United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Iran-Saudi Tensions Flare Over Execution

The Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the Shiite theocracy of Iran began 2016 with an escalation in long-simmering tensions. The spark for the latest showdown was Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute a prominent Shiite cleric. Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after protestors attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and Consulate in Mashhad. The fallout continued for weeks.  
On January 2, Riyadh announced the execution of Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, an outspoken religious leader who supported mass anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, along with 46 others for terror-related offences. Most of the 47 individuals were convicted of al Qaeda attacks in the kingdom a decade ago. Four Shiites, including Nimr, were accused of involvement in shooting police.  
Shiites, a minority in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, are the majority in the oil rich Eastern Province, but have reportedly been marginalized for decades. Nimr, who was in his 50s, had a strong following among Shiite youth throughout the Gulf and was known for his criticism of both the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies. He was arrested in 2012 on charges of inciting sectarianism, sedition and other charges. Nimr was sentenced to death in October 2014.
Nimr’s execution prompted protests in predominantly Shiite Iran. Late on January 2, hundreds of Iranians gathered outside of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Demonstrators threw homemade firebombs at the compound. And dozens of people stormed the compound, started fires, broke furniture, and smashed windows in an annex next to the embassy. Riot police dispersed the crowd and reportedly arrested some 40 people. Firefighters were called in to extinguish the flames that damaged the embassy’s first floor and parking area.


The Saudi Embassy was not the first to have been assaulted. Iranians also attacked the U.S. Embassy twice in 1979, the Kuwait Embassy in 1987, the Saudi Embassy in 1988, the Danish Embassy in 2006, and the British Embassy in 2011, most of which led to a downgrade in diplomatic relations. 
On January 3, Saudi Arabia severed its diplomatic relations with Iran. “The Iranian regime has a long record of violations of foreign diplomatic missions,” Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir told the media, referencing the 1979 takeover of the U.S. embassy and the 2011 storming of the British embassy. “The history of Iran is full of negative and hostile interference in Arab countries affairs, always accompanied with subversion, demolition and killing of innocent souls.”

Iranian officials reiterated their commitment to protecting Saudi diplomatic sites. President Hassan Rouhani said Nimr’s execution was no excuse for “rogue individuals and groups to commit illegal acts.” But he also said the move was in line with other sectarian policies pursued by Riyadh. Other signals out of Tehran likely exacerbated the situation. An image comparing Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State (ISIS) was posted on the website of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A Saudi executioner appears under the label “White ISIS.” Another version of the image asks “Any differences?”

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told their Austrian counterpart that they had no interest in allowing the situation to worsen. “Both foreign ministers gave the assurance that no one can have an interest in a further escalation,” a spokesman for Sebastian Kurz said. E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini had separate phone conversations with the Saudi and Iranian ministers to diffuse tensions. She emphasized that the security and stability of the whole region, which is already facing great threats, is at stake. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also spoke with Zarif. 
Meanwhile, Iranian protestors put up a sign to rename the street where the Saudi embassy is located after the sheikh. 
On January 4, Bahrain also announced the severing of its diplomatic relations with Iran, alleging Tehran’s “blatant and dangerous interference” in its domestic affairs. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) said it was downgrading relations with Iran, recalled its ambassador, and said it would reduce its diplomatic presence in the country. The UAE also cited Iran’s alleged interference in the internal affairs of Gulf countries. Sudan also cut ties with the Islamic Republic. And Saudi Arabia said it would end air travel to Iran and cut its trade links. 
The U.N. envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, flew to Saudi Arabia to assess the impact of the dispute on efforts to end the Syrian civil war. De Mistura “hopes that the adverse consequences of the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran do not affect the peace process with the Syrians,” according to U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq. The two countries support rival actors in the conflict. Iran is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, while Saudi Arabia is a key backer of the opposition.
Ban Ki-moon told Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir that he was extremely troubled by the break in ties. He reiterated his opposition to capital punishment. The secretary general also urged Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to take the necessary measures to protect diplomatic facilities. Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon expressing regret about the incidents at the consulate and embassy. Iran “will spare no efforts in arresting and prosecuting all those who brought them about,” he pledged. 
Moscow offered to act as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran. Secretary of State John Kerry also reportedly called Jubeir and Zarif to urge calm. 
On January 5, Kuwait announced that was recalling its ambassador from Tehran. It described the attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate as a “flagrant breach of international norms.” Kuwait, however, did not downgrade its diplomatic ties or tell Iran’s ambassador to leave the country.
Turkey held Iran responsible for the protection of the diplomatic missions and urged both sides to exercise caution. 
In a meeting with the Danish foreign minister, President Rouhani said that he hopes European countries will respond to Saudi Arabia’s use of capital punishment. 
On January 6, Iraq sent its foreign minister, Ibrahim al Jaafari, to Tehran with an offer to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran. “We have solid relations with the Islamic Republic [Iran] ... and also we have relations with our Arab brothers and therefore we cannot stay silent in this crisis,” Jaafari said at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Jordan summoned Iran’s ambassador to emphasize its condemnation of the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions. Qatar recalled its ambassador to Tehran. And Djibouti cut ties with Iran out of solidarity with Saudi Arabia, according to Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf. The move was mocked in Iranian papers and on social media.
On January 7, Somalia cut diplomatic ties with Iran and gave its diplomats and embassy staff 72 hours to leave the country. 
Iran also banned all imports from Saudi Arabia. The government said that Iranians would still not be able to go on the Umrah pilgrimage to the kingdom. The ban was first imposed in April 2015 in reaction to an alleged sexual assault on two Iranian men by Saudi airport guards.  Iran also claimed that Saudi warplanes had damaged its embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. But no damage was visible on the building from the outside, according to The Associated Press
On January 8Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif criticized Riyadh’s policy towards Tehran and alleged that “some in Saudi Arabia are on a mission to drag the entire region to conflict” in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Also, some 1,000 protestors marched in Tehran and chanted “death to al Saud.” Some carried posters with pictures of Nimr. 
On January 11, Zarif published an op-ed in The New York Times outlining what he sees as Riyadh’s three-part strategy to derail the nuclear deal and perpetuate tension in the region: “pressuring the West; promoting regional instability through waging war in Yemen and sponsoring extremism; and directly provoking Iran.”
Iran’s interior ministry said that is dismissed Safa Ali Baratlu, Tehran Province’s deputy governor for security affairs, at least in part due to the failure to prevent the attack on the Saudi Embassy. 
On January 19, Iranian Deputy Interior Minister for Security and Law Enforcement Affairs Hossein Zolfaqari announced 154 suspects had been detained or summoned for involvement in the embassy attack. 
On January 20, Supreme Leader Khamenei spoke out against the embassy attack during a meeting with election officials. “Attacking the Saudi embassy… was really bad and harmed Iran and Islam, but this should not be an excuse to criticize our devout young people,” he said. 
On January 21, Secretary of State John Kerry noted Khamenei’s remarks when discussing Iran-Saudi tensions in the context of Syrian peace talks. “The supreme leader went to the extraordinary length of actually apologizing yesterday,” Kerry told reporters in Davos. "That is very significant and I hope people will recognize that in today's context, measured against where we've been, that's a huge step.”
Nimr’s execution is only the latest controversy in the Iran-Saudi relationship. The two have been regional rivals for more than three decades. Statements from Iranian and Saudi officials as well as others on the latest quarrel are below, followed by a timeline of Iran-Saudi relations. 
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
President Hassan Rouhani
“The response to criticism should not be beheading and we hope that European countries that always react to human rights issues, fulfil their human rights responsibilities on the matter.”
“Saudi government tries to conceal its criminal act of beheading a religious leader through severing diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, forgetting the fact that it is not undoubtedly possible to cover or justify such a big crime as execution of a prominent figure.”
“Considering diplomacy and negotiations as the best solution to settle the difference among nations, we believe the regional situation nowadays is not that much safe and stable to go into such differences, thus all regional countries should become united and cooperate with each other to confront terrorism which is endangering the region by spreading over it.”
—Jan. 5, 2016, in a meeting with Denmark’s foreign minister

“This great scholar [Nimr] was imprisoned with spurious reasons and executed because of criticizing the Saudi Arabia government. In legal norms of any country, a person is not executed and beheaded because of criticism.”
“Individuals who attacked these missions out of ignorance or affiliation are criminals and I urge the judiciary branch to review this case out of turn.”
“Diplomatic missions and guests are legally and internationally immune and attacking these places in the country is against legal and religions laws and is considered as an insult to the political system’s reputation; it is like storming one’s house.”
“Those who storm diplomatic missions are away from Islamic and Iranian culture, as well as the law.”
“Unfortunately, the Saudi government, which is the government of an Islamic country, has attempted for so long to introduce and fan Shia-Sunni strife and create an Iranophobic atmosphere in the world’s public opinion.”
“Saudi Arabia’s move of severing diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran and urging other countries to do the same, was aimed at obstructing the process of peace, stability, and security in the region.”
“Saudi Arabia is seeking to conceal internal issues and its failure in its recent regional policies, and also putting Iran under pressure by carrying out these actions.”
“The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to pursue all his programs without paying attention to obstructions; JCPOA will soon be implemented and sanctions lifted.”
“Islamic Republic of Iran programs and goals, with a record of civilization and great power in the region, will not be affected by childish acts of novices in a certain government.”
“The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to establish good and constructive relations will all countries around the world, especially Islamic ones and neighbors.”
—Jan. 6, 2016, in a cabinet meeting
“By punishing the attackers and those who orchestrated this obvious offense, we should put an end once and forever to such damage and insults to Iran's dignity and national security.”
—Jan. 6, 2016, in a letter to the judiciary
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
“For the past two-and-a-half years, Saudi Arabia has opposed Iran's diplomacy.”
“Saudi Arabia has moved against our efforts and, unfortunately, they opposed the nuclear agreement.”
Saudi Arabia has been “taking measures against the Iranian people” by trying to keep oil prices low.
“This trend of creating tension must stop. We need to stand united... and stop those who are adding fuel to the fire.”
—Jan. 6, 2016, in a joint press conference with Iraq’s foreign minister
Today, there are indications that some in Saudi Arabia are on a mission to drag the entire region to conflict, fearing that removal of the smokescreen of the manufactured Iranian nuclear threat would expose the real global threat posed by extremists and their sponsors.
The Saudi strategy to derail the nuclear agreement and maintain and even exacerbate tension in the region has focused on three inter-related domains: PR and pressure in the West, promotion and even active engagement in war and violence in the region and direct provocation against Iran. Examples of the first two are well-known, while the cases of provocation against Iran have not grabbed international headline primarily thanks to Iranian prudent restraint.
—Jan. 8, 2016, in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Saudi Arabia seems to fear that the removal of the smoke screen of the nuclear issue will expose the real global threat: its active sponsorship of violent extremism. The barbarism is clear. At home, state executioners sever heads with swords, as in the recent execution of 47 prisoners in one day, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a respected religious scholar who devoted his life to promoting nonviolence and civil rights. Abroad, masked men sever heads with knives.
—Jan. 11, 2016, in an op-ed for The New York Times 
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari
“The execution of a personality such as Sheikh Nimr who had no means other than speech to pursue his political and religious objectives only shows the depth of imprudence and irresponsibility.”
“The Saudi government supports terrorists and Takfiri extremists, while talking to its critics at home with the language of execution and suppression.”
“It is clear that the consequences of this abortive and irresponsible policy will befall those behind it and the Saudi government will pay a heavy price for following such policies.”
—Jan. 2, 2016, according to Press TV
“When it comes to protecting and also safeguarding and observing international commitments regarding protection of diplomatic missions, Iran naturally has taken proper action and will continue to do so.”
“The Saudi government is looking ... for some excuses to pursue its own unwise policies to further tension in the region.”
—Jan. 4, 2016, to the media
Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian
“Saudi Arabia cannot cover up its big mistake of executing [Sheikh Nimr al Nimr] by announcing its decision to end relations with Iran.”
—Jan. 3, 2016 via Hamshahri Newspaper 
“Before [the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran], Saudi Arabia – with its strategic errors, hasty approaches, and recklessness – has intensified insecurity in the region, caused the growth of terrorism and extremism, and has hurt its own people and the Muslim countries of the region with its plot to reduce the price of oil.
“There has been no harm to Saudi diplomats in Tehran or Mashad.
“Now the Saudi authorities’ new strategic error is the execution of Ayatollah Martyr Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, who belongs to the Islamic world not one specific country.”
— Jan. 3, 2016, via Tabnak News
“Saudi Arabia's wrong decision will have an effect on [Syria] talks in Vienna and New York, but Tehran will stay committed.”
—Jan. 6, 2016, according to IRNA
IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami
"The policies of the Saudi regime will have a domino effect and they will be buried under the avalanche they have created.”
"If the Saudis do not correct their path, their regime will collapse in coming years."
"The path the Saudi regime is taking is like the one Saddam took in the 1980s and 90s. He started a war with Iran, executed prominent clerics and top officials, suppressed dissidents and ended up having that miserable fate."
 – Jan. 7, 2016, according to the press
U.N. Ambassador Gholamali Khoshroo (to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon)
Upon instructions from my Government and referring to your Note No. LA/COD/4 dated 21 January 2015, which refers to UN General Assembly Res 69A/121 of 10 December 2014, entitled: "Consideration of effective measures to enhance the protection, security and safety of diplomatic and consular missions and representatives", I wish to state the following with regard to the recent incidents involving the premises of the Consulate General and the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Mashad and Tehran, I.R. Iran, respectively:
1. On Saturday, 2 January 2016 a large group of people gathered in front of the Saudi Arabian Consulate-General in Mashad in protest against the unjustified and provocative execution of the high-ranking spiritual leader, Ayatollah Sheikh Bagher Nimr Al-Nimr, arrested in 2012 in Saudi Arabia, following his efforts to advance democracy and freedom of speech, and beheaded by sword on 2 January 2016. Necessary measures, including the increase in the number of security forces, were taken to prevent any assault against the premises of the Consulate. Unfortunately, however, the objects hurled by a number of the protesters hit the glass windows of the premises.
2. At the same date, numerous protesters (around 8000) staged a peaceful demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran following the announcement of the execution of Sheikh Nimr. Some of the protesters got unfortunately out of control at around 11: 00 p.m., and despite the extensive efforts made by the law enforcement authorities, some of them managed to enter the Embassy and inflict some damages on the building.
3. Upon arrival of police reinforcements, the protesters left the Embassy. More than 40 protesters were identified, arrested and handed over to the judicial authorities. An investigation is underway seeking to find other possible perpetrators.
4. While emphasizing its obligations in accordance with international law and relevant international instruments, especially The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 andthe Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, the Islamic Republic of Iran expresses its regret over the referred-to incidents and will spare no efforts in arresting and prosecuting all those who brought them about. The President of the Islamic Republic of Iran in his message stressed the need to pursue the issue and bring the elements behind the incidents to justice and provided necessary directions to the relevant government agencies, including the Ministry of Interior. The Chief of the Judiciary also reiterated the need to pursue this case in all its aspects.
5. The Islamic Republic of Iran will take necessary measures to prevent the occurrence of similar incidents in the future.
I should be grateful if you would have this letter circulated as a document of the General Assembly under agenda item 119.           
Please accept, Excellency, the assurances of my highest consideration.
—Jan. 4, 2016, in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Spokesman of the Judicial and Legal Committee of Parliament Mohammad Ali Esfanani
“When a country has cut diplomatic relations with us, it means it is hostile with us.”
— Jan. 4, 2016, according to ISNA 
Revolutionary Guards Brigadier General Mohsen Kazemeini
“This was a very wrong and incorrect action and there is no way this ugly action can be justified.”
—Jan. 5, 2015, according to Mizan Online news agency via NBC
Prosecutor General Ebrahim Raeesi
“Different aspects of the incident are under investigation by intelligence agencies and necessary information will be released to the public when the facts become clear.”
—Jan. 7, 2016, according to IRNA 

Ambassador to France Ali Ahani
“Iran will pay the financial cost of the Saudi embassy’s destruction.”
—Jan. 11, 2016, in an interview with France 24
Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani
“The Saudis should know that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s behavior toward them comes with dignity and prudence, but such dignity, prudence and silence [regarding Saudi actions] does not mean that they can do everything. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s patience has limits.”
—Jan. 11, 2016, in a meeting with high-ranking judiciary officials 
Saudi Arabia

Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir
“After having been briefed on the details of the hostilities which the Saudi diplomatic mission in Iran sustained, I would like to further inform you that the Iranian regime has a long record of violations of foreign diplomatic missions. I, herewith, cite the occupation of the U.S. embassy in 1979, the attack against the British embassy in 2011 and yesterday's offense against the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran and consulate general in Mashhad.

“Such continual assault on diplomatic missions constitutes a flagrant violation of all international agreements, charters and treaties. Also, these attacks come after aggressive statements issued by Iranian prominent figures, a blatant provocation that encouraged others to attack the Kingdom's missions.
“These offenses are considered a continuation of the Iranian hostile policy in the region aiming at destabilizing the region's security and stability and spreading sedition and wars. This matter is certain as the Iranian regime provides safe havens on its territories for Al-Qaeda leaders since 2001.
“The Iranian regime has also provided protection for a number of the involved in Al-Khobar Towers explosion in 1996. In addition to these hostile attacks, the Iranian regime has managed to smuggle weapons and explosives, plant terrorist cells in the region, including the Kingdom, aiming to spread chaos and unrest.

“The history of Iran is full of negative and hostile interference in Arab countries affairs, always accompanied with subversion, demolition and killing of innocent souls. Upon these realities, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announces cutting its diplomatic ties with Iran and demands all the members of Iran's diplomatic mission (embassy, consulate and other offices affiliated to them) to leave within 48 hours.”
—Jan. 3, 2016, in a speech
“There is no escalation on the part of Saudi Arabia. Our moves are all reactive. It is the Iranians who went into Lebanon. It is the Iranians who sent their Qods Force and their Revolutionary Guards into Syria.”
Nimr was “agitating, organizing cells, providing them with weapons and money… We should be applauded for this, not criticized.”
—Jan. 4, 2016, in an interview with Reuters 
“[W]e have looked deeply into the Iranian role and the interventions of Iran in the region and how to confront that, and we have also looked into the latest development in what had been achieved in Camp David meeting. And the meeting, as was the case in all the cases, was clear and transparent and frank, and there was – we were on the same page, on different…”
“I don’t see a coming together of the United States and Iran the way some of the pundits have described it. Iran remains the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism. Iranian Government institutions are still designated as terrorist organizations. And Iranian officials, including in the security services, are wanted for terrorism.
“With regards to the release of [American] sailors and the – this is an issue that shouldn’t have taken place in the first place. Iran had no business taking people and putting guns to their heads and then showcasing those pictures around the world, and then claiming to be a country that acts in normal ways. Normal countries do not act like this when sailors inadvertently enter their territorial waters.
“With regards to the exchange of prisoners, I don’t – I wouldn’t call it an exchange of prisoners because every person released in the United States, as I understand, chose to remain in the United States, which tells you what a great country Iran is that none of them wanted to look forward to going back to it.
“With regards to the implementation of the nuclear agreement, Iran signed a deal, it must abide by the terms of those deals, and there will be consequences if Iran does not implement that deal.
“So overall, I think the United States is very aware of the danger that Iran’s mischief and behavior, nefarious activities, as I’ve described them, in the region can do. The United States is working with its allies, and particularly the GCC countries, to find ways to push back on those activities. I don’t believe the United States is under any illusion as to what type of government Iran is. And so we work with our American friends in these areas in terms of exchange of information, intelligence, in terms of training, in terms of ballistic missile defense, in terms of enhancing our defensive capabilities.”
“Regarding the statements of the Iranian officials, these are hostile statements and aggressive statements, but we don’t know their credibility. Saudi Arabia, in any case, is ready to take all the necessary measures to defend its territory and its people. And we (inaudible) intervention in the Arab affairs, and we are working with our (inaudible) in the Arab (inaudible) to confront that.
“And regarding the statements, these indicate the hostile and the aggressive stance of Iran against the Arab countries, and this is rejected by the Arab world, that it has been stated (inaudible) statement, and it is rejected by the Muslim world, as it was in the OIC, OI – or the Islamic Organization – the Islamic Cooperation Organization that have been issued in Jeddah.”
—Jan. 23, 2016, during press availability with Secretary Kerry
Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman
“It [war] is something that we do not foresee at all, and whoever is pushing towards that is somebody who is not in their right mind.”
“Because a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region. … For sure we will not allow any such thing.”
—Jan. 4, 2016, in an interview with The Economist
U.N. Ambassador Abdallah al Mouallimi
“Very simple - Iran to cease and desist from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, including our own. ... If they do so, we will of course have normal relations with Iran. We are not natural-born enemies of Iran.”
—Jan. 4, 2016, to reporters 

Information and Parliament Affairs Minister Isa bin Abdulrahman al Hammadi 
“Senior Iranian officials' hostile statements, blatant interference and support to terror groups in the region over the past years have led to the establishment of a pan-Arab alliance to protect our countries and the Arab region.” 
—Jan. 4, 2016 in a press conference 

Foreign Ministry 
"In response to the barbaric attacks on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad ... the government of Sudan announces the immediate severing of ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran," 
—Jan. 4, 2016 in a statement 
United Arab Emirates 
Foreign Ministry
“This exceptional step [downgrading of diplomatic relations] has been taken in the light of Iran's continuous interference in the internal affairs of Gulf and Arab states, which has reached unprecedented levels.”
—Jan. 4, 2016 in a statement 
Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah
The “hostile acts” against the Saudi embassy and consulate constitute “blatant violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 on a country’s commitment to the protection of diplomatic missions and their premises, as well as the safety of staff.”
—Jan. 4, 2016, according to the Kuwait News Agency 
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
“Sectarian clashes are rising… Diplomatic channels must be given a chance immediately.”
—Jan. 5, 2016, in a speech to lawmakers
Foreign Ministry
“Turkey calls for an end to threats, and a return to diplomatic language, and urges mutual caution.”
—Jan. 5, 2016, in a statement
Foreign Ministry
“This step has been taken after careful consideration and in response to the Republic of Iran's continuous interference in Somalia's internal affairs.”
—Jan. 7, 2016, in a statement
United States

State Department Spokesperson John Kirby
We have seen the Saudi government's announcement that it executed 47 people.
We have previously expressed our concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia and have frequently raised these concerns at high levels of the Saudi Government. We reaffirm our calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights, and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases.
The United States also urges the Government of Saudi Arabia to permit peaceful expression of dissent and to work together with all community leaders to defuse tensions in the wake of these executions.‎
We are particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.
In this context, we reiterate the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions.
—Jan. 2, 2016, in a statement
The United States is concerned about rising tensions in the Middle East, of course, following recent executions in Saudi Arabia, attacks on Saudi diplomatic properties in Iran, and the cutting or downgrading by a number of countries of their diplomatic ties with Iran. We call on all sides to avoid any actions that would further heighten tensions in the region.
Regarding the executions in Saudi Arabia, we continue to urge the Government of Saudi Arabia to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases. And we have expressed our particular concern over the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. We also condemn the attacks on Saudi diplomatic properties in Iran. We take attacks on diplomatic facilities, as you might imagine, very seriously. We note reports that some of the perpetrators of these attacks have been arrested, and we urge the Government of Iran to fully respect its international obligations to protect diplomatic property.
On the severing of diplomatic ties, we continue to believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations are essential to work through differences. Increased friction runs counter to the interests of all those in the international community who support moderation, peace, and stability. We reiterate the need for leaders throughout the region to redouble efforts aimed at de-escalating regional tensions. In this context, over the past day or so, Secretary Kerry and senior State Department officials have been in communication with several regional leaders. We have consistently urged everyone to de-escalate tensions in the region so that we can all continue to work on resolving the pressing issues in Iraq, in Syria, in Yemen, and elsewhere throughout the Middle East.
Ultimately, solutions to problems in this region must come from leaders in this region. So while we continue to make all efforts to facilitate dialogue, the impetus is on local leadership to work through their differences and find the best path forward through this tension.
—Jan. 4, 2016, in a press briefing 
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest
“[W]e do continue to be concerned about the need for both the Iranians and the Saudis to deescalate the situation in the Middle East; that we're urging all sides to show some restraint and to not further inflame tensions that are on quite vivid display in the region.
“And Secretary Kerry has been in touch with his Iranian counterpart; United States diplomatic officials in Saudi Arabia have been in touch with their counterparts to convey this message.  I would anticipate that Secretary Kerry will be in touch with his Saudi counterpart at some point soon, as well, to deliver that same message.
“And we have seen that a lot of the volatility and instability in the Middle East has a tendency to break down along sectarian lines.  It’s not a coincidence.  And we believe that there is more that can be done by people on all sides to try to bridge those divides in a way that advances the interests of countries all across the region.”
“[T]here’s no denying the United States has a much stronger and more effective relationship with Saudi Arabia than with Iran.  But there’s also no denying that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is something that has been the source of significant concern on the part of the Obama administration and previous administrations as well.  Those are concerns that have been relayed directly by President Obama to the two Saudi Arabian leaders -- the two Saudi leaders that he has dealt with in his tenure as President, but these are also concerns that have been relayed to Saudi Arabia through a variety of channels.  And I guess you could say that it is a testament to the strength of that relationship that we could be quite public and blunt about the concerns that we do have with their behavior.
“I would say that our concerns about Saudi Arabia’s actions in this regard are related both to concerns that we have about the impact that these actions have on Saudi Arabia’s national security, but we also have concerns about the impact that this has on U.S. interests in the region.  For example, Julie asked I think an entirely legitimate question, which is we’ve got a very difficult situation that we’re trying to navigate in terms of reaching a political resolution to the situation inside of Syria. It was very difficult to get everybody around the table.  It certainly is going to be even more difficult to get everybody back around the table if you have the Saudis and the Iranians trading public barbs and public expressions of antagonism between the two countries.  So we obviously want the situation to deescalate and for all sides to take the kinds of steps that will reduce tensions in the region.”
—Jan. 4, 2016, in a press briefing
European Union
Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia carried out 47 executions earlier today.

The EU reiterates its strong opposition to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, and in particular in cases of mass executions.

The specific case of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr raises serious concerns regarding freedom of expression and the respect of basic civil and political rights, to be safeguarded in all cases, also in the framework of the fight against terrorism. This case has also the potential of enflaming further the sectarian tensions that already bring so much damage to the entire region, with dangerous consequences.

The EU calls on the Saudi authorities to promote reconciliation between the different communities in the Kingdom, and all actors to show restraint and responsibility.
—Jan. 2, 2016, in a statement 
United Nations

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
The Secretary-General is deeply dismayed over the recent execution by Saudi Arabia of 47 people, including the cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, as announced on 2 January by the country’s Interior Ministry. Sheik al-Nimr and a number of the other prisoners executed had been convicted following trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process.
The Secretary-General had raised the case of Sheikh al-Nimr with the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a number of occasions.
The Secretary-General reiterates his strong stance against the death penalty. He points to the growing movement in the international community for the abolition of capital punishment and urges Saudi Arabia to commute all death sentences imposed in the Kingdom.
The Secretary-General also calls for calm and restraint in reaction to the execution of Sheikh Nimr and urges all regional leaders to work to avoid the exacerbation of sectarian tensions. He deplores the violence by demonstrators against the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
—Jan. 2, 2016, in a statement
Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric
“The Secretary-General reiterated that the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran was deplorable, but added that the announcement of a break in Saudi diplomatic relations with Tehran was deeply worrying.
“The Secretary-General urged both foreign ministers [Jubeir and Zarif] to avoid any actions that could further exacerbate the situation between the two countries and in the region as a whole.”
“[The U.N.] will be pushing forward and very much hoping that the current tensions will not impact negatively on the two peace processes [for Syria and Yemen].”
“Mr. de Mistura believes that the crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations is a very worrisome development and he stresses the need to ensure that it does not cause a chain of adverse consequences in the region.”
—Jan. 4, 2016, in reference to Ban Ki-moon’s conversations on January 3 and 4  
Timeline of Iran-Saudi Relations
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been regional rivals for more than three decades. 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.
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 proxy battles in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
2011: The Arab Spring fuels bilateral tensions. Saudi officials accuse Iran of inciting protests in Bahrain 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. 
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.


Iran v Saudi Arabia: Islam’s Arch Rivals

Cameron Glenn

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been regional rivals for more than 30 years, but they have at least one thing in common: Both present themselves as pure, idealized states based on Islam. In practice, however, their unique blends of religion and politics are starkly different.

Iran is a predominantly Shiite theocracy; Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni monarchy. Both award significant powers to their political leaders, but clerics have disparate roles—reflecting the core difference that led to Islam’s original schism 14 centuries ago.

Iran blends democratic and religious institutions because Shiites believe the clergy is empowered to interpret God’s word. Iran’s supreme leader has the last word on political life.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy legitimized by Wahhabi clerics, but the clerics only have advisory roles. The king has the last – and only—word on political life.

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has played out on political, social, and cultural levels. Relations were strained throughout the 1980s, as Saudi Arabia quietly supported Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. The Arab Spring in 2011 further aggravated tensions – Saudi Arabia sent troops to quell the Shiite protests in Bahrain and blamed Iran for provoking the unrest. 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. And 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.

By early 2016, both countries were also on the brink of potentially tumultuous transitions. In Iran, President Hassan Rouhani began expanding Iran’s outreach to the world in the wake of the nuclear deal in July 2015, provoking a backlash from hardliners seeking to preserve the revolutionary character of the state. In Saudi Arabia, King Salman removed his brother as his successor and replaced him with a younger prince, placing the kingdom’s future in the hands of the next generation of royals. 


In Iran, the theocracy strongly rejects monarchies. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for overthrowing pro-American monarchies in the Gulf, including the Saudi kingdom. Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest cities in Islam, and the formation of the Islamic Republic – an alternative model of Islamic governance, involving elections – challenged Saudi dominance in the Muslim world.

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the experiment with Islamic governance began with the 1979 revolution. Its republican constitution draws on French and Belgian law but also stipulates that all laws must be compatible with Sharia. Since Shiism awards clerics the authority to interpret between God and man, clerics hold powerful positions in government. Each of the traditional branches of government—the presidency, legislature and judiciary—is mirrored by a parallel institution made up of clerics and Islamic scholars who act as a check-and-balance. The core political debate inside Iran often plays out over which should be more powerful—the republican institutions or the Islamic bodies.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was formed in 1932 after founder Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud seized distant oases and consolidated rival tribes. He unified much of the Arabian Peninsula by winning support from Wahhabi clerics, who offered legitimacy to the House of Saud’s absolute monarchy. The al Saud alliance with Wahhabis – followers of an ultra-conservative version of Sunni Islam – dates to the eighteenth century. The Quran and the Sunnah (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed) act as the kingdom’s constitution. But in 1992, King Fahd issued the “Basic Law of Governance” with constitution-like principles outlining government roles and responsibilities.


  Saudi Arabia

Population: 81.8 million

Median age: 28.8 years

Religion: 99.4% Muslim, 90-90% Shiite and 5-10% Sunni

Area: 1.65 million sq km

GDP per capita: $17,100

GDP: $404.1 billion

Proven crude oil reserves: 157 billion barrels

Crude oil production: 3.1 million barrels per day (2014)

Crude oil exports: 1.1 million barrels per day (2014)

Population: 27.8 million

Median age: 26.8 years

Religion: 85-90% Sunni and 10-15% Shiite

Area: 2.15 million sq km

GDP per capita: $52,200

GDP: $752.5 billion

Proven crude oil reserves: 266.6 billion barrels

Crude oil production: 9.7 billion barrels per day (2014)

Crude oil exports: 7.1 billion barrels per day (2014)

Source: OPEC; CIA World Factbook on Iran and Saudi Arabia

Laws and Courts 

Iran and Saudi Arabia claim to base their court systems on Islamic principles. Both countries have been criticized for restricting civil liberties and engaging in arbitrary arrests and detentions, according to the U.S. State Department. In September 2015, Iran summoned the Saudi charge d’affaires in Tehran to protest Saudi Arabia’s execution of three Iranians for non-violent drug offenses. But the Islamic Republic also issues death penalties for drug crimes, and both countries are on track in 2015 to have their highest execution rates in two decades.

Iran has many layers of civil, criminal, and military courts, and its constitution lays out legal rights for its citizens. An additional layer of Islamic courts allows for prosecution and imprisonment on vague charges of anti-Islamic behavior. Iran’s republican constitution promises a wide range of personal and political freedoms, but international watchdogs have documented decades of human rights violations, economic corruption, and social discrimination. Lengthy detentions without charges are common. The penal code permits traditional Islamic punishments, such as stoning, flogging, and amputation. Iran has the second-highest execution rate in the world, after China. Iran executed at least 289 people in 2014. More than 800 people were executed between January and October 2015 alone.

Saudi Arabia also has a network of civil and criminal courts, which issue rulings based only on Sharia. But judges have unparalleled flexibility in judgments and punishments since the kingdom has no formal penal code and individuals have few specified rights. Saudi violations of due process, arbitrary arrests, and torture are common and widely documented. Saudi authorities have imprisoned human rights activists and political dissidents for peaceful activities. Saudi Arabia ranks third in executions – right below Iran – with 90 total executions carried out in 2014. At least 151 people were executed between January and November 2015, according to Amnesty International.


In 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “Women must enjoy equal opportunity, equal protection, and equal social rights.” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir claimed in 2015 that “Women in Saudi Arabia are way ahead of women in other developing countries.” But Iranian women still face political, social, and economic discrimination. And Saudi women face even greater restrictions in public life than Iranian women.

In Iran, the constitution lays out rights and protections for women. They vote, run for office, hold high-ranking political positions and can pursue careers in most professions. Iranian women have won international recognition, from the Nobel Peace Prize to awards at the Cannes Film Festival. They do not need a man’s legal permission to make major life decisions. But women face discrimination in family matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Iran’s penal code also stipulates punishment for women who do not fully comply with modest Islamic dress, but many women push the limits with loose and colorful hijab and short, body-clinging jackets.

In Saudi Arabia, women are considered legal minors throughout their lives. They need legal permission from the main male in their life – whether father, husband, brother or son—for all major life decisions as well as for advanced education, employment outside the home, and travel. Women are totally banned from some ordinary public activities, such as driving. They were granted the right to vote in 2015, but gender segregation norms still largely prevent them from exercising this right. A 2013 royal decree granted women the right to serve on the Shura Council, an advisory body to the king. But, in practice, few women hold government office and employment rates are low, despite growing numbers of university graduates.

Judges rely heavily on strict interpretations of Sharia in their rulings. As in Iran, women face greater restrictions than men in matters of marriage, divorce, and custody. Saudi Arabia does not have formal laws on women’s dress. But religious police reprimand women for not wearing proper Islamic clothing, including a headscarf and abaya, a loose-fitting black cloak that covers the entire body.

Religious Minorities

Religious minorities in both countries face various forms of discrimination, which has at times highlighted sectarian tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran has accused Riyadh of encouraging unrest in Iran’s Khuzestan province, which has a large Sunni Arab population. Likewise, Riyadh accused Tehran of supporting the 2012 protests among Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province.


In Iran, the constitution provides for proportionate representation of Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians in parliament. They all have religious centers, social groups and schools. They are allowed to openly practice their religious rites, including wine for the sacrament, and their holidays. Christmas decorations are a common sight.  But religious minorities face discrimination in education and employment. Non-Muslims are not permitted to serve in the judiciary or security services. Most religious minorities are allowed to open schools, but the curriculum is heavily supervised by the Ministry of Education. Sunni Muslims have reported bans on building schools and mosques. Baha’is, Iran’s largest religious minority, have no legal protections and have been the victims of frequent persecution.

In Saudi Arabia, Basic Law identifies Sunni Islam as the state religion. Minorities rarely hold political office, but a few Shiites are members of the advisory Shura Council. The kingdom does not provide explicit protections for minority religions. Minority groups, including Shiites, are not allowed to publicly practice their faith. The kingdom forbids employment of foreign Jews, and foreign Christians in the kingdom are forbidden from either public or private practice of their holidays. It also forbids any non-Muslim from being buried on Saudi soil.

Global Goals

Iran and Saudi Arabia share at least some interests in the Middle East. Both have been significant backers of Palestinian militant groups. Both are also actively engaged in fighting ISIS, and consider themselves vanguards against extremist groups in the region. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir told the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015 that the kingdom is “at the forefront of those countries fighting terrorism from all sides.” That same month, President Rouhani called Iran’s armed forces “the biggest regional power against terrorism.”

But a shared enmity for ISIS is not enough to overcome competition between the two countries for regional influence. Tensions between the two color virtually every conflict in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been exporting their contrasting ideologies and funding different proxy groups for more than three decades.

Tehran aggressively exported its revolutionary ideology in the Islamic Republic’s early days. It promoted Shiism abroad by funding sympathetic Shiite clerics in the Arab world and South Asia. It fostered, armed and trained overt militias and covert operatives, primarily through the Revolutionary Guards. Iran is estimated to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars aiding and abetting groups, from Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah to the Palestinians’ Sunni Hamas and a wide array of Iraqi militias. Iran is a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and has sent substantial financial and military support to the regime since 2011. For decades, the State Department has named Iran as one of the world’s top sponsors of terrorism.

Riyadh began funding Wahhabi missionaries, mosques, and schools throughout the Muslim world in the 1980s, in part to counter the Islamic Republic’s influence. By some estimates, Saudi Arabia has spent at least $100 billion promoting Wahhabism since the 1980s. Saudi funds have been channeled to Sunni militant groups abroad, including Hamas, al Qaeda, and the Taliban, according to a U.S. Embassy cable.  Extremist groups have been known to gain access to Saudi-based charities that operate with little oversight from the government, diverting funds to support their operations.

Saudi Arabia considers itself a key defender of Muslims and Arabs around the world. The kingdom began launching airstrikes against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in March, and it is among the largest supporters of Sunni rebels in Syria.


United States

Iran and Saudi Arabia have disparate relationships with the United States.

Washington and Tehran established ties in the 1880s; Iran became one of two pillars of U.S. policy during the Pahlavi dynasty. After the 1979 revolution, Iranian students twice seized the American embassy. Washington severed diplomatic ties in 1980 after the second takeover resulted in prolonged captivity for 52 diplomats. Over the years, the United States imposed an escalating series of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, human rights abuses, and support for terrorist groups. The historic nuclear deal in 2015 raised hopes of improving relations, although President Hassan Rouhani cautioned that restoring ties “isn’t going to happen overnight.”

Riyadh has had diplomatic relations with the United States since 1940. And since 1979, the kingdom has replaced Iran as a key pillar of U.S. policy in the region. “Saudi Arabia’s unique role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, its possession of the world’s largest reserves of oil, and its strategic location make its friendship important to the United States,” according to the State Department. In early 2015, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir said no one should “underestimate the strength and depth of relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia.” The United States is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, and the two countries have a long history of security cooperation. Saudi Arabia imports more U.S. arms than any other country, reaching $90 billion in weapons deals between 2010 and 2015.


Tehran and Riyadh both oppose ISIS, but they support different actors in Syria’s civil war.

Iran has sent military advisors, equipment, and billions of dollars in aid to support Bashar al Assad's regime since 2011. The Islamic Republic has also been critical of U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS. In September 2015, President Rouhani said “If we want to fight terrorists in Syria, we cannot do so while weakening the central government in Damascus.” Assad and his clan are Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam, while the majority of Syrians are Sunnis.

Saudi Arabia funds Syria's Sunni rebels fighting Assad, including the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. In 2013, it surpassed Qatar as the largest backer of Syrian rebel groups. It joined the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in 2014. Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir said in September 2015 that a political solution has “no room for Bashar al Assad or those whose hands have been stained by the blood of the Syrian people.”

In October 2015, Iran accepted an invitation to join Syria peace talks in Vienna with more than a dozen other counties - including Saudi Arabia. The invitation, backed by the United States, marked a major change after two earlier failed peace initiatives in 2012 and 2014. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir said it would be an opportunity to "test Iran's intentions." Iran's Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Hassan Firouzabadi called Saudi Arabia's participation "suspicious and illegitimate." At the talks, tensions between the two countries were palpable -- the delegations were even seated far apart at the negotiating table in such a way that they could avoid making eye contact.


Iran and Saudi Arabia have clashed over the conflict in Yemen. The Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement frustrated with their poor political and economic status, took over large parts of Yemen in 2014 and forced out President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The Houthis have been fighting Yemen’s government since 2004.

Iran is widely believed to back the Houthis, though the extent of their support is disputed. Tehran has denied providing arms or training to the Houthis, but some Iranian officials have expressed support for the Houthis’ cause. Houthi spokesman Mohammad Abdul Salam said in March 2015 that “Iran’s stance has been positive and the country has supported the Yemeni people.”

Saudi Arabia strongly opposes the Houthis and seeks to restore Hadi’s government. In March 2015, the kingdom began a bombing campaign against the Houthis to dislodge them from power. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir commended the Saudi campaign for “liberating numerous areas from the grip of insurgents” in September 2015. He also accused Iran of “trying to escalate the crisis in Yemen through incitement and attempts to smuggle arms to the rebels.”

Tehran has harshly criticized the Saudi bombing campaign. Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani called the bombings a “war crime.” On the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2015, President Rouhani said that Riyadh “should not have had the right to interfere in Yemen’s internal problems.”

Israel and Palestinians

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has diplomatic ties with Israel, and both have separately supported Palestinian militant groups.

Allies under the shah, Iran and Israel ended relations after the 1979 revolution. Tensions between them reached new heights in 2010 over Iran’s advancing nuclear program, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been an outspoken critic of the nuclear deal reached between Iran and the world’s six major powers. Iran trained and equipped Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the 1980s. It has also provided military aid to Hamas. But relations have been strained since 2011, when Hamas began backing Sunni rebels in Syria’s civil war.

Saudi Arabia has never formally recognized the state of Israel and has reportedly sent more than $480 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority since 2002. Saudi Arabia introduced the Arab Peace Initiative at the 2002 Arab League summit, which proposed a two-state solution. Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir called for addressing the “continued suffering of the Palestinian people, who are still deprived of their right to live in dignity, in defiance of the principles of international law and resolutions of international legitimacy” during his speech at the 2015 U.N. General Assembly. Although the kingdom’s ties to Hamas have been strained in the past, Hamas leaders visited King Salman in Riyadh in July 2015, signaling a potential shift.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia and Israel have some common interests. Both are U.S. allies, and both are wary of Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Rumors have circulated that the two countries have held secret meetings and exchanged intelligence over the past few years.

Photo credits: Imam Khomeini via Instagram; Ibn Saud via Wikimedia Commons [public domain]; Kerry and Jubeir by U.S. Department of State via Flickr Commons 

This piece is part of a 4-part series on Iran and Saudi Arabia. 


Cameron Glenn is a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Iran v Saudi Arabia: Government & Ideology

Cameron Glenn


Iran and Saudi Arabia both claim to be model states based on Islam. But Iran is a theocracy with democratic elements, and Saudi Arabia is a hereditary monarchy. Iran’s political system is based on Shiism, while Saudi Arabia has strong ties to Wahhabism, a conservative branch of Sunni Islam.

Saudi Arabia
The Constitution
Article 2
The Islamic Republic is a system based on belief in:
1.the One God (as stated in the phrase “There is no god except Allah”), His exclusive sovereignty and the right to legislate, and the necessity of submission to His commands;
2.Divine revelation and its fundamental role in setting forth the laws”
“In the view of Islam, government does not derive from the interests of a class, nor does it serve the domination of an individual or a group. It represents rather the crystallization of the political ideal of a people who bear a common faith and common outlook… Our nation, in the course of its revolutionary developments, has cleansed itself of the dust and impurities that accumulated during the taghuti [idol-worshipping] past and purged itself of foreign ideological influences, returning to authentic intellectual standpoints and world-view of Islam. It now intends to establish an ideal and model society on the basis of Islamic norms.”
The Basic Law of Governance
Chapter 1, Article 1
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic State. Its religion is Islam. Its constitution is Almighty God's Book, The Holy Qur'an, and the Sunna (Traditions) of the Prophet (PBUH).
Chapter 2, article 7
Government in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia derives its authority from the Book of God and the Sunna of the Prophet (PBUH), which are the ultimate sources of reference for this Law and the other laws of the State.
Chapter 2, Article 8
Governance in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on justice, shura (consultation) and equality according to Islamic Sharia.
King Fahd, in a speech announcing the 1992 Basic Law

“The Saudi State has become a distinguished model of politics and government in modern political history.”
“The relationship between citizens and state officials is founded on solid and deep-rooted traditions, compassion, mutual respect and loyalty stemming from the sincere and firm convictions in the hearts of this country's people generation. There is no difference between the ruler and the ruled. They are equal before the law of God, and they are all equal in their love of this homeland and in their eagerness to maintain its safety, unity, pride and progress.”
Iran: The constitution lays out an idyllic vision of “an ideal and model society” based on Islam. The Islamic Republic is strongly anti-monarchical, and its political system contains a blend of democratic and theocratic elements. Its constitution draws upon French and Belgian law, while stipulating that all laws be compatible with Sharia. The government has executive, legislative, and judicial branches, but also a parallel set of Islamic institutions. Iran holds elections for the president, parliament, and Assembly of Experts (which selects the supreme leader). But all candidates must be vetted by the 12-member Guardian Council, overseen by the supreme leader.
Iran's political system is based on Shiism. Shiites make up around 10 percent of the world's Muslims, but 90 percent of Iranians are Shiites. The split between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the Prophet Mohammad's death in the seventh century. Shiites believed that Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law and cousin, should be his immediate successor. But Sunnis believed that the Muslim community could select a new leader without blood ties to the Prophet.
Iranians predominantly practice "Twelver" Shiism. Twelver Shiites believe that the twelfth imam, who disappeared in 874AD, will one day return as the Mahdi, or promised one. In Twelver Shiism, clerics can substitute for the Mahdi’s authority, and the faithful are obliged to follow their religious rulings.
Although the Shiite clergy were historically independent from government, Iran’s theocracy seized control of the “sacred” after the 1979 revolution and co-opted the clerical establishment. Iran’s theocratic regime has deprived the entire clerical class of its autonomy, but also made it rich and powerful. Khamenei, for example, reportedly controls a multi-billion dollar financial empire. 
Saudi Arabia: Like Iran’s constitution, Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law frames the political system as an ideal Islamic state. In 1992, King Fahd described Saudi Arabia as a “distinguished model of politics.”
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy. Extensive powers are allocated to the king, who must be a descendent of the first Saudi monarch, Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. Political parties are banned, and the only public elections are for municipal councils.
The royal family has strong links to Wahhabism, a conservative branch of Sunni Islam. The relationship dates back to the 18th century. Mohammad Ibn Abd al Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi movement, sought protection from Mohammad Ibn Saud and his tribe in 1744. In the early 20th century, Bedouin followers of Wahhabism, known as the Ikhwan, were instrumental in aiding Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud in his military campaign to unify much of the Arabian Peninsula.
In his teachings, Wahhab denounced popular Islamic practices, particularly those associated with Sufism, and emphasized the concept of tawhid, or oneness of God. He drew upon the teachings of 14th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who called for a return to the earliest forms of Islam. Wahhabis hold conservative views on gender relations, minority rights, and personal freedoms. They denounce pilgrimages to tombs – a common practice in Shiism – as polytheistic.
Saudi laws and regulations are rooted in Wahhabi principles, but the Saud family holds ultimate authority in the kingdom. Unlike in Iran, clerics do not play a formal role in government. But they have been incorporated into the political establishment through the Senior Council of Ulama, the kingdom’s highest religious body. The council advises the king and provides endorsements for state policies. In 2009, King Abdullah extended membership for the first time to non-Wahhabi scholars. 
Laws and Courts

Iran and Saudi Arabia base their court systems on Islam. They both emphasize the right of every citizen to seek justice through the courts.
Both have also been criticized for human rights violations. According to the U.S. State Department, both countries restrict civil liberties and engage in arbitrary arrests and detentions. Additionally, Iran and Saudi Arabia together accounted for more than 62 percent of the 607 executions recorded by Amnesty International in 20 countries in 2014. Both are on track in 2015 to have their highest execution rates in two decades. Iran and Saudi Arabia are among a handful of countries that issue the death penalty for crimes the perpetrators committed as minors.
 Saudi Arabia
The Constitution
“Legislation setting forth regulations for the administration of society will revolve around the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Accordingly, the exercise of meticulous and earnest supervision by just, pious, and committed scholars of Islam (al-fuqaha' al-'udul) is an absolute necessity.”
“The judiciary is of vital importance in safeguarding the rights of the people in accordance with the line followed by the Islamic movement, and the prevention of deviations within the Islamic nation. Provision has therefore been made for the creation of a judicial system based on Islamic justice and operated by just judges with meticulous knowledge of the Islamic laws.
Article 32
“No one may be arrested except by the order and in accordance with the procedure laid down by law…
Article 34
“It is the indisputable right of every citizen to seek justice by recourse to competent courts. All citizens have right of access to such courts, and no one can be barred from courts to which he has a legal right of recourse.
Article 35
“Both parties to a lawsuit have the right in all courts of law to select an attorney, and if they are unable to do so, arrangements must be made to provide them with legal counsel.”
The Basic Law of Governance
Chapter 6, Article 48
The Courts shall apply rules of the Islamic Sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Qur'an and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Qur'an and the Sunna.
Chapter 6, Article 55
The King shall rule the nation according to the Sharia. He shall also supervise the implementation of the Sharia, the general policy of the State, and the defense and protection of the country.
Chapter 5, Article 26
The State shall protect human rights in accordance with the Sharia.
Chapter 6, Article 46
The Judiciary is an independent authority. The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic Sharia.
Chapter 6, Article 47
All people, either citizens or residents in the Kingdom, are entitled to file suit on an equal basis. The Law shall specify procedures for this purpose.
Iran: The legal system includes many layers of civil, criminal and military courts. But it also has two sets of tribunals outside of the judiciary, the Revolutionary Courts and the Special Court for the Clergy. The latter has been used as a political tool to silence clerics who urge reform or challenge the regime.
Amputation, flogging and stoning to death are all legal according to Iran’s penal code. The code’s latest iteration, which entered into force in 2013, “now omits references to apostasy, witchcraft and heresy, but continues to allow for juvenile executions,” according to a U.N. report.
Iran’s most significant human rights problems include restrictions on civil liberties, arbitrary detentions, and torture, according to the U.S. State Department.

Iran ranks second in the world for executions, behind China. The death penalty applies to a wide range of crimes, including drug-related offenses, adultery, rape, sodomy, and insulting the Prophet Mohammad. Iran has seen a sharp rise in executions during the past few years. The government announced 289 executions in 2014, but there may have been hundreds more that were not formally acknowledged, according to Amnesty International. More than 800 people were executed between January and October 2015, putting Iran on track to have its highest execution rate in 25 years.

Saudi Arabia: The king acts as the head of the legal system and the final court of appeals. The High Court is the highest judicial authority in the kingdom.
The kingdom has three types of courts:
  1. Sharia courts, which are the largest network of courts and hear the most cases
  2. The Board of Grievances, which manages cases that involve the government
  3. Committees in government ministries that address specific issues, such as labor disputes
Courts are required to issue rulings in accordance with Sharia. But Saudi Arabia does not have a formal penal code, so judges have flexibility to issue a wide range of convictions on charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” according to Human Rights Watch. Lashing, stoning, and amputations have been doled out as punishments.
Saudi Arabia restricts the rights of women, children, and non-citizens. Violations of due process, arbitrary arrests, and torture are common. Suspects are sometimes held for months or even years without facing trial. Saudi authorities have imprisoned human rights activists and political dissidents for peaceful activities.

Saudi Arabia ranks third in the world for executions. Less than half of death penalty cases are for murder, with the rest for crimes such as non-violent drug offenses and sorcery. At least 90 people were executed in 2014, and 151 were executed between January and November 2015 – the highest recorded figure in two decades. 

International Relations

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have sought to export their brands of Islam throughout the Muslim world. The two countries are vying for regional dominance by backing rival armed groups across the Middle East and South Asia.
 Saudi Arabia
The Constitution
“With due attention to the Islamic content of the Iranian Revolution…the Constitution provides the necessary basis for ensuring the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad. In particular, in the development of international relations, the Constitution will strive with other Islamic and popular movements to prepare the way for the formation of a single world community…and to assure the continuation of the struggle for the liberation of all deprived and oppressed peoples in the world.’”
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a speech on Nov. 2, 2015
“In the Constitution, Islam sets the criterion for foreign policy. Therefore, taking a stance vis-à-vis different countries and issues must lie within a religious framework.” 
The Basic Law of Governance
Chapter 5, Article 23
The State shall protect the Islamic Creed, apply the Sharia, encourage good and discourage evil, and undertake its duty regarding the Propagation of Islam (Da'wa).


Iran: In the revolution’s early days, Iran sought to export its revolutionary ideology to both Sunnis and Shiites. “We shall export our revolution to the whole world,” Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pledged. “Until the cry ‘there is no god but God’ resounds over the whole world, there will be struggle.”
The theocracy has actually had little success in exporting its Islamic revolution. Tehran funds the activities of clerics trained in the holy city of Qom and promotes its brand of Islam in Shiite communities across the world. But the strength of Iran’s soft power is debatable. After the devastating war with Iraq from 1980-1988, Tehran scaled back efforts to export its revolution.
Iran has had much more success assisting armed organizations that share its goals and values. It has cultivated spheres of influence in Shiite communities, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and aided Palestinian Islamic groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran reportedly sends Hezbollah between $100 million and $200 million per year, and has sent Hamas as much as $300 million per year, according to the Congressional Research Service. But precise figures are not known.

The goal of these relationships, however, has not been to gain territory. Iran’s only territorial disputes are with the United Arab Emirates over three small Gulf islands.

Saudi Arabia: The kingdom did little to export Wahhabism beyond its borders during its first few decades of existence. But in 1979, Saudi leaders felt their dominance in the Islamic world challenged by the Iranian revolution, which provided an alternative model of Islamic governance.

Since the 1980s, Saudi Arabia has reportedly spent at least $100 billion exporting Wahhabism to Muslim countries around the world through missionaries, building mosques and schools, media outreach, and other activities. The kingdom sent nearly $4 billion in aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Loosely monitored Saudi-based charities have reportedly funded Sunni militant groups such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Hamas. 
Saudi leaders have been criticized for their links to hardline Wahhabi doctrine, which has been adopted by extremist groups. These groups have also become a domestic threat. ISIS claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Shiite mosques in Saudi Arabia May, August, and October 2015.
In 2014, the late King Abdullah put pressure on top clergy to denounce militant groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. In an effort to contain extremist currents, the government has promoted moderate clergy to key positions and even opened up the country’s top clerical council to non-Wahhabis.
Photo credits: Hezbollah logo via Wikimedia CommonsHamas flag by Bluedenim [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons 


This piece is part of a 4-part series on Iran and Saudi Arabia. 


Cameron Glenn is a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Iran v Saudi Arabia: Leadership

Cameron Glenn

Current leaders

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are ruled by leaders with virtually unchecked authority. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been Iran's supreme leader since 1989, and King Salman has ruled Saudi Arabia since January 2015.
 Saudi Arabia
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei 
Born in 1939 to a traditional family, Ali Khamenei followed in his father’s footsteps and became a cleric. He joined the struggle against the monarchy in the 1960s and spent several years in prison before the 1979 revolution. 
Khamenei’s sacrifices for the Islamic revolution and close relationship with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini helped him to attain power within the new government. He served as president for two terms from 1981 to 1989. When Khomeini died in 1989, he left no designated successor. Khamenei was selected by the Assembly of Experts as the second supreme leader, despite the objection of some senior clerics who felt he lacked the theological credentials.    
Khamenei still upholds the revolutionary and anti-Western narrative of the 1979 revolution. The United States and its allies, especially Israel, are trying to undermine Iran and the progress of Muslim nations, according to his worldview. 
Click here for more information on Khamenei.
King Salman bin Abdul Aziz
King Salman was born in Riyadh in 1935. He was one of seven sons of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and Hussa bint Ahmad Sudairi. He studied religion and modern science at the Prince’s School in Riyadh, which was established by King Abdul Aziz to educate his sons.
He served as Governor of Riyadh from 1955 to 1960 and 1963 to 2011, overseeing its evolution into a major city. He was appointed as Minister of Defense in 2011, and became the Crown Prince in 2012.
King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015, at the age of 79, after the death of his brother King Abdullah. King Salman has suffered at least one stroke, and rumors have circulated about his ailing health. He appointed Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as Crown Prince, the youngest living son of King Abdul Aziz, but later replaced him with his nephew, Interior Minister Mohammad bin Nayef. King Salman’s 30-year-old son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is theDeputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense.
King Salman is conservative and has cautioned that “social and cultural factors” prevent reforms from moving too quickly in the kingdom.


Qualifications and Selection

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia emphasize moral qualities in selecting their leaders, and both emphasize that there is no difference between the ruler and the ruled. But the two differ fundamentally on the leader’s qualifications and selection process.
 Saudi Arabia
The Constitution
Article 109 
Following are the essential qualifications and conditions for the Leader: 
•a. scholarship, as required for performing the functions of mufti in different fields of fiqh. 
•b. Justice and piety, as required for the leadership of the Islamic Ummah [nation]. 
•c. right political and social perspicacity, prudence, courage, administrative facilities and adequate capability for leadership. 
In case of multiplicity of persons fulfilling the above qualifications and conditions, the person possessing the better jurisprudential and political perspicacity will be given preference.
Article 107
“The Leader thus elected by the Assembly of Experts shall assume all the powers of the wilayat al-amr and all the responsibilities arising therefrom. The Leader is equal with the rest of the people of the country in the eyes of law.”
Article 5
During the Occultation of the Wart al-'Asr (may God hasten his reappearance), the wilayah and leadership of the Ummah devolve upon the just ['adil] and pious [muttaqil faqih, who is fully aware of the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability, will assume the responsibilities of this office in accordance with Article 107.
Article 111
Whenever the Leader becomes incapable of fulfilling his constitutional duties...or it becomes known that he did not possess some of the qualifications initially, he will be dismissed.
The Basic Law of Governance

Chapter 2, article 5
•  Rulers of the country shall be from amongst the sons of the founder King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Faisal Al-Saud, and their descendants.
•  The most upright among them shall receive allegiance according to Almighty God's Book and His Messenger's Sunna (Traditions).
Chapter 2, Article 6:
In support of the Book of God and the Sunna of His Messenger (PBUH), citizens shall give the pledge of allegiance (bay'a) to the King, professing loyalty in times of hardship and ease. 
Article 6
When the king dies, the Allegiance Commission shall call for swearing allegiance to the Crown Prince as a king of the country in accordance with this statute and the Basic Law of the Government.
Article 7
After the swearing of allegiance and after consultations with the Allegiance Commission members, the king shall choose one, two, or three candidates whom he deems suitable for the position of Crown Prince. He shall present this choice to the Allegiance Commission. The commission must endeavor to nominate one of these candidates by consensus to be named Crown Prince. In case the Allegiance Commission does not nominate any of these, it shall nominate whom it thinks would be suitable to become Crown Prince.
King Fahd’s speech accompanying the 1992 Basic Law

“There is no difference between the ruler and the ruled. They are equal before the law of God.”
Iran: Leadership is based on the Shiite concept of velayat-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist.” The supreme leader is empowered to provide political and religious leadership in the absence of the 12th imam. The 86-member Assembly of Experts is a body of clerics tasked with appointing the supreme leader based on his scholarship, justice, and piety. The body can also theoretically supervise and remove the supreme leader if he is not fulfilling his duties. In practice, the council rarely challenges or criticizes the supreme leader. 
Saudi Arabia: The Basic Law stipulates that the king must be chosen from Abdul Aziz’s sons and their male descendants. When a king dies, he is succeeded by the Crown Prince. In 2006, King Abdullah issued a royal decree creating the Allegiance Council, a committee of princes from each line of the Saud family responsible for issues of succession. The council is tasked with approving the king’s choice for Crown Prince within 30 days of acceding the throne. It is also responsible for transferring power if the king is unable to continue his duties for medical reasons.

Both Iran’s supreme leader and Saudi Arabia’s king hold substantial authority over other branches of government. Both are tasked with ruling according to Islam.
 Saudi Arabia
The Constitution
The Constitution provides for the establishment of leadership by a faqih possessing the necessary qualifications...Such leadership will prevent any deviation by the various organs of State from their essential Islamic duties.
Article 110
Following are the duties and powers of the Leadership:
1.Delineation of the general policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran after consultation with the Nation's Exigency Council.
2.Supervision over the proper execution of the general policies of the system.
3.Issuing decrees for national referenda.
4.Assuming supreme command of the armed forces.
5.Declaration of war and peace, and the mobilization of the armed forces.
6.Appointment, dismissal, and acceptance of resignation of:
a. the fuqaha on the Guardian Council.
b. the supreme judicial authority of the country.
c. the head of the radio and television net- work of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
d. the chief of the joint staff.
e. the chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.
f. the supreme commanders of the armed forces.
7.Resolving differences between the three wings of the armed forces and regulation of their relations.
8.Resolving the problems, which cannot be solved by conventional methods, through the Nation's Exigency Council.
9.Signing the decree formalizing the election of the President of the Republic by the people...
10.Dismissal of the President of the Republic, with due regard for the interests of the country...
11.Pardoning or reducing the sentences of convicts, within the framework of Islamic criteria, on a recommendation [to that effect] from the Head of judicial power.
The Basic Law of Governance
Chapter 6, Article 55:
The King shall rule the nation according to the Sharia. He shall also supervise the implementation of the Sharia, the general policy of the State, and the defense and protection of the country.
Chapter 6, Article 56:
The King is the Prime Minister. Members of the Council of Ministers shall assist him in the performance of his mission...
Article 57:
The King shall appoint and relieve deputies of the Prime Minister and member minister of the Council by Royal Decree.
Deputies of the Prime Minister and member ministers of the Council shall be jointly responsible to the King for the implementation of the Sharia, laws and the general policy of the State.
The King is entitled to dissolve and reconstitute the Council of Ministers.
Article 58:
The King shall appoint those who are at the rank of ministers and deputy ministers, and those who are at the highest grade and relieve them by a Royal Decree as provided by the Law. Ministers and heads of independent departments shall be answerable to the King in respect of the ministries and agencies they head.
Article 60:
The King is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. He shall appoint and dismiss officers form service, as provided by terms of the Law.
Article 61:
The King shall announce any state of emergency or general mobilization and shall declare war. The Law shall specify rules for this purpose.
Article 68:
 ...The King may dissolve and reconstitute Majlis Ash-Shura.
Article 69:
The King may summon Majlis Ash-Shura and the Council of Ministers for a joint session...
Article 70:
Laws, international agreements, treaties and concessions shall be approved and amended by Royal Decrees.
Iran: Supreme Leader Khamenei holds constitutional authority or significant influence over all branches of government, the military, and the judiciary. He oversees the 12-member Guardian Council, which vets electoral candidates and can veto parliamentary decisions. Khamenei also has authority over Iran’s largely state-owned economy, and has discretionary authority over oil revenues.  
Saudi Arabia: Extensive powers are allocated to King Salman, who is the “ultimate arbiter” of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, according to the Basic Law. The king acts as prime minister and head of the armed forces. He has authority to appoint members of the Council of Ministers and the Majles al Shura, or consultative council. He also holds the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, two of the most important sites in Islam.
This piece is part of a 4-part series on Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

Cameron Glenn is a senior program assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Iran v Saudi Arabia: Women & Minorities

Katayoun Kishi


Women in Iran and Saudi Arabia face political, social, and economic discrimination. Rhetorically, Iranian and Saudi leaders often defend women’s rights, and the two countries have even taken steps to include women in political life. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir claimed in 2015 that "Women in Saudi Arabia are way ahead of women in other developing countries.” In 2014, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that “Women must enjoy equal opportunity, equal protection, and equal social rights.”
But in practice, women in both countries are largely absent from high-level political positions, are restricted in marriage, divorce, and citizenship rights, and face discrimination in the workforce and universities.
Iran's constitution is more explicit than the Saudi Basic Law of Governance on women’s rights. Saudi laws rely heavily on judicial interpretations of Sharia law, making it difficult to protect against discrimination. In both countries, however, discriminatory practices continue despite legal attempts at equality.
   Saudi Arabia
The Constitution
Article 20
All citizens of the country, both men and women, equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.
Article 21
The government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria, and accomplish the following goals:
1. create a favorable environment for the growth of woman's personality and the restoration of her rights, both the material and intellectual;
2 .the protection of mothers, particularly during pregnancy and childrearing, and the protection of children without guardians;
3. establishing competent courts to protect and preserve the family;
4. the provision of special insurance for widows, and aged women and women without support;
5. the awarding of guardianship of children to worthy mothers, in order to protect the interests of the children, in the absence of a legal guardian.
Article 638
Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a harām (sinful) act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public prudency, they shall only be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.
It is only natural that women should benefit from a particularly large augmentation of their rights, because of the greater oppression that they suffered under the Taghuti [idolatrous] regime.
The family is the fundamental unit of society and the main center for the growth and edification of human being…This view of the family unit delivers woman from being regarded as an object or as an instrument in the service of promoting consumerism and exploitation. Not only does woman recover thereby her momentous and precious function of motherhood, rearing of ideologically committed human beings, she also assumes a pioneering social role and becomes the fellow struggler of man in all vital areas of life. Given the weighty responsibilities that woman thus assumes, she is accorded in Islam great value and nobility.
Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran –Book Five

“Women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab [veil], shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fine of fifty thousand to five hundred Rials."
King Abdullah, Sep. 25, 2011

“Because we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with sharia, we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama [clerics] and others... to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term [2015]…Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote.”

Royal Order A/44, Jan. 11, 2013

“The Shura Council shall consist of a Speaker and one hundred and fifty members chosen by the King from amongst scholars, those of knowledge, expertise and specialists, provided that women representation shall not be less than (20%) of members’ number.”
“Women, selected as members of the Shura Council, will enjoy full rights of membership, be committed to their duties, responsibilities and assume their jobs. As per the introduction of this order, women, who are members of the Shura Council, will be asked to strictly follow the Islamic Sharia regulations, without any kind of violation, including the Sharia head and face covers (Hijab). In particular, the following points should be observed:
1- A special seating place will be allocated for women of the Shura Council, a special entrance and exit to and from the Council main hall will also be constructed and all relevant things in complete non-touch with men.
2- Special places will be allotted for women, guaranteeing complete isolation from those allotted for men, including special offices for them and for their workers and helpers, e.g. special appliances and services and prayer places."
Fatwa from Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz, former chairman of the Senior Council of Ulama

“There is no doubt that such [driving] is not allowed. Women driving lead to many evils and negative consequences. Included among these is her mixing with men without her being on her guard. It also leads to the evil sins due to which such an action is forbidden.”
From a Saudi Labor Law

“It is forbidden…the employment of women in hazardous work or harmful industries.”
“The system also prohibits the employment of women at night and for more than eleven consecutive hours.”
“The system gives working women the right to maternity leave for 10 weeks.”
“In addition to maternity leave, women have the right to enjoy all kinds of leave guaranteed by the Labor law including annual leave, sick leave, marriage leave and leave on the status of the deceased spouses or relatives, leave to perform Hajj, leave to perform examinations affiliated with an educational institution, and finally the worker's right.”

Participation in government

Women in Iran serve in parliament and hold high positions in government ministries. Nine women were elected to Parliament in 2012. In 2013, President Rouhani reappointed Masoumeh Ebtekar as a Vice President of Iran. But all of the approximately 30 women who registered as candidates for the 2013 presidential election were disqualified by the Guardian Council.
In Saudi Arabia, women’s roles in government are limited. King Abdullah announced in 2011 that women could become members of the Shura Council, an advisory body to the king. But only a few women hold high level government positions, primarily in the health, education, and social services sectors. Despite the lack of an explicit ban on women’s voting in the 2004 electoral law, women were turned away from the polls in the 2005 municipal elections due to a lack of separate voting booths for women’s use.
In the December 2015 municipal elections, however, Saudi women voted and ran as candidates for the first time. Around 130,000 women registered to vote, and 19 women were elected.

Family matters

In Iran, despite protections outlined in the constitution, women face serious discrimination, especially in matters related to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. A woman, regardless of her age, needs her male guardian’s consent for marriage.
Child marriage, though uncommon, is not illegal. The legal age of marriage is 13 for girls and 15 for boys. A judge can grant permission for children to marry at even younger ages.
Women cannot automatically transfer their citizenship to their children or spouses. In 2015, Parliament rejected a law that would have granted naturalization rights for children of Iranian mothers and foreign fathers.
A woman must have the permission of her father, grandfather, or the court to marry, regardless of her age. Legally, men may have up to four wives. A woman must receive her husband’s approval for divorce, but the husband may request a divorce for no cited reason. Islamic alimony or shared property laws are not enforced. The husband is given custody of children over seven years old unless he is deemed unfit to care for them. Divorced women who remarry must surrender custody of their children to the father.
In Saudi Arabia, laws do not prohibit discrimination based on gender, and informal guardianship laws make women legal dependents of close male relatives. Legal matters involving women are decided by Islamic courts that cite Sharia law and conservative traditional practices as the basis for their decisions. Female testimony in court is worth half as much as male testimony.
Women of all ages need a male guardian or judge’s permission for marriage.
They require government approval to marry non-citizens and are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims. Women must show a legal basis for divorce, while men are not required to do so. Custody of children is granted to the divorced husband or the deceased husband’s family after boys reach seven years old and girls reach nine years old.
Child marriage is uncommon and largely limited to rural areas, but not illegal. Girls as young as 10 years old can marry, based on Sharia law. Some government officials, however, have called for a minimum marriage age. The government requires the bride’s age on the marriage license, and marriage registrars have reportedly been told not to approve marriages involving children.
Citizenship is transferred to children paternally. A child that is born to an unwed mother is not legally affiliated with the father and is therefore “stateless.”  Children can be denied citizenship if the father fails to report the birth.

Education and careers

Women make up some 60 percent of university students in Iran. Yet quotas and restrictions limit subjects women can study, notably medicine and engineering.
In the workplace, women reportedly earn about 61 percent as much money as men in similar jobs. The law does not require equal pay for equal work. Women must have a man’s consent to work outside the home. Only 16 percent of the workforce is female, according to a U.N. estimate.
Women make up 58 percent of all university students in Saudi Arabia. They are typically segregated from male students and often do not have access to the same university facilities or library resources as their male counterparts. Universities limit the number and types of courses available to women. In some cases, a male guardian’s approval is needed to register for classes or apply for academic internships.
Many businesses will not hire women without approval from a male guardian. Businesses also face disincentives to hire women, leading to an unemployment rate that is three times higher than male unemployment. Women are required to work in separate facilities from male workers, which creates extra costs. Women are unable to interact with government agencies without a male representative. And employers may have to coordinate female employees’ transportation.

Violence against women

In Iran, rape is illegal and subject to harsh penalties, including execution. But the government reportedly does not enforce the law effectively. Spousal rape is not addressed as sex within marriage is considered consensual. Rape is often underreported for fear of ostracism, charges of indecency, or being found to have made a false accusation. The law requires four male Muslim witnesses or a combination of three male and two female witness to make a conviction.
Iran’s laws do not specifically prohibit domestic violence. Little data is available, but a 2011 University of Tehran study suggested that a woman was physically abused every nine seconds in Iran.
In Saudi Arabia, rape is prohibited under Sharia law, but many rape cases go unreported because of social stigmas, consequences for marriage prospects, or accusations of adultery. Spousal rape is not recognized as a crime.
Domestic violence is also underreported, as women are required to have a male guardian’s permission to file a criminal complaint, even if that complaint is against the guardian. 
Some estimates say 16-50 percent of wives are abused. There is no single government definition of domestic violence, so enforcement is varied across government organizations.

Freedom of movement

In Iran, women must have their guardian or husband’s permission to obtain a passport. Married women can be banned by their husbands from leaving the country. Divorced and single women do not need a guardian’s permission to travel abroad.
In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to travel without the permission of a male guardian. When travelling without a guardian, women must show travel cards that indicate the number of trips and travel days that have been approved by the guardian. They also need a guardian’s permission to obtain a passport. Although there is not an official government ban on women driving, it is “universally understood” to be prohibited, according toHuman Rights Watch

Dress code

Iran lacks a clear definition of appropriate dress for women. Hijab literally means covering and could describe many different types of clothing. Some women wear traditional chadors, while others boldly express themselves. The prevalence of leggings led lawmakers to summon the interior minister in June 2014 to questioning on lax implementation of dress codes. Women risk being fined or sentenced to lashings based on the opinion of male and female members of the Basij militia who enforce the dress code on the street.
The dress code, however, does not prevent female athletes from participating in international competitions. Eight out of 53 of Iran’s competitors at the 2012 Olympics were female. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said Iranians should be proud of female athletes who make it to the medal podium wearing hijab. President Hassan Rouhani has congratulated female athletes on their accomplishments several times.
While there are no explicit laws dictating women’s dress in Saudi Arabia, courts enforce Islamic cultural norms of wearing an abaya (a loose-fitting, full-length black cloak that covers the entire body) in public, and covering the hair with a head scarf. While the face does not necessarily need to be covered, women can be reprimanded by religious police (Mutaween) for showing too much flesh or wearing too much makeup.
Saudi women participated in the Olympics for the first time in 2012. They competed wearing Sharia-approved athletic clothing.

Religious minorities in Iran and Saudi Arabia experience varying levels of mostly unofficial discrimination. In Iran, some laws explicitly recognize the rights of minority groups like Sunni Muslims, Jews, and Christians, but these groups often find it difficult to practice their faith in public or advance in government positions. Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law identifies Sunni Islam as the official state religion, and minorities practicing other sects of Islam or religions are often persecuted. These groups are prevented from gathering in public to practice their faith and are rarely included in high-level government or military positions. 
Saudi Arabia
The Constitution
Article 12
Other Islamic schools, including the Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Zaydi, are to be accorded full respect, and their followers are free to act in accordance with their own jurisprudence in performing their religious rites.
Article 13
Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian Iranians are the only recognized religious minorities, who, within the limits of the law, are free to perform their religious rites and ceremonies, and to act according to their own canon in matters of personal affairs and religious education.
Article 14
In accordance with the sacred verse ("God doesn't forbid you to deal kindly and justly with those who have not fought against you because of your religion and who have not expelled you from your homes" [60:8]), the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran and all Muslims are duty-bound to treat non-Muslims in conformity with ethical norms and the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights. This principle applies to all who refrain from engaging in conspiracy or activity against Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Basic Law of Governance
Article 1
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic State. Its religion is Islam. Its constitution is Almighty God's Book, The Holy Qur'an, and the Sunna (Traditions) of the Prophet (PBUH). Arabic is the language of the Kingdom. The City of Riyadh is the capital.    
Iran: The Islamic Republic does not differentiate between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in reporting statistics. But Sunnis are thought to number between 4 and 8 million, or five to 10 percent of the population. Sunnis reportedly face discrimination and restrictions on building mosques and schools. Marginalization of Sunnis in Balochistan led to the formation of Jundallah, an armed separatist group, in the early 2000s. Sunnis in Iran are from several ethnicities, such as Baloch, Arab and Kurd.
Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians collectively make up less than one percent of Iran’s population. Yet they are guaranteed places in the 290-seat parliament proportionate to the size of their communities:
  • Two seats for Armenian Christians,
  • One for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians,
  • One for Jews,
  • One for Zoroastrians.
But minorities reportedly still face discrimination in education, employment and property ownership. Authorities also sometimes charge them for moharebeh (enmity against God), “anti-Islamic propaganda” or threatening national security for their religious activities.
But Iran’s largest religious minority, the Baha’is, are not protected under the law or allowed to practice their faith. They reportedly number up to 350,000 and are considered apostates by the state.  
Other Christians not associated with an ethnic group, such as Protestants, are not represented in parliament. And conversion from Islam is punishable by death under the law. So proselytization is banned.

Saudi Arabia: The Saudi government does not conduct a census on religious affiliation, but it is estimated that 85-90 percent of the population are Sunnis while 10-15 percent are Shiites. But public expressions of faith that are not consistent with Sunni Islam are not permitted, and non-Muslims are not allowed citizenship.
In 2003, the Saudi government instituted the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue to “facilitate dialogue among various sections of the society.” Shiites, other minorities, and women were among the 70 people appointed to the dialogue, but the results have been minimal. Small, peaceful Shiite protests took place in 2012, demanding the release of some Shiite prisoners. Authorities arrested and detained 160 of the protestors.
There has been some movement toward including Shiites in government. Seven or eight members of the 150-member Shura Council are Shiites. In June 2014, King Abdullah appointed a Shiite as Minister of State.
It is illegal to discriminate based on race, but societal discrimination against minorities still exists. Bedouins are unofficially barred from high-level cabinet positions and military ranks above major general. The Ismaili religious minority also faces discrimination, as they are excluded from high-level government positions and can be prosecuted for practicing their religion publicly. While Ismailis can participate in the military, advancement is rare because they are regularly excluded from officer colleges. 
Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code, and judges are allowed to make rulings based on Sunni interpretations of Sharia law. The punishments for blasphemy can range from lashings to death, depending on the judge. 


This piece is part of a 4-part series on Iran and Saudi Arabia. 


Katayoun Kishi is a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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