Saudi Arabia overtook Israel as Washington’s largest purchaser of arms in 2009 and their demand shows little sign of abating. Riyadh-Tehran relations are at their worst since the Saudis were funding Saddam Hussein’s legions to mow down Iranian infantry in the 1980s.
The more recent escalation in tensions can be traced back to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, which tilted Tehran away from the pragmatic foreign policy of presidents Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. President Ahmadinejad’s notion of an assertive Iran, and his trenchant criticism of Israel and the United States, struck an unsettling chord around much of the Islamic world and his invocations of the 12th Imam projected an evangelical Shia’ism which the Saudis detested.
But even if Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continues in his efforts to restrict the president it is unlikely there will be any kind of rapprochement with Riyadh any time soon. The leader’s disquiet with Ahmadinejad derives more from his management of government and choice of advisors than from his role in foreign policy.
Saudi-Iranian tensions were further strained by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, which replaced a Sunni-led regime with one whose leaders are Shia and allies of Tehran. Iraq’s drift into communal strife further enflamed Saudi’s sectarian sensibilities.
For years, pragmatic heads prevailed. Following the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri and even Hezbollah’s military assertion of power over Beirut in 2008, mediation efforts led by Qatar and Turkey were met with a shared sense in Riyadh and Tehran that escalating violence in Lebanon was in neither’s interests.
But a stalemate in international talks over Iran’s nuclear program fueled Saudi belligerence. By April 2008, according to US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, the Saudi ambassador in Washington relayed a plea from King Abdullah that America “cut off the head of the snake”, and last summer The Times newspaper in London reported the Saudis had practiced standing down their air defenses in a test-run for giving Israeli war planes a clear path to Iran’s nuclear facilities. And then came the Arab Spring, whose fires of revolt reached Bahrain, prompting Saudi intervention in February to defend a Sunni monarchy from a Shia majority.
In Syria at least the Saudis see favorable currents in the maelstrom of reform. Change in Damascus could upset relations with Tehran, severing its main logistical link to Hezbollah. Suddenly, there is the prospect of a Sunni-led Syria to counterbalance the Shia dominion in Baghdad.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador, revealed in June a clear, if deniable, outline of the ruling family’s thinking when he said Iran was “very vulnerable in the oil sector”, while “more could be done to squeeze the current government”, as a reduction in oil revenues would cripple Tehran’s finances. He also spoke of Saudi Arabia developing nuclear weapons should Iran do so.
To Saudi chagrin, Iraq has sided with Iran at the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, resisting Riyadh’s efforts to agree to higher quotas to lower prices. Riyadh has also reportedly discussed with Washington increasing its crude supplies to China as a way to lure Beijing into reducing its investment in Iran’s energy sector. It is a high risk strategy and may enflame the situation with no tangible benefit.
Despite increased sanctions the International Monetary Fund reported economic growth in Iran at 3.5 percent in 2009/10 (up from an earlier estimate of 0.1 percent). Further, according to the British Petroleum “Statistical Review of World Energy”, Iran increased production of oil and natural gas in 2010 by 0.9 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively, despite sanctions targeting investment in Iranian energy.
Iran remains resilient and has seen some improvements in its relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan, where US influence is waning. In June Iran’s military commanders declared themselves pleased with the tests of new, medium-range missiles — and the growing Saudi weapons arsenal will no doub tincite Tehran to further reenforce its armament program.
Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for almost two decades and was formerly the Financial Times correspondent in Tehran