The conflict has waxed and waned over the years but flared up with renewed intensity during the Arab Spring, which ignited popular uprisings that have toppled or threatened to unseat longtime allies of both countries.
Officials from both nations wasted no time in flinging acrimonious insults in the aftermath of the Justice Department’s announcement that it had charged two Iranians with conspiring to murder Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi ambassador to the United States and a confidant of Saudi King Abdullah.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington said the plot is “a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions and is not in accord with the principles of humanity.” Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry denied any government involvement, calling the criminal accusations the fruits of a U.S.-Israeli “conspiracy” to isolate Tehran.
“Hell will break loose,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “I don’t expect war to break out tomorrow, but if there was any hope that Saudi-Iranian relations would improve, this will be the end of it.”
A rivalry intensifies
Tensions have been high since March, when the Saudis sent troops into neighboring Bahrain to prop up the Sunni royal family there amid fears that Shiite demonstrators might ally themselves with Iran. Meanwhile, Tehran has sweated over a popular challenge to the rule of the Assad family in Syria, Iran’s closest Arab ally.
One possible outcome of the reported plot is that the Saudis will retaliate by boosting overt support for the protest movement in Syria. “The Saudis were reluctant to commit themselves against the Syrian regime,” Khashan said. “But now they will become more audacious.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran have also vied for influence in Iraq ever since 2003, when the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein but also ignited a sectarian civil war. The two rivals have likewise jousted for influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
“The gloves are off, I think,” said Frederic Wehrey, a Rand Corp. analyst who has studied Saudi-Iranian relations. “We were already at this low point, and this will only make things worse.”
Iran’s ruling clerics see the Saudi royals as corrupt custodians of Islam’s holiest shrines. In turn, Saudi Arabia is convinced that Iran harbors unchecked ambitions to dominate the region, a fear manifested in suspicions that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.