The contradiction between Saudi Arabia and Iran is deeply rooted. It is not only a structural contradiction in Middle East politics, but also bears the historical grievances between the Arab nation and the Persian nation, and between Sunnis and Shiites of Islam for more than a thousand years. Understanding the historical latitude and longitude of Shay’s contradictions will help us understand the historical and practical significance of Shay’s reconciliation.
The beginning of a thousand years of grievances
Although the history of Iran and Saudi Arabia as modern countries is less than a hundred years old, the ethnic and religious conflicts between the two sides have been going on for nearly 1400 years. The Persian Empire, the predecessor of Iran, can be traced back to the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BC) established by Cyrus the Great, which was later destroyed by the Macedonian Empire, and then Iran entered the Hellenistic period. In the 3rd century AD, the Persians established the powerful Sasanian Dynasty, and it was the Arab Empire that rose in the 7th century AD that destroyed the Sasanian Dynasty.
After the Persians converted to Islam, they chose the Shiite sect of the two major sects of the religion. In Islam, the initial core difference between the mainstream Sunnis and the marginalized Shiites lies in the way the Islamic Prophet Muhammad Caliph (successor) was produced: the Sunnis advocate the selection of worthy men through elections, Shiites maintain that Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was the first legitimate caliph.
During the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 AD) of the Arab Empire, the Persian region was marginalized within the empire. During the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258 AD), with the center of the empire moving eastward from Damascus to Baghdad, the more advanced Persians at that time occupied an important position in the bureaucratic system of the Arab Empire. However, in the view of the Sunni conservatives and radicals of later generations, it was the Persians who went deep into the Arab Empire and “corroded” it, which made the empire deviate from the “right way” of Islam, and eventually led to its own decline and disintegration. perish. This is also the historical reason why the Wahhabi sect, which emerged in the Arabian Peninsula among the Sunni sects of Islam, regards Shiites as “disobedients” who deviate from religious orthodoxy.
In 1258, after the demise of the Mongol Empire by the Abbasid Dynasty, both the Arab world and the Persian region entered a chaotic period of local dynasty separatism until the rise of the Ottoman Turkish Empire (1453-1923) and conquered most of the Arab world. During this period, the Safavid dynasty (or translated Safavid dynasty, 1501-1736) and the Qajar dynasty (1779-1921) were successively established in Persia. Mamism is the state religion. In 1925, the Qajar Dynasty was replaced by the Pahlavi Dynasty. In the Arabian Peninsula, the Saudi family has been seeking to establish an independent country free from the rule of the Ottoman Empire since the 18th century, and finally established an alliance with the Wahhabis in 1932. The traditional monarchy of theocracy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia . As the “Guardian of the Two Holy Lands” of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has regarded itself as the leader of the Arab-Islamic world since its establishment, and strongly opposes Shiites.
The initial stage of overall controllable contradictions
From 1932 to 1979, although there were many contradictions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the relationship between the two sides was generally controllable and no serious conflicts occurred.
In 1929, in order to achieve mutual recognition, Iran and Saudi Arabia negotiated, but because the Saudi Ikhwan organization destroyed the Holy Sepulcher, which has close ties with Shia-Persia, which triggered confrontation between the two sides, Iran therefore refused to recognize Saudi Arabia. However, after the official establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, Iran and Saudi Arabia established diplomatic relations.
Due to religious differences, Saudi Arabia and Iran soon fell into the first crisis of severing diplomatic relations in the 1940s, and then restored diplomatic relations under the mediation of the United States. In addition, at that time, Iran also proposed sovereignty claims to Bahrain, which was not yet independent, which was strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia, and the struggle between the two sides for dominance in the Gulf region was beginning to emerge.
In the early days after World War II, Saudi Arabia, which was prudent, did not have a close relationship with the United States. It even expressed resistance on issues such as the establishment of the “Middle East Command” advocated by the United States and Britain, and the planning of the Baghdad Pact Organization. collective defense system. Iran, on the other hand, officially joined the Baghdad Pact after the West established it in 1955, a move that was criticized by Saudi Arabia. At that time, the secularization policy that the Shah of Iran’s Pahlavi Dynasty tried his best to promote also aroused Saudi Arabia’s disgust.
A Decade Towards All-Out Confrontation
In 1979, after the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the overthrow of the Pahlavi Dynasty, the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran pursued an internal and external strategy of “no East, no West, only Islam”. At that time, Iran regarded Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries as the primary targets of “exporting revolution”, which led to a full-scale confrontation in Saudi-Iranian relations.
At the level of ideology and political system, Saudi Arabia and Iran have launched mutual attacks. Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, believes that Saudi Arabia’s autocratic monarchy does not conform to the spirit of Islam and should be overthrown through the Islamic Revolution. At the same time, he also denies that Saudi Arabia has the status of “protector of the Holy Land”. Similarly, Saudi Arabia strongly accused Khomeini’s Islam of being “heretical.” On a realistic level, Saudi Arabia and Iran have launched a comprehensive confrontation around “exporting revolution” and “resisting revolution”. In 1979, the Shiites in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia protested against the Saudi royal family and caused serious violent conflicts and riots, while the Shiite protests and demonstrations in Kuwait and Bahrain were also very active. Under the influence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Islamic political opponents in Saudi Arabia and other countries are rising day by day, posing a serious threat to national security.
At the same time, Iran’s “export of revolution” to Iraq was an important reason for the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Although there is also a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime competing for the leadership of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia chose to support Iraq in the face of the “Iranian threat”. According to statistics, during the Iran-Iraq War, Saudi Arabia provided Iraq with as much as 30 billion U.S. dollars in aid. Under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait also established the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 1981. Its important goal is to guard against Iran and maintain collective security. In addition, after the outbreak of the Afghan War in 1979, in the face of Iran’s continuous expansion into Afghanistan and Central Asia, Saudi Arabia adopted a policy of supporting the Taliban forces in Afghanistan through cooperation with Pakistan. One of its purposes is still to check and balance Iran.
Against the background that the two sides are moving towards full-scale confrontation, Saudi Arabia and Iran have once again broken off diplomatic relations. In 1987, 402 pilgrims were killed in a clash in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, including 275 Iranians. Angry Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran, killing a Saudi diplomat. In April 1988, Saudi Arabia announced the severance of diplomatic relations with Iran.
On April 12, 2023, the Iranian delegation arrived in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, to prepare for the reopening of the embassy and consulate. The picture shows the first opening of the former Iranian embassy in Saudi Arabia in seven years.
Iran takes initiative to improve relations
Khomeini died in 1989, and Khamenei succeeded Iran as supreme leader. During the period of President Rafsanjani’s administration from 1989 to 1997, due to domestic economic difficulties and the disastrous impact of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran eased its foreign policy and made improving relations with the Gulf Arab countries a top priority. . After the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Iraq in 1990, Iran resumed diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1991. Since then, relations between Iran and Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and other countries have also improved. During the Gulf crisis and the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Iran also maintained a neutral position to avoid intensifying conflicts with the Gulf Arab countries.
From 1997 to 2005, Khatami, a reformist, was re-elected President of Iran for two consecutive terms. During his administration, Iran promoted economic and democratic reforms internally, and eased its relations with the outside world by promoting “civilized dialogue” externally. In June 1997, shortly after winning the presidential election for the first time, Khatami sent a letter to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, expressing Iran’s willingness to host the eighth summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). In December of the same year, the summit meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference was successfully held in Tehran, the capital of Iran, and Prince Abdullah, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, attended the meeting on behalf of King Fahd. At the same time, more than 30 heads of state and government from more than 50 member states of the organization, as well as leaders of international organizations such as UN Secretary-General Annan and Arab League Secretary-General Majid attended the meeting. This has played an important role in improving Iran’s international image, breaking diplomatic isolation and returning to the international arena.
Since then, high-level exchanges between Iran and Saudi Arabia have continued to increase. For example, in February 1998, former Iranian President Rafsanjani visited Saudi Arabia; in May 1999, Prince Sultan, the second crown prince of Saudi Arabia, visited Iran; in May 1999, Iranian President Khatami visited Saudi Arabia. Iran’s president visits Saudi Arabia for the first time in years. Frequent high-level mutual visits have also greatly promoted the development of economic, trade and cultural exchanges between the two sides. In 1998, Saudi Arabia increased the number of Iranian pilgrims from 60,000 to 85,000; the flight from Tehran to Jeddah, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia, which had been interrupted for 15 years, was also resumed; Cooperation agreements in the fields of education, science and technology.
The Iraq war brings the two sides into confrontation again
With the outbreak of the Iraq War in 2003, the situation in the Middle East, especially the Gulf region, changed dramatically, and sectarian conflicts became increasingly serious. After the outbreak of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011, geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East were superimposed with ethnic and sectarian conflicts, which led to the re-intensification of Saudi-Iranian conflicts, and the relationship between the two sides returned to a state of full-scale confrontation. The contradictions and confrontations between Shah and Yi during this period can be roughly divided into the following two stages.
The first stage is from the outbreak of the Iraq War to the so-called “Arab Spring”. After the Gulf War broke out in 1991, the United States established its hegemony in the Middle East. Subsequently, the Clinton administration of the United States adopted the Middle East policy of “promoting peace talks in the west and containing Iran and Iran in the east”, which kept the relationship between Iran and the Gulf Arab countries relatively balanced. However, after the 9.11 incident, the United States successively launched the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which seriously damaged the balance of power in the Gulf region, leading to the intensification of the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the strategic confrontation. After the United States launched these two wars, the Saddam regime in Iraq and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which were able to check and balance Iran at that time, were overthrown by the United States. Iran’s strategic environment has improved significantly and its rapid rise has made Saudi Arabia very worried. In addition, in the process of post-war reconstruction in Iraq, the Iraqi Shiites, who were deeply influenced by Iran, became the leading force in the country, which made Iraq the hub of the so-called “Shiite Crescent Belt”. At the same time, the exposure of Iran’s nuclear program in 2002 and its continuous advancement of nuclear technology development, the tough diplomacy pursued by Iran during the period of Ahmadinejad’s presidency from 2005 to 2013, and the slowdown of the US Obama administration’s policy towards Iran all greatly stimulated the Saudi strategic anxiety.
The second phase started in 2011. At this stage, the confrontation between the two sides has the characteristics of camp, sect and agency. One is camping. In 2016, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran again because of the execution of Shia cleric Nimrah in Saudi Arabia. In 2017, Saudi Arabia also severed diplomatic relations with Qatar due to its “support of terrorism”. Around these issues, many Arab countries chose to follow Saudi Arabia, cut off diplomatic relations with Iran and Qatar, and joined the anti-terrorism alliance led by Saudi Arabia. Iran is believed to expand its influence in the region by supporting Shia forces such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria’s Bashar regime, Yemen’s Houthi armed forces, and Bahrain’s political opposition. Great camp. The second is sectarianization. In countries such as Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran are widely believed to support the Sunni and Shia forces respectively, which has led to the sectarianization of Saudi-Iranian confrontation and regional hotspot issues, and has become the source of conflicts in Yemen and Syria. One of the reasons for the intensification of regional conflicts. The third is agentization. Saudi Arabia and Iran are considered by the outside world to be “agents” of the United States and Russia respectively, and the two countries have their own “agents” in the Middle East. As a result, regional hotspot issues have been dragged on for a long time.
Successful Practices of China’s Global Security Initiative
Since 2021, against the background that the situation in the Middle East has generally tended to ease, the two sides, which have been trapped in a strategic overdraft in domestic and foreign affairs, have shown signs of easing relations, and have conducted several rounds of dialogue in Iraq, but have never been able to achieve a breakthrough. With the frequent high-level interactions between China, Saudi Arabia and Iran in recent years, the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Saudi Arabia and Iran has continued to deepen, adding to the long-term friendship and mutual trust between China and the two countries. A settlement was eventually achieved in Beijing.
Although Saudi Arabia and Iran have an endogenous drive to improve relations, China has undoubtedly played an important role in the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two sides. This is also a successful practice of the “Global Security Initiative” proposed by China in 2022. Comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security concept”. The Shah-Iraq reconciliation has not only led to the easing of international relations in the Gulf and even the Middle East, but is also changing the regional political structure and strategic features characterized by conflict and confrontation for a long time, making China’s long-term promotion of peaceful development, consultation and dialogue, tolerance and mutual learning and other diplomatic concepts and Practice has become a common choice of regional countries, and is expected to make peace and development a regional trend.