Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia hit a particular low point in January when Tehran stirred up sentiment among Shiite hardliners, accusing Riyadh of anti-Shiite policies and sectarian motives in the execution of a dissident Shiite cleric. This led to Iranian mobs attacking the Saudi embassy and consulate, after which the Saudis severed diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, followed by several Saudi allies downgrading their diplomatic relations with Iran as well.
But naturally, sectarian tensions have been pronounced between the two sides throughout much of their modern history. Consequently, a stampede and crush in the Meccan suburb of Mina during last year’s hajj led to political tensions as Iran apparently sought to blame its adversary and take over responsibility for security arrangements affecting future Iranian pilgrims. In May, Iranian authorities announced that they would not be sending pilgrims to this year’s event, out of concern about unresolved issues.
Although each side blamed the other for a failure of such resolution, both also announced that they would be making a new effort to come to an agreement last week. But Saudi Arabia’s latest condemnations are only part of renewed mutual attacks by the two leading Muslim powers as they vie for influence. According to Zee News, the Saudi statements emphasized that in the past Iran has signed memoranda of understanding with 70 other nations regarding the hajj activities, but it refused to do so in this instance in spite of the renewed satisfaction of the other signatories.
While it is certainly possible that this conflict has little to nothing to do with the broader diplomatic and political situation between the two countries, it is also possible that it is an attempt to win points on either or both sides of the sectarian conflict, in which case the hajj disagreement would have significant bearing on the other Saudi condemnations.
Those statements come particularly in response to reports of Iranian-led forces massing around the Islamic State stronghold of Fallujah, Iraq, according to the Associated Press. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir referred to this Iranian presence as “unacceptable,” and called for a halt to Iranian meddling in its western neighbor. Although Iran has rejected such criticisms and has in turn accused the Saudis of supporting “extremism,” Jubeir held a joint press conference with UK Foreign Minister Phillip Hammond in Saudi Arabia to explain how Iranian influence has provoked sectarianism on both sides of the conflict.
This claim was underscored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday, in a news brief indicating that the emerging Iranian offensive in Iraq is a counterpoint to efforts by the US in Syria. The article notes that some US policymakers see Iranian and American interests as converging with regard to the fight against the Islamic State. Nevertheless, the same policymakers recognize severe divergence, as well, particularly insofar as the Shiite makeup of Iranian-backed forces is raising the danger of a “sectarian blood bath.”
This threat is even more recognizable in Syria itself, where Iran has long stood as the primary defensive apparatus for the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which the US and many other world powers have called to be removed as part of a negotiated solution to the Syrian Civil War. Iran has flatly refused any such efforts, leading to criticisms that Iran is responsible for a very large share of the roughly 250,000 casualties in that war.
This criticism was reiterated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in an address to a national rally on Monday. He described the failure to depose Assad as a major contributor to Syrians’ pain, thus reinforcing Turkey’s previous position in the conflict. Turkish backing for moderate rebel groups had led to animosity between Iran and Turkey earlier in the conflict. However, economic interests and a breakdown in Turkish relations with Russia had also recently led the Erdogan government to vigorously pursue improved relations with Iran in other dimensions.
Erdogan’s latest comments arguably undermine this outreach, but they may have also been counterbalanced by the fact that he made a point of criticizing the US at the same time, according to Press Trust of India. This goes to show that while Iranian-Saudi relations have trended almost exclusively in the direction of greater animosity, Iran’s relations with other regional powers, especially potential trading partners, have been much more complicated.
As reported above, many of Saudi Arabia’s political and geographic neighbors joined in responding to expanded Iranian influence by downgrading their relations, but none went as far as severing those relations in the way that the Saudis did. In fact, some powers in the region have eagerly sought new economic relations even in spite of wariness about Iran’s influence on regional and sectarian conflicts.
Just one of the latest examples of this comes in the form of Omani announcements, reported in ATW Online, regarding plans to help in the training of new Iranian commercial pilots and to expand the schedule of flights between the two countries. Earlier in May, Turkey and Iran similarly announced the expansion of flights schedules to include some 4,000 over the next six months. While Turkey would no doubt like such plans to benefit both countries’ tourism industries, it is nonetheless true that some Iranian commercial airlines have been linked to well-known arms trafficking operations by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, with potential impact on the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.