Relations between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran have long been strained, but the two countries broke off diplomatic ties after Saudi Arabia executed a Shiite cleric in the New Year.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Sebastian Sons, associate fellows at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, answer five key questions on what this latest conflict between two of the key powers in the Middle East, means.
What historical factors inform the present crisis?
Sebastian Sons: Saudi Arabia has regarded Iran as its most formidable antagonist in the struggle for supremacy in the Gulf ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Moreover, as the Saudis see it, Iran has considerably increased its influence in the region since 2011 – and has done so at the expense of Saudi stability. The Saudi royal family has the impression of being surrounded by Iranian vassal states in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Now, after the establishment of a nuclear deal between Iran and the West, King Salman’s new Saudi government feels let down by partners like the United States, while Iran’s international importance has increased enormously.
Ali Fathollah-Nejad: During the Cold War, Iran and Saudi Arabia formed the twin pillars of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, but this changed abruptly with the Iranian Revolution. From then on, the Islamic Republic of Iran pursued a foreign policy independent from the West. Hence, Tehran entered into conflict with the West, and the U.S. in particular, as well as with pro-Western countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia. In the 1990s, under Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Saudi-Iranian relations were marked by détente. The current Iranian government had similar aspirations, but given the latest escalation they have had to be shelved for the time being.