An AsrIran article penned by Reza Ghabishavi examines Tehran-Riyadh relations: Following Rouhani’s victory in the elections, Saudi Arabia welcomed this win and expressed a willingness to cooperate with Iran. The Saudi king published a congratulatory message to Rouhani and expressed satisfaction with his efforts to improve relations. For his part, Rouhani, at his first press conference, placed particular emphasis on ties with Riyadh, which was positively received in Riyadh and led to a statement of Saudi willingness to cooperate with the President Elect. Relations between the two countries can be examined on several levels:
A) All countries in the region are subject to Iranian and Saudi patronage – Why are Iran-Saudi ties so important? Iran and Saudi Arabia are the two most important poles in the region. The two countries have the greatest economic and political potential in the area. Saudi Arabia is the leader of the Sunnis, while Iran is the leader of the Shiites. Every country in the region is, in one manner or another, under the patronage of one of the countries. The nature of the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia therefore affects not just the national interests of the two countries, but positively or negatively impacts the other countries in the region.
B) Ahmadinejad damaged the solid basis laid by the reformist governments for Iran-Saudi relations – Iran’s relationship with Saudi Arabia during and before the Ahmadinejad regime: At the end of the Iran-Iraq War and during Rafsanjani’s presidency, relations between Tehran and Riyadh improved, and the foundation was laid for good relations. In the first months following the victory of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, the then Saudi Crown Prince and now Saudi King attended the conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Tehran. This was the only visit by the Saudi Crown Prince in the past 34 years. During his term in office, Khatami managed to improve relations to the highest level since the Islamic Revolution to date. The bilateral cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia managed to positively affect regional issues and even resolved some global issues such as oil prices. When Ahmadinejad took office, ties and cooperation between Tehran and Riyadh were excellent. During his first visit to Riyadh, Ahmadinejad was warmly received by then Saudi Crown Prince. Time has proven though that Ahmadinejad was unable to appreciate these good relations and that he was on a path to conflict and confrontation. During his eight years in office, Ahmadinejad clashed with Saudi Arabia. He believed that one-way trips, ignoring statements made by Iranian officials, would allow him to maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia. He never rejected any invitation to visit Saudi Arabia, visiting the country an unprecedented five times. Saudi Arabia, however, sent only one official to Iran, the Saudi Foreign Minister. Iran and Saudi Arabia relations were extremely tense during Ahmadinejad’s regime, a period that began following the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip in 2008 and that continued and worsened with tension in Iraq, the Israeli attack on Lebanon, the revolution in Egypt and Bahrain and the civil strife in Syria. Iran and Saudi Arabia clearly stood on opposite sides of the fence.
C) The current state of relations and the most critical problems - As long as relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain poor, tensions in Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq will not end. There will be no improvement in Iran’s ties with Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, and ties between Iran and Morocco will not be renewed. (Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran after it discovered that Iran was operating Shiite cells in the country). The two countries battled over various issues: Yemen, which is supported by Saudi Arabia, while Iran supports the demands of those seeking independence in the south and the armed opposition (Shiite) in northern Yemen. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia supports the (Sunni) government, which is suppressing protests, while Iran supports the (Shiite) opposition to the government. The same holds true in Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon. Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia supports the UNSC and 5+1 position. In terms of the bilateral ties between the countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia accuse each other of meddling in the other’s internal affairs, etc.
D) Improvement in relations with Saudi Arabia - Rouhani will take over the presidency at a time when Iran is coping with numerous and important challenges in foreign policy. In order to resolve the problems and the many issues facing the region and the world, it must establish good ties with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, which finds itself in a weaker position in the region, particularly in light of the fact that its allies are not in a good position, also welcomes relations with Iran.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are strong neighbors in an important region. Both have vast potential. If this potential is channeled towards joint interests, the condition of both countries and of neighboring countries will undoubtedly improve. Iran can, with Saudi consent, improve not only its relations with nations of the region, but impede the speed at which sanctions are being implemented against it in addition to preventing a flare-up with some of the countries in the region.