Timeline of Iran-Saudi Relations

January 6, 2016
Updated
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been regional rivals for more than three decades. Most recently, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman said it was impossible for Riyadh to have a dialogue with Tehran. "Its (Iran's) logic is that the Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for the arrival of the awaited Mahdi and they must control the Muslim world,” he said in a televised interview on May 2, 2017. 
 
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, however, said his country is open to engaging with the Sunni kingdom. “We have never ruled out intermediary efforts. Pakistani, Indonesian, Kazakh and Russian officials have given proposals to mediate and we did not oppose. We are not seeking clashes with Saudi Arabia and the problem is not mediators. What is essential is a change in attitude of the Saudi officials,” he said in an interview with the Iranian Students’ News Agency. 
 

Tensions date back to the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Saudi monarchy, which based its legitimacy on Islam, felt its dominance threatened by the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Relations were strained throughout the 1980s, as Saudi Arabia quietly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Tensions eased slightly under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who sought to improve Iran’s relations with its neighbors. 

 

But movement towards rapprochement stalled in 2005, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power and reverted to a hardline stance on foreign policy. The Arab Spring in 2011 further aggravated tensions, especially in Bahrain, where Shiites protested against the Sunni royal family. Saudi Arabia sent troops to quell the uprising and blamed Iran for provoking the unrest.
 
Tehran has been trying to improve relations with Riyadh since President Rouhani’s election in 2013. But the two countries have clashed over regional conflicts, particularly in Syria and Yemen. And in September 2015, hundreds of Iranians were killed in a stampede during the annual hajj ritual in Saudi Arabia. Tehran accused Riyadh of mismanagement, and Saudi officials accused Iran of playing politics in the aftermath of the tragedy. After Saudi Arabia executed Shiite cleric Nimr al Nimr in January 2016, protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. As a result, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran. 
 
The following is a timeline of Iran-Saudi relations since the 1979 revolution.
 
1980-1988: Iraq invades Iran, prompting an eight-year war. Saudi Arabia remains publicly neutral, but reportedly makes three of its ports available to ship military equipment to Iraq.
 
 

1981: Iranians clash with Saudi police after chanting political slogans in Mecca and Medina. Iranian officials accuse Saudi authorities of discriminating against Iranian pilgrims.

May 1981: Six Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain – form the Gulf Cooperation Council, in part as a security response to the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war.
 
1982: Saudi Arabia reportedly supplies Iraq with $1 billion per month in aid.*
 
May 1984: Iran attacks a Saudi oil tanker in Saudi waters, in retaliation for Iraq’s attempts to interfere with Iran’s oil shipping. Saudi Arabia shoots down an Iranian Phantom jet over Saudi waters.
 
1987: Shiite pilgrims clash with Saudi police during the annual hajj, resulting in a stampede. At least 400 people are killed in the clashes, including more than 200 Iranians.  In response, Iranian protesters attack the Saudi and Kuwaiti embassies in Tehran.
 
1988: Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran over the hajj clash.
 
1988-1990: Iran boycotts the hajj after Saudi Arabia reduces the number of Iranian pilgrim visas in response the clashes in 1987.
 
1990: Saudi Arabia sends aid to Iran after an earthquake kills 40,000 people.
 
1991: Riyadh and Tehran restore diplomatic ties.
 
1989-1997: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is elected president and takes a more conciliatory stance towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Trade and direct flights between the two countries increase.
 
1997-2005: President Mohammad Khatami comes to office and introduces a period of outreach to the Gulf. But Saudi officials grow wary of Iran’s growing influence in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
 
1997: Crown Prince Abdullah attends the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Tehran, becoming the most senior Saudi official to visit Iran since 1979.
 
1999: Iranian President Khatami meets with Crown Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia. He is the first leader to visit Saudi Arabia since 1979.
 
2001: Iran and Saudi Arabia sign a security pact on terrorism and drug trafficking.
 
2005-2013: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes to power and takes a more hardline stance on foreign policy. Tehran and Riyadh increasingly seek to boost their regional influence through proxybattles in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
 
2011: The Arab Spring fuels bilateral tensions. Saudi officials accuse Iran of inciting protests inBahrain against the country’s Sunni royal family. The kingdom sends 1,000 troops to quell the uprising.
 
2011: The U.S. Justice Department charges two Iranians with attempting to murder Saudi Ambassador to the United States Adel al Jubeir.
 
2012: A series of protests against anti-Shiite discrimination erupt in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the protests.
 
2014: Saudi authorities issue a death sentence for Nimr al Nimr, a Shiite cleric involved in the 2011 protests. Iranian officials denounce the conviction.
 
March 2015: Saudi Arabia begins a bombing campaign in Yemen. Riyadh claims the airstrikes are a response to Iranian support for the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement that took over large parts of the country in 2014. But the exact degree of Iranian support for the Houthis is debated.
 
July 2015: Iran and the world’s six major powers reach a deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Saudi officials publicly endorse the deal, despite past reservations.
 
September 2015: A stampede in Mina during the annual hajj kills at least 2,000 people, including hundreds of Iranians. Tehran accuses the Saudi government of mismanagement and threatens legal action.
 
November 2015: Iran and Saudi Arabia both attend Syrian peace talks in Vienna, along with more than a dozen other nations. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Saudi counterpart, Adel al Jubeir, reportedly get in a heated argument during the talks.
 
 

January 2016: Saudi Arabia executes Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, a prominent Shiite leader who supported anti-government demonstrations, along with 46 others for alleged terror-related offenses. The move prompts protests or condemnation from Shiites in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Lebanon, and Yemen. In Iran, protestors burn part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and storm the compound. Demonstrators try to attack the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad. Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Bahrain, and Djibouti sever diplomatic ties with Iran. And the UAE downgrades its relations with the Islamic Republic. 

 

May 2016: Saudi Arabia and Iran fail to reach a deal over security and logistics concerning the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Saudi officials accused Iranian counterparts of walking out of talks despite offering solutions to the Iranian demands. Riyadh's pilgrimage ministry issues a statement saying the Iranian government “will be responsible in front of Allah Almighty and its people for the inability of the Iranian citizens to perform Hajj for this year,” adding that the Saudi leadership “has stressed its categorical rejection to politicize Hajj rituals.”

Iran had barred its pilgrims from traveling to Mecca to take part in the annual Hajj after claiming Saudi Arabia had failed to guarantee the safety of its citizens. This was primarily in response to the Hajj stampede that occurred the previous year and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, most of which were Iranian.

September 2016: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accuses the kingdom of “murdering” pilgrims during the 2015 Hajj. Khamenei criticizes Saudi management of the pilgrimage, calling on Iranians and other Muslims to hold them accountable. “The stampede demonstrated that this government is not qualified to manage the Two Holy Mosques,” said the Supreme Leader.  

 

Abdul Aziz al Sheikh, a top Saudi Sunni cleric, responds by dismissing Khamenei’s comments as “not surprising” considering Iranians are “not Muslims” and their “hostility towards Muslims is an old one.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif then responded via Twitter. 

 
 

Khamenei also took to Twitter to accuse the Saudis of “depriving” Iranians of the opportunity to attend the Hajj. 

 

March 2017: Saudi Arabia announces that Iranian pilgrims will attend and participate in this year’s annual Hajj after an absence in 2016 due to tensions between the two countries. “The ministry of Hajj and the Iranian organization have completed all necessary measures to ensure Iranian pilgrims perform Hajj 1438 according to the procedures followed by all Muslim countries,” the official Saudi Press Agency said.


March 14: Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House. A senior adviser tells Bloomberg that the two leaders both opposed “Iranian expansionist moves in the region” and support for terrorist organizations.

April 2017: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says Iran is ready to establish good relations with all neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia. “What happened in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran was carried out by some reckless people and was condemned by all institutions,” Rouhani said, referring to protests that occurred following Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shiite leader Sheikh Nimr al Nimr in January 2016. “It seems that Saudi Arabia was preparing to deal inappropriately with Iran, and I think it was all due to the defeats it had suffered in Yemen and Syria, so these defeats caused Saudi Arabia to be resentful and so it wanted somehow to compensate for what had happened to it. The embassy had material losses that could have been compensated but Riyadh gave the subject more than its size,” he said. “The positive steps that have been taken so far will lead to allowing Iranian pilgrims to join other pilgrims in the coming Hajj season and Saudi Arabia will stop its illegal measures in Yemen, which are an obstacle to better relations with it.”

May 2, 2017: In a televised interview, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says there is no space for dialogue with Iran due to its ambitions “to control the Islamic world,” and its desire to spread its Shia doctrine. When asked if there was a possibility for direct dialogue with Iran, he replied: “How can I come to an understanding with someone, or a regime, that has an anchoring belief built on an extremist ideology? What are the interests between us? How can I come to an understanding with this?” He added, “We know we are a main target of Iran. We are not waiting until there becomes a battle in Saudi Arabia, so we will work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”

On the same day, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reveals that Pakistani, Indonesian, Kazakh and Russian officials had offered to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia and that Tehran was open to dialogue.

May 3, 2017: Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, reacts to the Saudi prince’s comments. “These comments are proof that Saudi Arabia supports terrorism and seeks confrontational and destructive policies in the region and towards Iran.”

May 4, 2017: Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, sends a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres  and Security Council President Elbio Rosselli describing Prince Salman’s remarks as “unlawful and inflammatory.” He asks Guterres to circulate the letter as a document of the U.N. Security Council. The following is the full text.  

Excellency,

Upon instructions from my Government, I wish to bring to your attention the recent unlawful and inflammatory statement made by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman -- who is also the Defense Minister of Saudi Arabia.

On 2 May 2017, Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated, "We will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia." While categorically rejecting the baseless allegations against my country, I wish to underline that his statement reflects an unveiled threat against the Islamic Republic of Iran, in violation of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter, as well as a clear admission of the long-known complicity of the Saudi regime in acts of terror and violence inside Iran, the latest of which resulted in the murder of 9 Iranian border guards, by the Saudi-financed armed bands. This blatant threat and admission is being made by a regime with a long record of supporting aggression and using terrorist and extremist groups for its short-sighted and dangerous ambitions in the region and beyond.

Over the past four decades, our region and the world have suffered tremendously as a consequence of Saudi insecurity and misplaced obsession with Iran, clearly manifested in the above-quoted statement. This has led to irresponsible, provocative and ill-fated policies and practices of promoting and financing extremism globally and short-sighted and self-defeating adventurism in the region.

We all – including Saudi authorities -- need to be reminded of the fact that this misplaced obsession and insecurity lead to the Kingdom’s unreserved support and financing of Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran from 1980 to 1988,  whose devastating consequence was not confined to the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who became victims of Saddam’s aggression and use of chemical weapons, but engulfed the entire region after his invasion of Kuwait and threats against KSA, biting the hands that had fed and sustained him.

The creation of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the 90’s, sponsorship of terror and instability in Iraq since 2003, and formation, financing and arming of ISIS, Al-Nusrah and other terrorist organization in Iraq and Syria over the past several years are other manifestations of the same Saudi misplaced obsession, which have brought misery and insecurity to the entire globe.  It is imperative for the international community to take necessary action to compel Saudi Arabia to stop its reckless sponsorship of terrorism and extremism in the region and across the globe, and particularly its blatant and open aggression, starvation and genocide against the people of Yemen.

In contrast to Saudi rulers, the Islamic Republic of Iran believes that peace and stability is in the common interest of every state in the Persian Gulf region and no country can attain security at the expense of insecurity for others. We have no desire, nor any interest, in an escalation of tension in our neighborhood. We continue to stand ready for dialogue and accommodation to promote regional stability, combat destabilizing extremist violence and reject sectarian hatred. We hope Saudi Arabia will be persuaded to heed the call of reason.

I should be grateful if you would have the present letter circulated as a document of the Security Council.

Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.

Gholamali Khoshroo

Ambassador

Permanent Representative

 

May 7, 2017: Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan responded to Prince Salman’s comments in an interview with Al Manar TV. “We recommend them (Saudis) not to make any ignorant move, but if they do, we will not leave anywhere intact except Mecca and Medina,” he said. 

Click here for more information on Iran’s relations with the Gulf states.
 
* Bulloch, John; Morris, Harvey (1989). The Gulf War: Its Origins, History and Consequences (1st published ed.). London: Methuen.

 

Photo credits: Map of the Gulf via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]; Kaaba by 128flashfire at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

  

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