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Review on Relationships Between Saudi Arabia and Iran

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Key International Relations

Iran and Saudi Arabia

  • Competing major powers in Middle East (economically, politically, militarily)
  • Shia (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) split
  • C. Fight on opposing sides of civil wars
  • Other alliances: Iran is allied with Palestine (Hamas), Syria, North Korea, and Russia. Saudi Arabia is allied with the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Palestine (Palestinian Authority), Morocco, Sudan, and Jordan largely by choice, and with the United States and Israel largely by default (ie. to oppose Iran).
  • Neutral states: Turkey and Iraq lean pro-Saudi but are unlikely to support one side over the other. Turkey does, however, trade frequently with both nations. Pakistan is another pro-Saudi state but is also a major trade partner of Tehran and unlikely to take action either way. Sunni states in general will be likely to support Saudi Arabia, while any other Shia states are more likely to support Iran.

Syria

President Assad, governing according to Shia Islam, is backed by Iran. After Syria’s violent civil war ended with the Treaty of Damascus in 2018, he regained control over the state. Since then, with Russian support and Western frustration, Assad has maintained control for 4 years before promising, but not yet fulfilling, democratic elections.

Yemen

President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, governing according to Sunni Islam, is backed by Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the Shia Houthi rebels are backed by Iran. The civil war is still ongoing, although after recent US intervention, the Houthis have been forced back to holdings in only half of Sana’a and the neighboring coastal region of Al Hudaydah. In 2018, following a withdrawal from Syria, US forces were deployed to assist the Saudi coalition in removing Al-Qaeda/Ansar al-Sharia terrorist forces from the region. Reportedly, the US Navy and Airforce has also been providing additional support to Saudi forces attacking Houthi held regions.

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Lebanon

Saudi Arabia wishes to destabilize Lebanon because Hezbollah (a powerful Shia militia group, designated by the United States and much of Europe as a terrorist organization), military backed by Iran, is politically powerful. Hezbollah is now supported by Iran directly through Syria and has been engaged in a guerilla war with Israel since 2019. Israel has been conducting frequent airstrikes into Lebanon and Syria in an attempt to disrupt weapons shipments and manufacturing in these regions that are funded by Iran. Israel has threatened to intervene in Lebanon should Hezbollah become overtly in control of the democratic government there or should it present a threat due to its mass production of precision-guided rockets.

Iraq

At first, many Shia clerics and militia leaders were aligned with the US and Saudis. However, after the parliamentary elections in 2018, many new Iran-backed leaders were elected into the Iraqi government. However, most civilians and government officials in Iraq still view Saudi Arabia as an ally against an expansionist Iran. Some members of the government maintain pro-Iranian personal views, but they are not enacted in government functions. Iran has been plagued with war for two decades and thus is now focused on internal rebuilding and will probably hold a neutral stance with little support in regional conflicts.

Iran and Iraq

  • 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War: Iraq was governed according to Sunni Islam under Saddam Hussein and was backed by Saudi Arabia. Saddam invaded Iran out of fear of the revolution in Iran spreading to Iraq and a desire to annex oil-rich regions.
  • 2003 Iraq Invasion: With Saddam Hussein no longer in power, Iraq is now governed according to Shia Islam and is more friendly towards Iran. The government is still Arab, however, and leans towards Saudi out of fear that Iran may attempt to annex or puppet the Iraqi government at some point.
  • 2014 ISIS/Sunni Insurgency: Iran offered Iraq military advisors, weapons, and even sent Shia militias to help fight the Sunni insurgents in north-west Iraq.

Iran and Russia

  • Russia supplies Iran with nuclear reactors, 2014
  • Russia is a major trading partner with Iran, despite sanctions (oil and weapons)
  • Share common goal to decrease the United States’ international influence

Key Economic Factors:

  • Nationalized Economy: State-owned firms under Khamenei received “relief-money” after 2015 sanctions were lifted. Essentially, much of the monetary relief from sanctions lifted in 2015 did not go to the economy and the people but instead flowed into companies and firms owned by the Revolutionary Guards and the clerical regime. This corruption was widely recognized amongst the general populace and increased the economic disenchantment they experienced.
  • Importance of Oil: Iran must negotiate its future cautiously as to not lose Western customers for its oil sales, the back-bone of its economy, or it must diversify its industries.
  • Sale of Weapons: Selling weapons is integral to both the Revolutionary Guard making a profit and to Iran retaining its rival status with Saudi Arabia. Weapons are sold to proxy groups throughout the Middle East, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen and the Iraqi militias in Iraq and Syria. However, selling weapons would be largely unsustainable in a democratic, westernized Iran due to connotations of state-sponsored terrorism.

Key Social Factors:

  • Impact of Social Media: The free use of the internet and social media is integral to economic integration into the global economy, but also poses as a threat to authoritarian governments because of the access to revolution-feeding information and a platform for dissenting rhetoric.
  • Religion: There are varying beliefs on whether or not state-supported Islam is compatible with democracy.

Key Political Factors:

Below is a diagram exemplifying the structure of the Iranian government from 1979 to 2020:

Office Descriptions:

  1. Supreme Leader: head of domestic and international policies, religious leader, commander-in-chief,
  2. Armed Forces: consists of regular army and Revolutionary Guard
  3. Head of Judiciary: appoints head of the Supreme Court and chief public prosecutor, public and “revolutionary” courts
  4. Expediency Council: mediates disputes between Parliament and Guardian Council, advisory board for Supreme Leader
  5. Guardian Council: oversees Parliament (checks compatibility with Sharia law) and
  6. determines which candidates are qualified to run for office
  7. Assembly of Experts: clerics, 8-year terms, determines which candidates are qualified to run for office, elects Supreme Leader
  8. President: sets country’s economic policies
  9. Cabinet/Council of Ministers: serve under President, confirmed by Parliament
  10. Parliament/Majles: drafts legislation, ratifies treaties, approves budgets, unicameral, elected every four years.

Committee Characters

Conservatives

Chairman of Assembly of Experts Ahmad Jannati: Known as one of Iran’s most conservative clerics, Jannati is chairman of the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council. He opposes the United States and Israel, and has disqualified many reformist candidates for disloyalty to the Supreme Leader. Additionally, he calls for support for Hezbollah and the compulsory hijab. Lastly, he is one of the founders of the Haghani School, a Shi’a school of thought based in the holy city of Qom.

Portfolio Powers: Clerical Respect, Knowledge of Sharia Law

First Deputy Chairman of Assembly of Experts Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi: Another of Iran’s conservative clerics, Shahroudi is first deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts and Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council. However, in January of 2018, he received heavy international criticism for seeking medical treatment in Germany despite his “crimes against humanity”. Prior to Khamenei’s death, he was considered a possible successor.

Portfolio Powers: Clerical Respect, Knowledge of Sharia Law

General Mohammad Ali Jafari: As Major General of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Jafari is largely responsible for subduing revolts at home and directing military action in the region. The Revolutionary Guard Corps supplies the Hezbollah and Hamas with weapons against Israel and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States. In 2017, Jafari warned the United States against re-imposing sanctions, threatening Iran’s use of missiles and treatment of the United States army as a terrorist group.

Portfolio Powers: 150,000 Soldiers, Arsenal of Weapons Available for Sale, Military Knowledge

Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif: Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zarif, was one of the key negotiators of the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015 and advices the United States not re-impose sanctions. He also advocates for regional cooperation within the Middle East, especially with Pakistan in combating ISIS and negotiating peace with Afghanistan.

Portfolio Powers: Diplomacy Skills, Contacts with Other Diplomats especially in Pakistan

Minister of Petroleum Bijan Namdar Zanganeh: Appointed as Minister of Petroleum, Zanganeh leads Iran as the third-largest producer of oil in OPEC. Trying to recover after sanctions were lifted in 2015, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) has signed many deals, including one with a Russian company, in 2018, to develop oil fields in Iran.

Portfolio Powers: Cabinet Contacts, Technical Knowledge in Petroleum Production and Sale

Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani: Speaker of Parliament (Majles), Larijani, is a conservative politician with a military background (former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Commander of the Revolutionary Guard). Although previously a key player in the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015, Larijani is more recently known for influencing president Hassan Rouhani, worrying the reformists who elected Rouhani.

Portfolio Powers: Strong Speaking Skills, Military Knowledge, Diplomatic Skills

Cleric Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi: A conservative hardliner, Yazdi has held nearly every political office in Iran and is regarded as a possible successor to Khamenei. He has inspired other conservative politicians such as Ahmadinejad in 2009. However, Yazdi has also criticized reform-minded politicians like Khatami.

Portfolio Powers: Strong Speaking Skills, Political Experience and Contacts

Cleric Ebrahim Raisi: Known as a conservative populist, Raisi ran against incumbent Hassan Rouhani in the 2017 presidential elections. Although he lost, Raisi became a prominent political newcomer in 2018 when he won a seat in Parliament on the basis of anti-corruption. Raisi is supported by rural conservatives and has significant support as a possible successor to Khamenei.

Portfolio Powers: Strong Speaking Skills, Support from Khamenei Reformists

Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi: Prior Prime Minister of Iran, Mousavi ran for president in 2009, under the platform of economic reform, democracy and improved relations with the United States and Europe, against incumbent Ahmadinejad. After he lost the election, he and many others claimed voter fraud, resulting in a series of protests known as the Green Movement. He underwent a period of house arrest, along with his wife and Mehdi Karroubi. However, he was released in 2019.

Portfolio Powers: Publicity from the 2009 Green Movement, Political “Martyr Status”

President Hassan Rouhani: In 2013 Rouhani ran for president as a moderate who would bring Iran’s economy into the global arena. However, as Iran’s economy failed to improve even after sanctions were lifted, Rouhani ran as a complete reformist in 2017, calling for an end to corruption, including deals with the Revolutionary Guard, mass executions, and the house of arrest of Mousavi and Karroubi. As the current president of Iran, he has re-awakened the Green Movement.

Portfolio Powers: Political Contacts, Strong Speaking Skills

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: In 2005 and 2009, Ahmadinejad won the office of the president in Iran as a conservative populist against corruption with nationalist ideals, such as a strong nuclear program and the elimination of Israel. However, in 2013 when Rouhani was elected president, Ahmadinejad turned reform-minded calling for democracy and economic reform, putting himself in danger of house arrest.

Portfolio Powers: Spies on both sides (Clerics and Reformers)

Former President Mohammad Khatami: Prior president of Iran in 1997, Khatami’s term indicated the first efforts towards a reform movement in Iran, supporting a free market, diplomatic relations with the West and civil liberties at home. He garnered the support of young people and women while still maintaining his respectability as a religious intellectual. However, many of his efforts have been stifled by conservative hardliners whom he worries will respond violently to reforms. From 2005-2009 he was a critic of Ahmadinejad and supported Mousavi.

Portfolio Powers: Popular Support of Secular Reformists and Religious Moderates, Strong Speaking Skills, Foreign Contacts (particularly in the EU and the US)

Former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref: Prior Vice President to Khatami in 1997, Aref is now the head of the reformist movement in Parliament. In 2013, he was running for president when he dropped out, at the request of Khatami, in order to increase the chance of Rouhani’s victory as a reformist.

Portfolio Powers: Parliament Contacts, Political Ambition

Reformist Cleric Mehdi Karroubi: Similar to Mousavi, Karroubi ran for president in 2009 and lost to Ahmadinejad. Karroubi appealed to moderate clerics and rural voters. In both 2005 and 2009, Karroubi claimed to continue Khatami’s reformist efforts. However, Khatami largely put his support behind Mousavi. Karroubi underwent house arrest with Mousavi and was also released in 2019.

Portfolio Powers: Publicity from the 2009 Green Movement, Political “Martyr Status” Journalist Abbas Abdi: In 1979, Abbas Abdi led the student group that held 52 Americans hostage after hearing of the United States’ treatment of the Shah. Furthermore, in 1997, he helped create the reform movement that elected Mohammad Khatami. Today he is a key reform-minded journalist opposed to the United States re-imposing sanctions and the mandatory hijab.

Portfolio Powers: Journalism Skills, Global Publicity from the Hostage Crisis

Reformist Politician Mostafa Tajzadeh: In 2009, Tajzadeh was arrested during the Green Movement and imprisoned for 6 years. Today, he is no longer in prison, but is still reform-minded by pushing back against the mandatory hijab and corruption, particularly within the Revolutionary Guard, Judiciary, and Guardian Council.

Portfolio Powers: Political Contacts, American Education/Experience

Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance Masoud Karbasian: As Iran’s Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance, Karbasian is mainly focused in solidifying economic ties between Russia and Azerbaijan. He also emphasizes the importance of privatization.

Portfolio Powers: Economic Knowledge, Foreign Business Contacts, Cabinet Contacts

International Actors

Iraqi Minister of Defense Erfan al-Hiyali: As Iraq’s Minister of Defense, Erfan al-Hiyali is primarily concerned with Iraq-Iran military relations. Iran is currently selling weapons to Iraq for use against Sunni insurgents and in counterterrorism efforts. Iraq and Iran wish to conduct relations among themselves without outside interference of the United States or Israel.

Portfolio Powers: Military Knowledge, Revolutionary Guard Support

Russian Nuclear Director Alexey Likhachev: As Director of Russia’s state nuclear corporation, Rosatom, Alexey Likhachev is primarily interested in deals with Iran to build nuclear power plants. However, tense United States-Russia Relations and need for compliance with the Iran Nuclear Deal has complicated this aim.

Portfolio Powers: Business Skills, Russian State Support

Saudi Arabian Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdel al-Jubeir: As Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdel al-Jubeir is interested in the fate of Iran due to the rivalry between regional superpowers: Iran and Saudi Arabia. Details are more clearly described above and should be used to jumpstart research on the complicated nature of Iran-Saudi Relations.

Portfolio Powers: Diplomacy Skills, Contacts with Other Diplomats

American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: As the United States’ Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo is interested in both promoting democracy and counterterrorism abroad. However, Pompeo is also concerned with the Iran Nuclear Deal, especially after Donald Trump, a proponent of re-imposing sanctions, was elected to a second term earlier this year.

Portfolio Powers: Diplomacy Skills, American Security Intel, Contacts with Other Diplomats

Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates Walid Muallem: As Syria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, Muallem is concerned with the ensuring a pro-Assad Iran remains in the aftermath of any revolution. Without Iran’s backing for the Shia minority Assad regime, it could be engulfed in a renewed civil war with its Sunni majority populace.

Portfolio Powers: Diplomacy Skills, Contacts with Other Diplomats

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini: As the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Mogherini is focused importing oil from Iran, a trade negotiation complicated by sanctions/boycotts around nuclear weapon development and state-sponsored terrorism.

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