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Perception and misperception in the Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions

By Ali Omidi - posted Thursday, 4 June 2015

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif paid a short visit to Omani capital city of Muscat on May 26. During the meeting, the two sides’ foreign ministers signed an agreement to demarcate sea borders between Iran and the Sultanate of Oman.

Following his short visit to Oman, Zarif set off for Kuwait to take part in the 42nd meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In response to a question about a possible meeting with his Saudi counterpart on the sidelines of the OIC ministerial meeting, Zarif said, “I have announced in the past that I am ready to travel to Saudi Arabia and I hope the flames of war in the region would be extinguished as soon as possible.”

The Iranian foreign minister added, “We tell our Saudi brethren that we want a brighter future for all nations in the region, but what they are doing in Yemen will be to their detriment.”


The question now is to what extent Zarif’s visit to Kuwait will be able to serve the purpose of reducing tensions between Iran and its southern neighbors, especially Riyadh?

Robert Jervis, the famous theoretician of international relations, has correctly noted that governments do not act on the basis of the existing realities, but in accordance with their own interpretation of those realities. The problem is that at times, some governments have different interpretations of other governments’ behaviors, which is not completely conformant with the reality, but is only partially compliant with the reality. This is especially true when there is different evidence to exacerbate misunderstandings.

It is evident that the most important goal of diplomatic activities launched by Washington and Tel Aviv in the region is to maintain the status quo in southern regions of the Persian Gulf, that is, to keep Persian Gulf Arab states moving ahead in line with the United States’ policies and the infamous Iranophobia project. Efforts made to demonize a Shia revolutionary Iran – which ISIS extremists call Safavid Iran – constitute a good ground for fanning the flames of Iranophobia in the region. Also, huge volume of arms exported to Arab countries of the Middle East by the United States can be construed along the same lines.

On the other hand, compliance of regional Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, with the United States’ policies and following suit with the foreign policy approach of Washington, and practically Israel, is not only an outcome of nondemocratic base of these regimes and their dependence on the West, but also a consequence of the aforesaid issue. Apart from that, it is a reality that the feeling of threat is much more important and annoying than realization of a threat because the feeling of threat continues to grow and will entail certain costs because it will persist.

As a result, it worsens concerns and causes more issues and problems. On the other hand, however, the real threat is limited in time and space and is considered as a special case which is quite evident. When a threat is changed from a mere feeling to reality, it loses its past importance.

The feeling of threat from Iran has barred diplomatic efforts made by the Islamic Republic of Iran to get close to and reach an understanding with the regional Arab states from bearing fruit. On the other hand, it is Washington’s understanding, and perhaps regional strategy, that Iran and Saudi Arabia, as two regional powers, are engaged in a natural rivalry and conflicts between them is much more than the existing capacities to reach an agreement.


During recent years, the most important effort made by the United States in the region has been focused on replacing the idea of Iran threat for Israel’s threat in the eyes of the Arab world, thus, showing Israel as an ordinary and normal regional player. In line with this policy, such regional developments as Iran's nuclear program and the ongoing crises in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have intensified divergence between Iran and regional Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia.

Iranian diplomacy, especially under the 11th administration, is focused on thwarting the conspiracy of the United States and Israel for introducing Iran as a threat to regional Arab states.

In view of the important position of Saudi Arabia in the region and its impact on other Arab states of the Persian Gulf, it is quite reasonable for Iran to dedicate part of its foreign policy efforts, both at strategic level and within the sphere of Arab diplomacy, to Saudi Arabia.

Now that the ongoing crises in Syria and Yemen as well as a recent scandal at Jeddah airport have practically made any kind of direct contacts between Tehran and Riyadh difficult, the Islamic Republic of Iran is trying to reduce hostility, especially the perception of hostility, with Saudi Arabia by contacting Riyadh’s allies in the region.

By signing the important agreement to determine sea borders with Oman, Iran proved that the institutionalized concept that there can be no reconciliation between the Islamic Republic and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf is not valid. Territorial agreement usually signifies the highest degree of determination in a country to cooperate with other regional states. Also, positive remarks made by Zarif about Riyadh and his readiness to meet with his Saudi counterpart can be considered as a symbolic measure aimed to rectify the existing perceptions.

Now, it is time for Riyadh to give a positive answer to Iran's goodwill. Of course, rapid resolution of the two countries’ regional differences cannot be expected to take place in the short term. However, one could, at least, expect that the current crisis could be controlled and deescalated through bilateral efforts in order to pave the way for mutual cooperation to reduce the intensity of regional crises.

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About the Author

Dr Ali Omidi is Assistant Professor of International Relationsat the University of Isfahan-Iran.

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