Until recently, cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran was considered unthinkable, but recent events suggest that a thaw in relations is more than just possible.
The Middle East is a region embroiled in chaos, conflict, and uncertainty. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Arab Spring that saw the departure of many of the region’s strongmen, and intermittent armed conflict between Israel and Hamas are just a few examples. The odds of democracy replacing the authoritarian regimes that have plagued the region since European colonial powers divided their mandates into independent countries seem grim. Amid the chaos, one relationship stands out as being the key to sustainable peace: that between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Both countries consider themselves preeminent regional powers. Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the Arab world, boasting high oil production and prominence on the world stage. Iran has gained international recognition for its nuclear ambitions and recent negotiations with the United States and others over an interim nuclear deal. Until recently, cooperation between these two rivals for regional hegemony was deemed unfeasible, but events of the past two years suggest that a thaw in relations is more than just possible.
There are many factors underlying sour relations between the two regional rivals. The main cause is their difference in religious ideology: Saudi Arabia adheres to the Sunni branch of Islam, while Iran upholds Shiism. On a geopolitical level, both countries aspire to be the Middle East’s regional powerhouse. Saudi Arabia has long resented Iran for many reasons: its continued support for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Syria’s dictator President Bashar al-Assad, and Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; its recent intervention in Yemen on the side of the Houthis; and its nuclear ambitions. On the other hand, Iran detests Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States and believes it poses a primary threat as its ideological and religious competitor.
Despite these tensions, Saudi Arabia and Iran now have more reasons to cooperate with one another than ever before. The turning point came in June 2013 when Iranians elected the moderate Hasan Rouhani as their president. Rouhani was elected on promises to end economic sanctions, improve relations with the West, and, perhaps more importantly, reduce tensions with Iran’s Arab neighbors. Unlike former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was unpopular with the Gulf monarchies because he constantly flaunted Iran’s regional ambitions, Mr. Rouhani came to power as a more moderate leader. This has given hope to many in Iran and throughout the region of a more harmonious future between the two regional powers.
Saudi Arabia has also recently undergone a change in leadership after the death of King Abdullah, contributing to the sense that new leadership may allow for improved relations. Another reason for cooperation is the interim nuclear agreement still being fleshed out by the United States and others that would limit the nuclear threat posed by Iran. Saudi Arabia may be more inclined to work with a less threatening rival.
Perhaps the most pressing motive for improved relations is the rise of ISIS, which threatens both countries. Iran fears the Sunni Islamic militant group because of its virulent hostility towards Shiism and Assad’s regime in Syria, a key Iranian ally. Saudi Arabia detests ISIS because it fears that the group will expand into the Arabian Peninsula, especially toward the most important holy sites in Islam. Moreover, it is concerned about the possible exploitation of its impressionable and unemployed youth. Given Saudi Arabia is a Sunni state, more extreme Sunni members might welcome the Islamic State, which would pose a grave security problem to the Saudi government. Some conflict between the two countries is to be expected, but the time is now ripe to improve relations given the common threat posed by ISIS. Cooperation will not occur immediately, but it is likely to grow gradually and will be critical for sustainable peace in the region.
Cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is more feasible now than it has ever been. The Middle East is indeed large enough for both to be regional powers, and they must learn to form a collaborative partnership if peace is to prevail. Collective action against the Islamic State—deemed a threat by both countries—should be the first step. By concentrating directly on ISIS, Riyadh and Tehran could work together to build the basis for a broader partnership while fulfilling their own interests. Cooperation between these two regional powerhouses will allow the Middle East to move closer to stability by facilitating a more robust, collective response to the region’s most vexing problems. Saudi Arabia and Iran must manage their differences and work together for any peace to be possible in this volatile region.