Article by our correspondent KJ
Tehran, August 25th 2014
THIS ARTICLE IS BASED ON AN INTERVIEW CONDUCTED WITH MR. MEHRDAD KIAEI, DIRECTOR
PERSIAN GULF STUDY GROUP OF THE INSTITUTE FOR POLITICAL AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES
(IPIS), TEHRAN – IRAN
Throughout times, with much ups and downs, we can observe a strained relationship
between Iran and Saudi Arabia. There are many theories to explain this strained
relationship. Some of these theories are based on the following observations :
– religion : Sunni (Wahabbism) in Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Islam in the Islamic Republic of
– Political influence : both states being a regional superpower striving for supremacy in the
– International arena : Saudi Arabia as an U.S.A. ally while Iran following and independent
anti imperialistic course
– A combination of all above
The sometimes strained relationship between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia is in
the first place not a religious conflict between both countries. Although Iran is an Islamic Republic
based on Shi’a Islamist ideology and Saudi Arabia is an Islamic state based on the Sunni branch of
Islam, it is important to stress that Shi’a Muslims and Sunni Muslims are not enemies. The ruling
elite in Saudi Arabia is a small elite consisting of the extended royal family. They identify
themselves to the outside world as the custodian of the two holy shrines Mecca and Medina.
Although the Saudi ruling elite is sometimes using the Wahabbi political discourse as a tool in their
foreign policy, they realise that Wahabbism can and will be a threat against themselves. The
Wahabbis, which are geographically much more spread far above the limitations of the Saudi
Kingdom are trying to install an Islamic caliphate which do not take into consideration the existing
national borders. From this point of view they also represent a direct threat to the Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia and its ruling elite.
The rivalry between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is more
connected with ideological matters of how to give shape to an Islamic State. It’s about legitimacy.
About who represents the true Islamic governance. Saudi Arabia with its small elite representing
themselves as the guardians of the two holy shrines or the Islamic Republic of Iran with its own
ideology based on the teaching of Shi’a Islam and being a popular democracy. In this regard the
rivalry between both states is a regional rivalry based on legitimacy.
There is although an international dimension to it as Saudi Arabia is using a lot of petrodollar
diplomacy to gain the support of its international allies, mainly the Arab States around the Persian
Gulf and it’s main Western ally the United States of America, in its struggle of legitimacy.
Is Syria experiencing a proxy war nowadays between Saudi Arabia on the one hand which
is logistically, financially and military supporting the extremists groups in its fight against
the Syrian government and on the other hand Iran which is allied with the Assad
government and Hezbollah in Lebanon?
There has always been a kind of disagreement between the Syrian government led by the Syrian
Ba’ath Party which has a secular character and socialist roots and the Islamic nature of the Saudi
Kingdom. This wide divergence has throughout modern history always caused limits in reciprocal
good relationships between the two countries. There are also other causes nowadays and in
recent history as the way how to handle the Palestinian case and, during the Iran – Iraq war (1980 –
1988), Syria’s support for Iran which brought it in direct confrontation with a majority of Arab Sates
including Saudi Arabia. The essence of the bad relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia is the
totally opposite ideological nature and foundations of Syria and Saudi Arabia with Saudi Arabia
making use of the events in Syria to expand its influence. Saudi Arabia is of course well aware of
the strategic relationship between Tehran and Damascus but it’s not as much a proxy war as the
Saudi actions are in the first place directed against the Syrian government itself and not against the
Islamic Republic of Iran.
What is the exact relationship between ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), now using the
abbreviation I.S. (Islamic State) and Saudi Arabia? My personal opinion is that ISIS was
created or at least supported by Saudi Arabia to defeat the Assad government but things
spiralled out of control with ISIS now being a uncontrollable monster and possibly
becoming a threat for Saudi Arabia itself. What is your idea about this theory?
Saudi Arabia is using ISIS as a tool to gain certain political goals but as explained before this is a
dangerous game as ISIS is in the same time a threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its ruling
elite. One can say that Saudi Arabia may support ISIS as long as it’s a tool to reach its goals
abroad but once ISIS will become so strong that they become a direct threat to Saudi Arabia itself
their support for ISIS will certainly stop.
Was the attack from ISIS against Iraq, still a weak state with weak state institutions more
than 10 years after the U.S. Led invasion, predictable? For a lot of people this seemed as
being a surprise but for me it was a quite a logical and predictable action as the Syrian
national army is proving to be, after more than 3 years of war, a formidable foe and Iraq,
also being regarded as an Iranian ally, an easier victim.
Yes, the ISIS offensive in Iraq was quite logical and predictable. ISIS originates and grew in Iraq as
an offshoot of al Qaeda but has now become a force in itself. With the events taking place in Syria
starting in 2011 ISIS launched an offensive against the Syrian government. But they had no
popular support there. So after an initial failure in Syria they took advantage of the vulnerable
situation in Iraq. They were helped in this strategy by two elements present in Iraq. First of all there
was a deep discontentment of the Sunni population against the policies of former prime minister
Nouri al Maliki. Secondly, there are the remnants of the dissolved former Iraqi Ba’ath Party and it’s
army officers which are more numerous and better organised than most people realise. Although
ISIS and the remnants of the Iraqi Ba’ath party are natural foes, they work now together trying to
topple the government in Bagdad. But one can be sure that this cooperation will have a temporary
character as the opposite ideological nature of ISIS with its Wahhabi and Salafist roots and the
secular Ba’ath party will come into conflict as soon as their common cause has been achieved or
even sooner. We probably will see in the future a conflict breaking out between today’s allies ISIS
and the Iraqi Ba’ath members.
It’s also important to realise that the majority of the Sunni community is strongly opposed to the so
called flavour of political Islam as propagated by ISIS. Their savagery and excesses are
contradicting the real Islamic values. Their rule in the areas which are under their control is based
on fear and terror, not on popular support. This explains why ISIS is constantly on the move
directing their focus from one place to another. They have no popular support and local
communities are organising to defend themselves and get rid of this terrorist plague. So, it is a
wrong perception to describe the actions of iSIS as a battle between Sunni and Shi’a. Both Sunni
and Shi’a are opposed to ISIS and what is stands for.
Do you think that Saudi Arabia was aware of the ISIS assault on Iraq or did it come as a
surprise for them too? Do you think Ryad should be worried of a regional spread of this
terrorist offensive and of becoming a target itself?
It’s difficult to say if Saudi Arabia was aware of the ISIS assault on Iraq or not. In any case, some
institutions in Saudi Arabia are using ISIS as a political tool for the moment but it’s also 100% sure
that the Saudi Government is aware of its own vulnerability. They tolerate ISIS as long as they stay
outside of the Saudi Kingdom but once ISIS becomes a real threat against the Kingdom itself they
will for sure retract all support to ISIS and will fight them themselves.
Do you see in the near future an improving of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia vis à
vis the common threat in the region? Some media speak already about the creation of new
alliances as a result of the current situation which were a few months ago unthinkable with
Iran and the U.S now on the same site with regard to ISIS both faced with a common enemy.
Do you think that such a rapprochement is also possible between Iran and Saudi Arabia? A
regional alliance out of the need to face this common threat?
According to Iran’s foreigns policy ISIS as well as other problems in the region should be tackled
from an international perspective. Iran is cooperating with Saudi Arabia on numerous fields and
relations are improving but the aspect of terrorism in the region needs a much broader platform of
cooperation. Not only between Iran and Saudi Arabia but between all regional states and even on
a world scale.
Concerning Iran’s relations with the United States, there is a need to build trust between each
other and the nuclear file is a good test case to see if the rapprochement between the U.S.A. And
Iran is sincere. If the nuclear file can be resolved in a satisfactory way and the sanctions against
Iran are lifted one can study the next stage of cooperation. It all depends on the future attitude of
the U.S. with regard to Iran. If the U.S. are sincere and will true fully respect Iran.
Also Qatar is supporting the extremist groups active in Syria with financial aid and
providing them with weapons. Qatar is openly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and this
took them on a collision course with Saudi Arabia which stands for a Salafist form of Islam.
Saudi Arabia, as other Arab Persian Gulf states, even recalled their ambassador in Qatar.
How would you describe relations between Iran and Qatar especially in perspective of the
Relations between Qatar and Iran are good and both states are closely working together on
numerous fields, including the energy sector. There may be some differences but these are not
threatening the fundamental good relations between Iran and Qatar.
The reality is that Qatar is a very small state in the orbit of influence of Saudi Arabia which is a
regional power broker and that the Saudis are sceptical when a tiny state as Qatar is pursuing its
own foreign policies especially when they differ from the policies of Saudi Arabia.
One of these points of disagreement is Qatar’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. the
Brotherhood has a lot of influence in the Middle East and for Qatar to succeed in expanding its
foreign influence their relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood is essential as it gives the Qatari’s
a leverage to achieve their ambitions. For Qatar the Muslim Brotherhood is a key which opens
many doors in the MENA region. One example was Qatar’s influence in Egypt during the
presidency of President Mursi. It was astonishing to observe the scale of tiny Qatar’s influence in
another Arab superpower as Egypt.
From a Saudi point of view, the Muslim Brotherhood is representing an opponent to its own
supremacy in the region. It’s once again a question of legitimacy of Saudi Arabia representing all
the Muslims and being the custodian of the two holy places of Mecca and Medina. They regard
the Muslim Brotherhood a threat to this supremacy and this explains their animosity against Qatar
supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
Also Iran has, after a short break in the beginning of the Syrian crisis, rebuild a good and
constructive relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. I am referring here to the Israeli
aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza and Iran’s support for the Palestinian
people and the Hamas movement. Iran also strongly supported the presidency of President
Mursi in Egypt.
In the same time the Hamas leadership dropped its support for the Assad government in
Syria and their leadership moved to Qatar. How does Iran cope with this situation as being
an ally to both Syria and Hamas in the same time? Do you think a reconciliation between
Syria and Hamas with the help of Iranian diplomacy is possible in the future?
During the Syrian crisis a lot of mistakes have been made, not only by regional players but also
between the Western countries and Syria. A lot of the upheaval we witness now in the region with
regard to Syria but also Iraq is a result of these mistakes. But slowly things are changing in the
right direction. With the current instability prevalent in the region these mistakes become more and
more clear and also the fact that Syria is needed as an integral part of a comprehensive solution is
becoming more and more acceptable.
On top of this, Syria has always supported the Palestinian people in its struggle against the Zionist
occupation. Even in times the Palestinians were abandoned by other Arab states, Syria remained
faithful to the Palestinian cause. Hamas knows this very well and probably, when the time is ripe,
they will acknowledge this and repair the relationship between Hamas and Damascus.
If things in Iraq and / or Syria will spiral totally out of control, is Iran prepared to intervene
Any intervention in the region should be based on a coalition against terrorism and only by request
and consent and cooperation of the host country. Iran considers it a bad idea to act unilaterally.
The struggle against terrorism can only succeed if al actors in the region work together for the
Also, Iran don’t see an immediate threat coming from ISIS because of several reasons.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the Shi’a teachings while ISIS is claiming to represent the
Sunni’s. ISIS has nothing to look for in Iran as they have zero support here in Iran. They will from
the first attempt be repelled by the Iranian people.
Secondly, Iran has a very strong and powerful army and ISIS is aware of this. It would be suicidal
for them to attack Iran. But referring to the first reason, an attack of ISIS against Iran is purely
hypothetical as they have nothing to gain by attacking Iran, nor militarily nor ideologically.
Jordan and Saudi Arabia are the ones to fear to be the next victim of the ISIS terror. They have a
majority Sunni population and are dealing with widespread discontent from the people with their
respective governments because of economical and social reasons. In such a scenario ISIS can
calculate to obtain a reasonable popular support among these two countries respective
populations. Both countries are well aware of the disastrous implications when getting involved in
What are Iran’s contingency plans if such a scenario would occur… the disintegration of the
Iraqi state, the fall of the Assad government or both?
This is a very hypothetical question as Iran don’t foresee in the near future a political takeover of
the legal government in Syria or Iraq because these terrorist and extremist groups, be it ISIS or
other groups, don’t have wide popular and stable support. Sometimes they make irrational
coalitions as with the former Ba’ath members and officers in Iraq but once they install their
governance in the occupied areas the people are surrendered to the cruel atrocities and harsh
policies of these wicked groups and they start to organise themselves to get rid of them. This
explains why ISIS is constantly on the move. If they are stable and stall still then the problems
begin to rise up. Once they occupy an area and the people see their real faces they get confronted
with local resistance groups fighting the terrorist occupation.
But to go back to the question, if hypothetically the central government in Damascus or Bagdad will
fall, Iran has to adjust its foreign policies to the new situation. The popular groups who are now in
support of Iran’s policies because of rational real politics will still be there and support Iran, with or
without central government. If this happens we will observe a transformation in the region from
nation states into ethnical, religious and social groups. With such a strategic change in the region it
is natural that different players’ strategies will change and new alliances and balance of powers will
appear. According to new dynamics of the region and new realities of the international arena Iran
will rearrange its elements of power. During thousands of years of our history we proved to be able
to manage such crises.
Writer and Analyst on Middle Eastern affairs.
With special thanks to Dr. Mehrdad Kiaei.