The warm reception enjoyed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Saudi Arabia last week during the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) may have given the impression of a Saudi-Iranian detente, but Saudi columnists continue to view Iran as an expansionist country, inherently hostile to the Arab world.
During the conference, King Abdullah proposed establishing a center for inter-denominational dialogue, attempting to bridge the gulf between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Shiite clerics in the eastern city of Qatif reportedly welcomed the initiative, but public attitudes in Saudi Arabia toward Iran are more complex, a mixture of religious tension and ethnic animosity.
In a way, Saudi Arabia and Iran are quite similar. They are both governed by Sharia law and both engage in exporting their version of Islam overseas. However century-old doctrinal differences between Shia Islam, practiced in Iran, and the austere version of Sunni Islam — known as Wahhabism — practiced in Saudi Arabia, have put the two countries on an ideological collision course.
‘If the mullahs of Iran believe they can penetrate the demographic makeup of the Arab region through Shiite extremism, recruiting Shiite believers to serve their expansionist or sectarian agenda, the Sunnis can retaliate by doing the same inside Iran and perhaps more effectively’
Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies, said that Ahmedinejad’s invitation by Saudi Arabia was merely “a grudging acknowledgment of Iran’s stature in the Muslim world” but did not mark a change in Saudi policy towards Iran.
“These two regimes are at each other’s throats over the civil war in Syria, Shiite gains in Lebanon and Iraq, and most importantly, the Iranian nuclear challenge to Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf,” Teitelbaum told The Times of Israel. “This visit does absolutely nothing to change that.”
In the view of many Saudis, the animosity between Arabs and Persians goes back to the early days of Islam. Saudi writer Abdullah Sultan claimed in an op-ed published in the Saudi daily Okaz on July 30 that the Persian race has been harboring a vendetta against the Arabs since its defeat in the battle of Qadisiyyah in the year 633 CE, when the invading Arab armies imposed the Islamic faith on Iran.
“They [the Persians] did not forget their defeat at the hands of the Arabs and began thinking of taking revenge. They began working and conniving in secret, generation after generation, against the Arabs. They wish to destroy Islam by spreading Shiite doctrine in their own way,” wrote Sultan.
John Burgass, a former US Foreign Service officer who served in Saudi Arabia and currently blogs about it, said territorial disputes over Bahrain and three Islands in the Persian Gulf, which the United Arab Emirates claim as their own, add to Arab suspicion of Iran.
“Both historical and current differences between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran are very real,” Burgass told The Times of Israel. “Iran’s support for destabilizing groups like Hezbollah, and, of course, Iran’s questionable nuclear program all present very real tensions.”
Saudi columnists rarely discuss the nuclear issue in local media. But secret US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks in 2010 revealed Saudi fears of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
‘These two regimes are at each other’s throat over the civil war in Syria, Shiite gains in Lebanon and Iraq, and most importantly, the Iranian nuclear challenge to Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf’
In April 2008, King Abdullah urged the Americans to put an end to the Iranian nuclear program, which he called “cutting off the head of the snake.” The king even refused to send an ambassador to Iraq due to the “Iranian connections” of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
“It is clear beyond doubt that Iran’s foreign policy in general, and specifically towards the Arabs, is influenced by its historic memory, making it confrontational and malicious,” wrote Sultan. “As a result, Iran has become more isolated.”
But Saudi opinions are not confined to historic or political analysis. One columnist went so far as threatening to orchestrate sectarian strife in the Islamic Republic in response to Shiite clerical support for the Assad regime in Syria.
“If the mullahs of Iran believe they can penetrate the demographic makeup of the Arab region through Shiite extremism, recruiting Shiite believers to serve their expansionist or sectarian agenda, the Sunnis can retaliate by doing the same inside Iran and perhaps more effectively,” wrote Muhammad bin Abdullatif Aal Sheikh in the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah on Tuesday.
“All I want to say is that the entire region, with its sectarian and ethnic makeup, is like a barrel of explosives,” added Aal Sheikh. “If it explodes, Iran itself will be the primary casualty… Are the Iranian mullahs aware of this?”