Iran and Saudi Arabia's 'hate-hate' relationship
October 11th, 2011
08:00 PM ET

Iran and Saudi Arabia's 'hate-hate' relationship

By Michael Rubin

Editor's note: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Iranian outbursts towards the United States and Israel are nothing new, but the Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington surprised many people. Iran's animosity toward Saudi Arabia, however, should have surprised no one.

Perhaps the only thing longer than Iran's animosity toward the United States is its hatred of Saudi Arabia. The two are divided not only by the Persian Gulf, but also by a Shiite-Sunni sectarian split and a Persian-Arab divide that goes back centuries.

Before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran and Saudi Arabia had a love-hate relationship. On one hand, religious and ethnic differences plagued the two regional powers. On the other hand, both were traditional monarchies who found themselves on the same side of the Cold War, opposing communism and the radicals who threatened the status quo.

The fall of Iran's shah and his replacement by a radical Shiite regime, however, transformed the love-hate relationship into a hate-hate relationship.

Throughout the 1980s, the predecessor to Iran's elite Quds Force, the special operations unit that U.S. intelligence has fingered in the Washington plot, sought to undermine Saudi stability, often coordinating attacks and insurrection during the hajj, the holy Muslim pilgrimage which Saudi Arabia hosts.

During the same decade, Iran fought an eight-year battle with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a war that killed close to a million people. What no Iranian forgets is that Saudi Arabia largely financed Iraq during the war.

The rivalry has continued into the Arab Spring. Bahrain is an Arab state, but the majority of its population is Shiite, not Sunni. When protests erupted in that tiny island nation, it was not the Americans who have a naval base on the island that confronted the Shiite protestors, but rather Saudi troops who drove into Bahrain across a bridge linking the two countries.

The plot that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday would not be the first time Tehran has tried to kill two birds with one stone by targeting both Saudis and Americans. In 1996, Iranian-trained Saudi terrorists detonated a huge truck bomb outside the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. Air Force personnel.

After an extensive investigation, the FBI confirmed Iranian culpability in that attack, but the Clinton administration, because of its own desire to engage diplomatically with Tehran upon the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, ordered the FBI's findings withdrawn so as to prevent impediments to dialogue.

Alas, Clinton's initiative for diplomacy - like that of President Obama - went nowhere, not because of lack of desire in the White House, but rather because of a regime in Tehran whose ideology prevents it from unclenching a fist soaked in blood.

The Persian Gulf is always hot, but today's revelations promise to make it a much hotter place indeed.

Filed under: Iran • Saudi Arabia
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