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HomeGeopolitical CompassArabian PeninsulaFactors Influencing Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policies towards Each Other

Factors Influencing Iran and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policies towards Each Other

Authors: Somayeh Sadat Moosavian; Zohreh Ghadbeigy; Maryam Jafari

Affiliation: Allameh Tabataba’i University, Islamic Republic of Iran, Tehran

Organization/Publisher: Research Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences

Date/place: March 19, 2022/ Tehran

Type of Literature: Research Paper

Word Count: 9124



Keywords: Foreign Policy, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, Islamic Revolution, Middle East




This paper explores the factors that influence the foreign policies of Iran and Saudi Arabia towards one another at different levels, particularly since the coming to power of Salman bin Abdulaziz. 

The authors begin by analyzing the principles and macro factors of each country’s foreign policies and go on to elaborate on key micro-elements that affect Saudi-Iran ties. They argue that at the macro level, the two countries share a few objectives including economic growth and development, maintaining territorial integrity and national sovereignty. Other factors such as the Hajj pilgrimage, regional balance, political elites, Arab and non-Arab conflicts are briefly addressed in the article. 

In terms of disagreements at the macro-level, Iran and Saudi Arabia adopt varying approaches towards supporting liberation movements as well as relations with the West and the Zionist regime. Saudi Arabia has been a key ally of the U.S. in the region and has taken steps to normalize relations with the Israeli regime, while Iran has for decades resisted the U.S. and the Zionist regime. 


The authors introduce the crisis in Bahrain, the Syrian war, and Iran’s nuclear program as key diverging factors in relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. They argue that, at the micro level, one of the key issues fueling tensions between the two countries has been the Bahrain crisis, which erupted during the ‘Arab Spring’. While the initial wave of popular protests swept across the Arab world, Bahrain quickly became a focal point of confrontation between regional and trans-regional actors, including Iran and Saudi Arabia.


This can be attributed to the fact that Saudi Arabia views Bahrain as its Achilles heel. With its majority Shiite population, Bahrain is geographically adjacent to the Shiite cities of Al-Ehsaa and Qatif in Saudi Arabia, which are also important oil-rich regions. Therefore, any change in the power dynamics in Bahrain has the potential to provoke the Shiite population of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia as such considers Bahrain’s security as its own security and that of the entire Persian Gulf region. Saudi elites fear that any uprising in Bahrain could pose a threat to the stability of the Bahraini monarchy.


In line with these concerns, Saudi Arabia, under pressure from the Wahhabi establishment and driven by its own interests, deployed around 1,000 troops to support the Bahraini royal family. This move was tacitly and explicitly supported by other Persian Gulf monarchies and aimed at countering the popular protests by Shiites in Bahrain. The authors maintain that Saudi Arabia’s objective is to ensure the preservation of the Bahraini monarchy and potentially even annex Bahrain to Saudi Arabia, as it seeks to increase its military presence and influence in the region.


On the other hand, the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken a different approach to the Bahrain crisis. Iran has stressed the need for the Bahraini government to pay attention to the rights and demands of the people. It also strongly objected to the intervention of Saudi and Emirati forces in Bahrain, as it views such actions as undermining Bahrain’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty. Iran has not directly intervened in the Bahraini crisis but has supported a peaceful solution through political means. 


Moving on to the Syrian civil war, the paper describes this conflict as another major source of contention between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Historically, Saudi-Syrian relations have not been close, and there has always been a certain level of competition between the two countries. Syria’s significant influence in Lebanon and its alliance with Iran have never pleased Saudi Arabia.


For Iran, Syria holds great importance. Syria was one of the first countries to recognize the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 revolution. Moreover, during the Iraq-Iran war, Syria did not support Saddam Hussein’s regime, unlike many other Arab countries. Syria’s strategic significance to Iran lies in its policy of confrontation with the Zionist regime. The Syrian government’s alignment with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas has created an axis of resistance against ‘Israel’. Thus, Syria has been a key ally of Iran in the region for over four decades.


The Syrian crisis, therefore, poses a significant security issue for Iran. The victory of the Syrian opposition and the removal of Bashar al-Assad and his government from political power would cause Iran to lose one of its most important allies in the region. It would also weaken the position of resistance against Israel. Understanding Iran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas is incomplete without considering the role of Syria. The risk of Syrian instability extends beyond Syria itself and encompasses the potential loss of Iran’s ability to influence the Arab-Israeli conflict and support its Palestinian and Shiite allies, particularly Hezbollah. Iran’s influence in the region would be diminished, and its security concerns would become more complex.


Conversely, Saudi Arabia has adopted a different approach to the Syrian crisis. Iran supports resistance movements opposing the Saudi government in a bid to counter the jihadist Wahhabis outside its borders and to increase its influence and advance its policies in the region. 

Additionally, the Saudi government is concerned about the progress of Iran’s nuclear program and the evolution of its nuclear fuel cycle. The Saudis view Iran’s acquisition of nuclear technology as a strategy to unsettle the regional order and expand Iran’s influence.


Before the finalization of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Deal, Saudi Arabia adhered to the hostile policies and sanctions imposed on Iran by the P5+1 (five Permanent Members of UN Security Council plus Germany). While maintaining a formally declared neutral stance, Saudi Arabia considered the progress of Iran’s nuclear program a security threat. After the nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia attempted to boycott the JCPOA by seeking ways to undermine it. The Saudis expressed concerns that Iran might reach agreements with the United States on nuclear activities, which could potentially diminish Saudi Arabia’s position as a regional ally in the eyes of the United States.


Since the inception of the Iran nuclear talks with the P5+1, Saudi Arabia has reached out to alternative powers to reduce its dependence on the United States. This has led to closer ties with regional powers such as Turkey and Israel. Saudi Arabia’s concerns about the JCPOA and its alignment with Israel and the Iranian opposition, including the MEK terrorist cult, have further complicated the dynamics of the Saudi-Iranian relationship.


To conclude, the political relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have a long history, shaped by various factors and events. Both countries have pursued foreign policies that reflect their own interests and security concerns. The Bahrain crisis, Syrian civil war, oil prices and supply, and Iran’s nuclear program have all been significant points of contention between the two countries.

Overall, the foreign policies of Saudi Arabia and Iran have become increasingly competitive and conflicting due to regional dynamics and divergent interests. The complex relationship between the two countries reflects the multidimensional nature of their interactions, and encompasses political, economic, religious, and cultural dimensions. Even though the article was written before the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered by China, understanding these dynamics is crucial for analyzing the tensions and conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region and provide a context for a better perception of the resumed relations between the two. 


By: Setareh Sadeqi, CIGA Non-Resident Research Associate



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