Why the West Should be Concerned Over Saudi-Iranian Rapprochement

In the long run, Saudi and Iranian reconciliation could be calamitous for the region and for free societies worldwide.


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (left) and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah (right). Credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Despite their belligerent public pronouncements and pomposity, the absolute Saudi and Iranian regimes have more in common than they preach to their oppressed populations and to the international community.

Neither of them wants a thriving democracy as a neighbor, as exemplified by their multi-faceted support for their respective Sunni and Shi’a proxies in Iraq. The Iranians and the Saudis are seeking hegemony in the Middle East consistent with their respective repressive systems.

After failing to draw the international community into the intra Persian/Saudi conflict and failing to defeat each other in their proxy wars in Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, the Iranian and the Saudi ruling despots have been forced to accept that negotiating their differences and preserving their control over their populations is the best option available to them.

The Saudis are in the weaker position of the two because of the West’s overtures toward Iran, lack of global support for the Saudi campaign to topple the Syrian regime, loss of allied dictatorial Arab friends (like Mubarak of Egypt) and due to the world’s diminishing dependence on Saudi oil.

In response to these pressures, the Saudi regime issued an invitation to the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to visit Saudi Arabia in the hope of negotiating an end to their unwinnable proxy wars and of accommodating each other’s religious and strategic roles in the Middle East. Additionally, the Saudi and Iranian autocracies are under unprecedented domestic pressures for reform from their aspiring populations.

In order to avert mass uprising, the Iranian theocrats have to respond to their population’s discontent with the economic privations imposed on them by the international community in response to the regime’s pursuit of a nuclear program considered threatening to the region and to the international community.

Furthermore, the potential for mass revolution in Iran would escalate exponentially if the country were to be attacked because of the government’s refusal to dismantle its nuclear program. While the Iranian people are likely to unite behind their government in the short run if the country is attacked, most of them (if current sentiment against the system is credible) are looking for an opportunity to revolt against their absolute regime. Increased social and economic suffering caused by an attack would enhance the chances for uprising.

While the reasons behind the Saudis’ invitation to the Iranians to discuss their differences and the Iranians’ reconciliatory messages to the Saudis differ, their objectives are identical: to ensure their respective religious and strategic control over their domains and proxies throughout the Middle East. Additionally, each wants to be recognized by the international community, especially the West, as the most reliable ally that is capable of maintaining stability in the oil rich Persian Gulf region.

In the short term, there will be benefits to a Saudi/Iranian reconciliation, chief among which would be an easing of global anxieties over potential interruption of oil production and export from the Gulf countries. This positive outcome cannot be achieved unless some intensely contested conflicts between the Saudi and Iranian regimes are resolved or, more likely, suppressed.

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While the Saudi and Iranian regimes have thus far avoided direct collision, they have been engaged in destabilizing bloody conflicts through their respective Sunni and Shi’a proxies in Middle Eastern countries where they have strategic interests. As amply documented, the Saudis and Iranians are primarily responsible for most of the military and financial supplies that perpetuate the three year-old carnage in Syria.

They likewise support their proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Afghanistan, where bloody civil wars rage. Success of the proposed Saudi/Iranian negotiations will depend largely upon how they resolve their deep and costly involvement in these conflicts. It’s feasible that the Saudis and Iranians will agree to restrain their proxies, but won’t abandon them because of their historical mutual mistrust.

Given the repressive nature of the Saudi and Iranian regimes, any potential alliance between them will not likely benefit their oppressed populations (especially women and minorities), the Middle East or democratic societies. As  documented by major human right groups, including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, these two governments top the list of the world’s worst violators of basic human rights, religious tolerance, women’s and minority rights and democratic principles.

Based on their abysmal records, it’s more likely that the Saudi and Iranian regimes and their agencies will collaborate on repressive policies domestically and globally. The Saudis and Iranians are known for supporting extremists and terrorist groups worldwide. They will likely incorporate extremism and terrorism to achieve their joint objectives as they have done to achieve their individual goals. The probable major targets of a joint Saudi/Iranian extremist offensive are the US and Israel.

As they have done for decades to divert their suppressed populations’ attention from their domestic failures, the two regimes will focus on blaming Israel for occupying Palestine, especially al-Quds (Jerusalem), which Muslims consider one of their holy shrines. They will likely continue to blame the US for its “invasions” of Muslim countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. These are two issues around which the Sunni Saudi and Shi’a Iranian rulers can easily rally support in their respective countries and in Muslim communities worldwide.

While in the short run, conciliation, even if temporary, between the Saudi and Iranian regimes will produce some positive effect, in the long run the consequences could be calamitous for the region and for free societies worldwide.

Ali Alyami, PhD, is the founder and executive director of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, CDHR, in Washington, DC. CDHR focuses on promoting peaceful and incremental democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia, including empowerment of women, religious freedom, free flow of information, free movement, free press, privatization of government industries, free elections, non-sectarian constitution, and codified rule of law, transparency and accountabilityRead other articles by Ali.