention is. It’s only made the situation worse. For example, ISIS has beheaded numerous journalists from America and Europe in order to spark fear amongst the states. Although ISIS and other extremist groups have perverted the teachings of the Qur’an, having religious non-governmental organizations (NGOs) intervene would be more useful. In light of recent events, it seems as though this suggested method would only be a short-term attempt, but it would make some changes.

Secularism and religion will evidently clash in the field of politics; therefore, having people on the same page is more helpful. Ultimately, this will be foreign intervention that these Middle Eastern states loathe. To tackle the situation in Syria, the organization would go in to re-educate supporters of rebel groups. This would specifically target women; as ISIS recruits women both nationally and internationally in order to strengthen their regime. The NGOs would also take to the Internet to tackle social media and jihadi websites, as these are the tools ISIS uses to spread their propaganda. By slowly destabilizing ISIS, which can be considered more as the “rulers” of the Syrian state, holes will slowly form in the regime. This means an opportunity for the people to revolt, in hopes of taking down ISIS.

Although feeling optimistic is a preferred sentiment to have, hoping for this to be a true outcome is tricky. Syrians want Al-Assad out of the government, but Russia is protecting him. If Assad is overthrown, Russia will place both its feet into the state, and obviously will have some control over who comes into office. Although flawed, Russia’s democratic ideals will influence the state of Syria. This may or not be opposed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. It would be difficult for the states to cooperate in establishing a new regime within Syria due to the Sunni/Shia conflict, and even more so with their traditional views. It would be beneficial for a supranational organization such as the United Nations to step in, although there might be some setbacks since both America and Russia sit on the Security Council. That being said, America and Russia do have common interests in Syria, and the states indirectly confessed ownership of the Syrian problem Munich. There is a high chance for cooperation in this situation.

For Saudi Arabia, having sanctions pressed against them in order to better their foreign policy will not work. The state is number one in oil exports internationally, and for it to be sanctioned (mainly by any of the five superpowers) would devastate the economies. Temporary sanctions might work though, but it should only be used if Saudi Arabia retreats to the sectarian war as a way to cover the failures of their policies. This could turn into a combative issue, but it will force the state to take action on its own mistakes, which in turn will make peace within the sectarian turf. Having organizations go in to solve the sectarian problem instead of the military is less harsh and does not impose a threat. Military presence can invoke a feeling of retaliation, regardless of whether they are a national or international team.

Personally, based off Russia and America’s admission of making Syria a playground for their own war, as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia’s multiple attempts at calling a truce over the past few weeks, I don’t see a reconciliation happening so soon. Reforming a traditional state cannot happen in a matter of days. If trained groups were to enter the states in question to try and recoup the people mentally, it would proceed to solve the Syrian issue, but not the internal matters of Saudi Arabia or Iran. Iran is somewhat rising from the mess already, as it is now apart of an international nuclear program. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, fears that this leverage will replace the kingdom as a regional hegemon. The drive to maintain their position in the regional scope will always be their number one priority. As stated by both Saudi Prince bin Salman and Iranian foreign minister Zarif, the states are willing to put their differences aside to end the conflict in Syria. However, once that issue is settled, the issue of vulnerability between Saudi Arabia and Iran will still persist.

In situations like this, communication is a better tool to be used to work it out. Resorting to violence to solve violence will only make the problem more violent, to be put into simpler terms. Although this would take a longer time to solve, being more liberal and using peaceful human interaction to separate violence from the life of the everyday citizen will bring about peace and prosperity within the states in question.

Neelam Champaneri


The Organization for World Peace