Children around the region were once taught that the Arab-Israeli conflict was its biggest problem. Now we are discovering that the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia has the potential to be a worry of greater magnitude. The two countries are at loggerheads over ideology, strategy and their respective roles in the region.
Saudi Arabia is fed up with Iran meddling in Arab affairs in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Since the unseating of the shah 37 years ago, the Arab world has hoped that Iran would reconcile with its neighbours. Much to its disappointment, the region realises that after the signing of the nuclear deal with the West, Iran is more determined than ever to mess with Arab societies.
Put simply, Iran wants to be a regional superpower. It wants to create a formidable crescent of influence from Tehran and Baghdad to Damascus and Beirut.
Iran's superiority complex has only appeared to harden over the years. When the shah was ruling Iran he wanted to become the Gulf’s policeman. Iran also occupies three UAE islands in the Strait of Hormuz.
While the UAE has favoured diplomacy to settle this disagreement, Iran has refused to engage. Likewise, Iran claims that Bahrain is Iranian and Tehran seeks to assert its unpopular will on any occasion it can.
History shows many different phases in Iranian relations with the region. Other than during the presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani (from 1989 to 1997) and Mohammad Khatami (from 1997 to 2005), Saudi-Iranian relations were peaceful and cooperative.
Diplomatic relations stretch back to the late 1920s, when Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, formalised relations with the founder of the Saudi dynasty King Abdulaziz ibn Saud. Both men were able to unify their countries – albeit through different templates.
Reza Shah and his son after him played the national Iranian card more than religion. As a matter of fact they both persecuted the clergy. King Abdulaziz favoured building partnerships with the Sunni religious establishment.
The Iranians are impossibly jealous of Saudi control of Mecca. They have often tried to smear the kingdom by saying it does not adequately protect the safety of incoming pilgrims, but history tells us something different.
In 1943 an Iranian pilgrim desecrated the Kaaba in Mecca. This incident ruptured relations between Riyadh and Tehran for years. Incidents between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police happened during Haj in 1987 and 2015, when hundreds of Iranians died. A diatribe of Iranian accusations towards Saudi Arabia followed on both occasions.
The attack on the Saudi embassy last week can be considered as part of a plan to stir up trouble in Yemen and Syria and, particularly, at future Opec meetings.
Iran wants to reduce global oil production, wait for the easing of sanctions and hope for an oil price increase this year. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is fulfilling its commitment to maintain the flow of oil to international markets, even though lower oil prices have had a knock-on effect on government spending. As politics and economics mix, the Iranian strategy squeezes any room for compromise with Tehran.
Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Brigade, enjoys support from supreme leader Ali Khamenei in his task of propping up the Assad regime in Syria, as well as providing assistance to its friends in Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq. At the moment, the possibility for reconciliation appears slight. For that to happen Iran would have to start acting as a responsible country that maintains relations with its neighbours based on respect and national sovereignty.
Iran’s chief political players may be better served by looking inwards and attempting to improve the lot of their hard-pressed citizens rather than seeking to export revolution to others. Their tactics of destabilisation and meddling do not serve them well. They do not encourage cooperation, respect or recognition. On the contrary, they encourage defiance and hatred.
Maha Samara is a journalist in Beirut