Iran-Saudi confrontation also sometimes referred to as the Persian-Arab conflict had deep historical roots that go back to the conquest of Persia by the Rashidun Caliphate in the 7th century resulting in the fall of both the Sasanian Empire and the Zoroastrian religion.
Thus this term, Persian-Arab or Iran-Saudi conflict as nowadays used collates within itself the centuries-old ethnic, political, economic, and cultural rivalries in its fold.
While Iran after its Islamic Revolution of 1979 advocated for the unity of Muslim Ummah with leverage to the Shia sect of Islam whom its supports as well as which is its state religion also.
Saudi Arabia claims to be the Guardian of Two Holy places, Makkah and Madinah, with a worldwide propagation of Wahhabi Sunni Islam made these two Middle Eastern countries arch rivals of each other taking every step and stratagem for their interests.
Rich in Oil and Gas
Both countries are rich in fossil fuels which are a main source of their economies and income.
According to 2023 estimates, with a 1.061 trillion GDP, Saudi Arabia is the 18th largest country in the world with a $29922 per capita income hence ranking in 43rd position in the world.
Iran’s $368 billion with a $4252 for 2023 statistics, puts it on 43rd and 120th positions worldwide for GDP and per capita income respectively.
Iran till 1979
The 20th century was a century of roller coaster for Iran. At the beginning of the century, the ailing Qajar King, Muzaffar al-Din Shah was forced by his countrymen for a constitution and constitutional form of government which he reluctantly granted to them.
The Russian invasion with the tacit support of England in 1911 resulting in the dissolution of the Iranian Majlis (Parliament) and constitution gave a severe blow to the constitutional and democratic process in the country.
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Reza Shah Pahlavi, previously Reza Khan the military commander, seized power from the Qajar Dynasty
He embarked on the economic development of his country by constructing a Trans-Iranian Railroad tying up the Persian Gulf in the south of Iran crossing the whole country and then joining Armenia in the north.
From there it would then enter Georgia, Bulgaria, and Greece, and finally into the European Union. Thus, linking the Persian Gulf with the Black Sea.
Shah also initiated several social reforms for the uplift of Iranian society.
His close ties with Germany made him fear for the Allies during WWII. Although he declared the neutrality of Iran during War yet Allies compelled him to abdicate the throne in favor of his son, Muhammad Reza.
The former King died in exile in 1944. The coal and oil reserves of Iran greatly contributed to the success of the British Navy in the War.
The USSR controlled the northern parts of the country while the southern parts were captured by the British and Americans.
The CIA and MI-6 led Operation Ajax for toppling Dr Mossadeq further strained the economic, and political set-up of the country and also tarnished the image of the West and the US in the eyes of Iranians who saw this as direct interference in the uplift of their country.
The social reforms of the King, like his father’s reforms, were not easily swallowed by the conservative Iranian society.
The oil boom and petrodollar further disturbed the situation that finally led to the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
Saudi Arabia till 1979
Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman, commonly referred to as Ibn Saud in Western political and historical literature during the interwar period, is the founding father of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Who formally founded the Kingdom by conquering and uniting the four regions of Nejad, Hejaz, Al-Asha (Eastern Arabia), and Asir (Southern Arabia).
The 30 years series of conquest and defeat, political and economic maneuvering starting with the conquest of Riyadh in 1902 finally ended with the formation of the Kingdom in 1932.
The fate of this absolute monarchy skyrocketed when for the first time oil and gas were discovered in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom on 3 March 1938.
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For half a century (1902-1953), the founding father, Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman, ruled the Kingdom. After his death, his six sons assumed the throne one after the other.
The present Crown Prince and Prime Minister, Mohammad bin Salman, effectively rules the country trying to diversify and modernize the Kingdom according to the Vision of 2030.
The seven decades-long friendship and cooperation between the Kingdom and the US and the West started when King Abdul Aziz for the first time met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the USS Quincy in Suez Canal on February 1945.
It was this assurance of oil supply and the resultant guarantee of security and protection from the Washington side that was solemnly kept by the seven Saudi kings and the twelve US presidents.
The Yemeni civil war of 1962 posed serious threats to the Kingdom. Egypt supported the Republicans while Saudi Arabia helped the Royalists as a strategic asset for its survival.
The Kingdom also gave financial assistance to Egypt, Jordon, and Syria after the Arab-Israel war of 1967 though it did not actively participate in this war.
The military and technical support given by the West and the US to Tel Aviv during the 1973 Arab-Israel war led to the oil embargo of 1973 that was ardently supported by Riyadh.
The three Events
The three events just in the single year of 1979, the Iranian Revolution, the Qatif uprising, and the Grand Mosque seizure in Makkah, made the Kingdom very cautious about its future and it was from this point onward that it inclined more towards the West and the US for its preservation.
The use of religion for politics and other interests is a common phenomenon in human political history.
The papacy hold was started to be disentangled by the Reformation Movement in England and Germany around the 1500s.
The same was practiced both by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The success of the Iranian Revolution spurred other Islamic movements across the globe about their success and viability.
No matter whatever school of Islam they followed or whatever may be their political motives, they became sure that like the traditional, conservative and cultural society of Iran, they could succeed in their mission, too.
Immediately after the Revolution, it was the policy of Tehran to export its revolutionary zeal to the neighboring countries. Supporting the Herat uprising of Afghanistan in March 1979, the formation of Hezbollah for its purposes and so many other elements are counted for Iran interfering in neighboring countries.
In the Shia Crescent of the Middle East, the countries that have a major Shia sect population in them, like Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Pakistan, and western Afghanistan are seen by Tehran as an asset that must be controlled and utilized if the need arises.
West needed an ally
The US and the West also needed a reliable and active member after the fall of the Shah of Iran and to counter the Soviet Union as well during the cold war in the region.
Alarmed by the events of 1979, the Saudi Royal family looked to Ayatollah Khomeini with suspicions which continuously asked for the overthrowing of the Ibn Saudi monarchy.
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In the Iran-Iraq war, the Arab countries supported Baghdad as a curtailing move to Tehran. The Saudi Kingdom lavishly supported the Afghan Jihad through its petrodollars and also exported Sunni Wahhabi Islam to strengthen itself and weaken and isolate Iran in their competition for the leadership of Muslim Ummah.
Tussle within the Middle East
Iran and Russia supports the Bashar Al Assad government in the Syrian civil war since 2015.
While Saudi Arabia, the US, and the West strike the terrorists and pro-Assad installations.
Likewise in the Yemeni civil war, Riyadh supports and intervened for the protection of President Hadi’s government in 2015. While Tehran fosters the Houthi rebels who are fighting against the Hadi-led government of Yemen.
Houthis have also targeted the oil facilities of Saudi Arabia via their drones given to them by North Korea and Iran.
Thus, the two countries are contending for their influence and control in the region through their proxies.
Once called the Twin Pillars of the Middle East stability by Washington are now devising cutting strategies for each other!
Cold War and trade side by side
An interesting point that would surely astonish many of us is that despite their arch-rivalries and cut-throat competition, the US and USSR were close trading partners of each other.
Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Tsarist Russia, being an agricultural country, was a major exporter of food grains.
The forced industrialization of Russia by the Bolsheviks severely affected its agricultural yields until the 1970s when it imported food grains from itself from the US and its allies.
In 1972, the Soviet Union bought one-fourth of the entire US harvest for its food consumption. 19 million metric tons of US grain was imported by Moscow in that single year.
The US-Soviet Grain Agreement of 1975 allowing Moscow to buy 8 million metric tons of US grain each year was unilaterally cancelled by President Jimmy Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.
The Republicans and farmers protested over this trade cancellation chastising the Democrat President Jimmy Carter for using this as a move to win the presidential election of 1980. However, President Ronald Reagan lifted this embargo in April 1981.
While the Soviet Union imported grain from other Western countries including those who were the campers of Washington.
Does Interdependency always succeed?
Economic Interdependence or what is commonly called Globalization is the interlinking of world countries for their trade and business activities which makes them dependent on each other whether they have good or bad relations with each other. This is not something new in human history.
The Silk Road linked Asia with Europe in the middle Ages.
While the Achaemenid and Greece Empires have relations with other countries and regions that in turn have their close links with both danger-drawn empires.
All countries and states are interdependent they shop from each other shop!
But sometimes it happens that the geopolitical, geo-economic tensions ignite a spark that destroys everything.
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The Two Great Wars charred the whole world even though all the belligerents were closely linked in economic spheres with one another.
The US-China trade despite so many tense factors like Taiwan, AUKUS.
India, and China reviving trade ties after their border skirmishes in the Himalayan region.
Russia Ukraine grain deal during the war.
China and the Afghan Taliban consensus to explore mineral resources of Afghanistan regardless of Beijing’s grievance that the Taliban are tacitly supporting the Uyghur insurgents in the Xinjiang.
Exemplifying these samples clearly illustrates that countries can go ahead with trade and business even if they have regional, political, and strategic issues with each other.
The 152 countries, out of the total world’s 195 countries, are developing ones that have mutual issues with each other for one reason or another.
Their peace and progress could only be maintained and developed by their interdependency through trade and business.
Tehran Riyadh Rapprochement, a mixture of hope and fear
On 6 April 2023, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al Saud met with his Iranian counterpart, Hussein Amir-Abdollahian, in Beijing agreeing to resolve issues and restore their ties for the betterment of their countries and region as a whole. Though there is much hope hinged on this restoration around the world, only time would tell at which level the sincerity and seriousness of these two Middle Eastern countries for peacefulness and advancement of this eruptive region was!!!