Iran: Lovely frenemy of Saudi Arabia


 MAY 05, 2023 – 12:05 AM GMT+3

For decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have competed over supremacy in the Islamic world and for the leadership of the Middle East. (Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç)

For decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have competed over supremacy in the Islamic world and for the leadership of the Middle East. (Illustration by Erhan Yalvaç)

Saudi Arabia signed the peace deal with the upper hand, but it also signifies an effort to legitimize Tehran globally while keeping a weaker rival in the Middle East alive

Anew agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reestablish ties amounts to an attempt by Saudi officials to legitimize Iran in global space after the full-scale isolation of Tehran because an alive but weak regime in Iran provides Riyadh benefits in the Middle East.

In 1960, Mohammad Reza Shah, the last shah of the Imperial State of Iran, wrote to Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal: “Please, my brother, modernize. Open up your country. Make the schools mix women and men. Let women wear miniskirts. Have discos. Be modern. Otherwise, I cannot guarantee you will stay on your throne.”

The table has turned. Today, Saudi Arabia has removed many imposed restrictions against women and dismantled the country’s discriminatory male guardianship. Also, the government has given a wide range of social freedom people have never seen in this country. Today, the Saudi regime is the symbol of attention to social freedom and youth in the Middle East, and Iran feels the danger of collapsing by teenagers and youth protests. The protesters fight for those social freedoms that the shah had given their country more than 43 years ago.

In 1979, the Pahlavi regime collapsed under the full-scale dissatisfaction of Iranians. During the widespread demonstration of people against the shah in 1979, Saudi Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdelaziz Al Saud, in a hasty stance, declared his support for the shah publicly as the rightful ruler of Iran. Finally, shah and his family fled the country, and Khomeini, after 15 years in exile, as the leader of a revolution, returned to Tehran triumphantly on Feb. 1, 1979.

Let us refer again to history: After the controversial presidential election in Iran, the Green Movement evolved from a mass group of angry voters to support the presidential candidate of reformists, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. They believed that the regime had waived their votes. Many people marched against the government and its structure for months in big cities, especially Tehran. Although some Iranian officials condemned Saudi Arabia for aiding opposition figures, the officials of Saudi Arabia were utterly silent about Iran’s protests. It seemed that Saudis had learned lessons from the happenings in Iran.

Mahsa Amini protests

Thirteen years later, following the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in 2022 after being arrested for violating the country’s hijab laws, the government erupted, and people took to the streets. Some analysts called it the beginning of a revolution. More than 500 people have been killed, and some 18,000 arrested. Since Iran in 1979, Tehran has not experienced such protests in decades. However, many Western officials have taken stances against the regime and supported the protesters. Like 13 years ago, Saudi Arabia has been relatively silent about the recent unrest in Iran.

Silence is not always a signal of incuriosity. Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia follows Iran’s latest developments and has recently increased its attention to Iran’s issues. Tehran has accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the unrest in Iran. Iranian officials have asserted that Iran International, a TV channel based in London that closely covered the unrest in Iran completely, was founded and supported by the Saudi government.

Hossein Salami, the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, said that Iran had warned the Saudi government that the media backed by the kingdom is trying to “provoke our youth with propaganda … Be careful of your behavior and control these media. Otherwise, the smoke will be in your eyes. We will finish with you. You entered our internal affairs through these media, but know you are vulnerable. So we told you to be careful.”

Although Riyadh has denied any relations with the media, The Guardian in 2016 reported that a U.K.-based Iranian TV station is being funded through a secretive offshore entity and a company whose director is a Saudi Arabian businessperson with close links to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).

Saudi Arabia cut its ties with Iran in 2016 after attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad. Several years ago, Baghdad-mediated diplomatic negotiations between the two countries started and, after that, stopped with Iran’s demands. Tehran claims that Saudi Arabia has played a role in the mass anti-government protests underway in Iran, multiple Iraqi officials said.

Also, Iranian officials warned Arab countries that any regional instability could be contagious. “I would like to say to Saudi Arabia that our destiny and that of other countries in the region are linked to each other because of us being neighbors. If Tehran decides to punish these countries, their glass palaces will collapse, and they will no longer enjoy stability,” said Esmail Khatib, the head of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. And it seems that Riyadh has received a clear message from Tehran. A month ago, the two sides signed an agreement to reestablish diplomatic ties, including their affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs.

“The region’s countries share one destiny and (have a lot) in common, and this makes it necessary to work together to build a model of prosperity and stability,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud after the agreement, which was made on March 10 in a joint statement with China. The deal has been called across the world an achievement for Tehran and a defeat for Israel. Saudi Arabia, in recent months, was quite silent about Iran’s happenings and now has taken a step to ease Iran’s isolation, a measure against the opposition figures of Iran who want the regime overthrown.

Imagine a powerful Iran in the Middle East, with a strong economy, a powerful military and U.S. support. Would Saudi Arabia like to see Iran in such a position?

However, the Saudi Kingdom benefits from the current situation of its regional rival, Iran. For decades, the two countries have competed over supremacy in the Islamic world and for the leadership of the Middle East. A weak enemy is better than no enemy for Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia likes this Iran. A regime under crippling sanctions has given opportunities for oil markets to Arab countries, and it cannot make a deal with Western countries.

It seems that the Saudis disagree with the overthrow of Iran and the ruling of pro-Western figures in Iran. A new regime with the support of Western countries in Iran could change the balance of power in the Middle East and turn Iran into the region’s superpower, like before. In addition, if Iranians would bring down the authoritarian regime and establish a democratic government, it could be a desired model for the people of Arab countries with a monarchy government system. So, Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are careful about the probable effects of the Iranian regime’s collapse. Saudi Arabian teeth are chattering because the domino effect after the failure of Tehran could be replicated in all of the Middle East.

Reviving nuke deal

The new agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia indicates that Saudi officials have revised the line between undermining Iran and the regime’s collapse. Also, the unsolved case of Iran’s nuclear program is the bargaining chip for Saudi Arabia because the dangers of an unleashed Iran with atomic powers in the Middle East is the leading cause of moving other countries to be a nuclear power. According to some reports, Saudi Arabia recently moved forward to obtain a civilian atomic program and security assurances from the U.S. Moreover, the precondition of Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel is the support of the U.S. for a nuclear program.

A weak Iran with domestic unrest could not revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and other countries could extract their concessions from the conflict between Iran and the U.S. Although the U.S. officials’ recent remarks demonstrate that there is no path forward for the Iran deal, Saudi officials have urged participation in nuclear negotiations and consideration of their stances in talks to revive the JCPOA.

Also, the Arab countries benefit from the danger of Iran’s activities. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries point to Iran as a bad actor in the region. When the world’s attention is on Iran, violations of human rights and the democracy deficit in Arab countries are largely overlooked. Iran’s ambitious behavior has also benefited Israel and has led to the normalization of relations between some Arab countries and Tel Aviv. So, a weak Iran with dozens of unsolved problems, unlike a democratic Iran close to the West, is ideal for Saudi Arabia, Israel and others in the region.

Some analysts believe that the widespread protests in Iran that have shaken the regime forced Tehran, already in a tight position, to sign an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and hit back at Saudi Arabia, which has played a significant role in the recent unrest in Iran. Saudi Arabia has undoubtedly extracted its desired concessions from the agreement, and Riyadh has signed the deal with the upper hand. But at the same time, the agreement amounts to an attempt by Saudi officials to legitimize the Iranian regime in global space and keep alive a weaker rival in the Middle East. Iran is MBS’ favorite regime, and Saudi officials cannot imagine a better regime in Iran to boost Saudi interests in the Middle East.


Journalist and analyst in international affairs and foreign policy, based in Washington, D.C.


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