In trying to determine what the next stage for the Iran – Saudi relationship might be, one must first look at similar relations between other states to see if they might contain clues.
What do these other states share in common, what factors might be different, and how did these states approach these conflict areas in an effort to either mitigate the problems, eliminate them altogether, or to just simply accept that they exist and move forward peacefully? In reviewing which states could lend an insight into the Iran-Saudi conflict we must first identify some of the factors that contribute to the problem. The following are some of the sources of conflict that weigh into the relations between the two nations:
- Religious sect differences
- Desire for regional hegemony
- History of armed conflict/invasion
- Cultural differences
- Presence of outside powers
- Territorial disputes
Considering these factors, there are a number of state conflicts that qualifies in one or more of these categories. During the great colonization periods England, France, and Spain had numerous clashes over issues such as regional hegemony and territorial disputes. More recently we’ve seen clashes between Pakistan and India caused mainly by religious differences, Germany against other nations during the World Wars in its desire for global hegemony, as well as two Asian powerhouses (Japan and China) that center around a number of factors such as cultural differences, historical resentment, and territorial disputes. Of these conflicts, some evolved where the nations now work collectively on many fronts. Others continue with strained relationships marked by periods of armed conflict such as between Pakistan and India. And yet others exist still as an uneasy stalemate with periods of muscle-flexing and posturing but devoid of any real military confrontation.
Looking at the examples of England, France, Spain and ultimately Germany we see nations that have had long histories of armed conflict, resulting in clashes both on home soil as well as via proxies. This is very much like Iran and Saudi Arabia today. Yet now these European nations are almost completely at peace with one another and work in unison with one another to overcome regional issues covering economics, immigration, and security. How did these nations, once committed to the destruction of one another, overcome those obstacles to get to this point and could this hold relevance for Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Since the end of World War II the nations of Europe have enjoyed a long period of relative peace. One major factor working in these nations’ favor was, ironically, the existence of the Cold War and reliance on the United States for military protection. The existence of NATO helped keep the peace by keeping the Soviet Bloc out of Western Europe as well as limiting each individual country’s ability to pose a threat to its neighbors. Another major factor is certainly the deterrence factor of nuclear weapons. Both France and England possess nuclear capabilities so an outbreak of such warfare has the potential for dire consequences. Additionally, factors such as the new wealth these nations were unwilling to risk, democratic governments which were more accountable to the will of the people as opposed to an individual leader’s whims, and largely open borders that led to more transcultural understanding across all of Europe, all contributed to greater peace and less tension.
In Pakistan and India we see two regional powers that are largely at odds due to their religious and territorial differences, just as in the Iranian-Saudi conflict. Since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, the two countries have engaged in numerous territorial, cultural and religious disputes, and as well as three instances of outright war. These disputes have mainly centered on the Kashmir region and again, like the case with Iran and Saudi Arabia, is the scene of local insurgents being used as proxies in the fight. Numerous periods of peace have occurred only to be broken by violent outbursts, such as the Mumbai terrorist attacks. A parallel can unfortunately be drawn to the mosque bombings inside Saudi Arabia, where they were ultimately attributed to Iranian-influenced groups inside Saudi territory.
In China and Japan we see regional powers with a long history of conflict that centers on their own desires for regional hegemony. What we also see that is similar to Iran and Saudi Arabia are factors such as territorial conflicts, economic conflict, the presence of US interests, and one nation claiming the cultural high road over the other. The presence of the United States in Japan and its deepening economic ties/interdependence with China helped to settle some of those military tensions, although they still do have areas of conflict over territorial claims. Economic transformation has basically shifted the tension from a once intensely military-based engagement to one more predicated on global positioning and diplomatic leverage. This is in fact a great positive sign of progress.
In 2006, after Prime Minister Abe assumed office in Japan, relations underwent a period of improvement as the two nations became more committed to high-level discussions. In an important symbolic gesture, Japan showed a willingness to admit and atone for some of its wartime atrocities against China. The two countries have also entered into joint ventures in oil and gas exploration, instead of competing for these resources inside disputed territorial areas. These two regional powers have grown to become two of the largest and most influential global economic powers. Their mutual economic interdependencies have provided a stable base upon which they are able to work on more productive overall relations. Economic collapse via war would be catastrophic to both nations so this interdependence has been a huge contributor in resolving differences.
At the moment the China-Japan case offers less hope for Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the present day one is hard-pressed to see economic opportunity building close interdependence between the two countries. The JCPOA accord may also end up only increasing tension over the short-term as Iran begins to gain greater global influence and establish more economic stability and prosperity for itself. This could engender a reflexive counter-balancing reaction from Saudi Arabia. Some would even argue it has already begun such economic strategies in the past two years by keeping the price of oil low. This is the opposite of what we have seen with China and Japan, where economic development on a global scale brought them closer together.
Analyzing these strategic conflicts shows that there are lessons to be learned that could lead Iran and Saudi Arabia along a path of conflict resolution. As is often the case, the devil is in the details. The presence and actions of a global superpower in the region (like the United States) can be an enabler of peace or an exacerbator of conflict. Trade and economic interdependence can break down prejudices and barriers and increase transcultural understanding, but that tends to be a slow process requiring patience from all parties involved. Communication and an element of trust, however, are essential across all of the conflict cases. If the opposing sides are unable to communicate, either through third parties or directly, then it becomes nearly impossible to develop the trust necessary to resolve issues. At the moment that still remains the biggest single obstacle between Iran and Saudi Arabia: a failure to communicate.