back The historical, religious and geopolitical issues that keep the Middle East off-kilter.
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain very fragile. The two countries are viewed as natural competitors in the region, and there are three dimensions of their relationship which can help us to understand its underlying antagonism. The first dimension is based around history and identity. There is a deeply rooted historical and cultural competition between Tehran and Riyadh, expressed through forms of Persian and Arab nationalism which come to the surface in critical and fragile moments, influencing both public opinion and the political élite.
The second dimension that causes conflict is religious and ideological. Both countries lay claim to religious leadership over the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia aspires to become the main bastion of the Sunni Arab world, while Iran represents the stronghold of Persian identity and Shia Islam. Moreover, the ideological foundations of Saudi Arabia are built upon the religious school of Wahhabism, in stark contrast with the prevailing religious branch in Iran, Twelver Shia. The Wahhabis constitute the most intransigent branch of the Sunni world and consider Twelver Shiites to be infidels, corrupted Muslims who, because of their ignorance of authentic Islam, were pushed towards blasphemy and pagan rituals. The Shiites, on the other hand, are very critical of the Wahhabis, whom they view as too orthodox, radical and disrespectful of the differences within the Islamic world.