The Platform


Saudi Arabia is one of the largest political and economic powerhouses in the Middle East. Iran is one of their greatest antagonists as they both present themselves as the singular leader of the Muslim world. They fight each other through proxy wars by supporting different rebel groups, and they have no political relationship. Most people consider them to be in a modern-day cold war, but what does that mean and how did they get there?

Most people reduce the conflict to religious differences between the two countries. They wrongly believe that because the two countries follow different sects of Islam – Iran is majority Shia while Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni, that this creates irreconcilable differences that have caused them to fight for decades. This could not be further from the truth: each country has leveraged the sectarian split as a tool to fight each other, however, there has not always been constant conflict. Thus, the modern-day conflict is driven by politics and power, rather than theology.

In order to trace the origins of this conflict, one must look at the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Before 1979, during the Pahlavi dynasty, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was pro-Western and had support from the United States. However, in 1979 during the Islamic revolution, the Shah was forced out and replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini in a newly formed anti-monarchy theocracy. Iran’s foreign policy became increasingly aggressive and their existence as a nation where the government was supported by the people threatened the stability of the Saudi Arabian absolute monarchy. The Saudi monarchy began to fear that their citizens would revolt and loosen their death grip on control and power.

The conflict first escalated during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. After Iran started gaining ground in the war, Saudi Arabia panicked and started quietly supporting Iraq in order to ensure that Iraq remained the buffer between the two countries. Saudi help allowed Iraq to continue fighting in the conflict until 1988 which resulted in over 1 million people dead. The problem, however, is that Iran blames Saudi Arabia for the war and the deaths that ensued because of it. In 2003, the conflict resurfaced. The U.S. toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, yet failed to replace him. This caused an all-out civil war and a power vacuum in the region that both Saudi Arabia and Iran sought to fill. Sunni and Shia militias started to emerge, many of them extremist groups, and Saudi began sending weapons and money to the Sunni groups and Iran did the same to Shia groups. It is important to note that before 2003, both Sunni and Shia Iraqis lived peacefully and coexisted despite the Shia majority; however, Iran and Saudi started to exploit sectarian lines and create internal conflict where there previously was none.

In 2011, the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings advocating for more democratic forms of government in countries like Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Egypt, further escalated the conflict. The Saudi government was scared that the overthrowing of governments would inspire Saudis to revolt. As a result, they attempted to restore order and stability by throwing their weight behind less revolutionary forces – mainly Sunni groups and pre-existing governments. Meanwhile, Iran saw the movement as a way to expand Shia interests as many of the former governments had Sunni majorities. Thus, they began backing Shia militant groups that were rising against the Saudi-funded governments. Both countries got involved in Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen. For example, in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is currently leading a military coalition, fighting with their actual military on the ground, against the Houthis, an Iranian proxy group.

In this seemingly unending cold war, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have depended on different allies. Iran is backed by both Russia and China who have invested in the country, while Western sanctions have crushed the economy. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has the support of the Gulf countries, namely Sudan, Egypt, Israel, and most importantly, the United States. Though the U.S.-Saudi relationship has not been perfect, Saudi Arabia continues to be the largest buyer of weapons from the U.S. and the U.S. buys a lot of Saudi oil. These alliances have been increasingly important since 2016 – when Saudi Arabia and Iran officially cut ties: after Saudi Arabia executed prominent Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr (a vocal critic of the Saudi monarchy), Iranian protesters attacked and set ablaze the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Thereafter, all diplomats left each other’s countries and they have not had a formal relationship since.

Now in October 2021, there is some hope that the relationship between the two nations can be restored and that tensions can finally deescalate. Since April 2021, the two nations have been engaged in talks geared towards improving their relationship, and in October, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has claimed that the dialogue is on the right track. During a press conference, he specifically stated, “The two parties will announce these agreements at the appropriate time. We welcome the continuation of the talks and the results that benefit both sides and the region.” The statement has left many wondering if the beginning of a new relationship between the two nations can finally stabilize the region.

Beyond their sectarian differences and quest for power, the two nations have a lot in common. Saudi and Iranian oil accounts for 35.5% of OPEC reserves. Thus, both nations seek to stabilize oil prices in order to secure their economies. Furthermore, both countries seek to have stronger relations with the European Union – which they view as a more stable partner than the U.S., Russia, or China. Though so much still remains up in the air and only time will tell the future of Iran-Saudi relations, it is clear that it is in the best interest of each country, regional stability, and international security that the two nations reconcile.

Emma Zafari is a current rising junior in high school, where she started the Serve and Learn club which aims to provide meals to families of terminally ill children at hospitals across Los Angeles.