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'Peace in the region is dependent on Iran and Saudi Arabia'

The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is worse than ever. According to Iran specialist Maaike Warnaar, it will be difficult to achieve peace in the region if there is no rapprochement between the two countries.

‘We can only find a solution for the conflicts in the Middle East with the help of the regional superpowers. Iran and Saudi Arabia have to come to the negotiating table,' is the opinion of Maaike Warnaar, university lecturer in Modern Iran in Leiden. Together with her colleagues from LUCIS, she is organising a panel discussion on 21 March about the relations between the two countries (see box). 

Conflict

Since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2010, the geopolitical arena in the Middle East has changed enormously. Regional conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen seem increasingly to be a reflection of a major conflict of faiths within Islam, in particular between the Shiite and Sunni factions. The Sunni parties are often supported by Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, and the Shiites by Iran.  

Cooling of relations 

The relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have cooled considerably in the recent past. 'The countries have fundamentally different insights into how the region should be structured,' Warnaar explains. 'Iran, for example, supports the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, while Saudi Arabia is bombing them. Iran and Syria are also on opposing sides.' 

Nuclear deal

Another factor to consider is that to the West, Iran is no longer the pariah state that it once was. Since the country signed a nuclear deal with the West last year,  there has been a cautious thawing of international relations. This strengthens Iran's position at the negotiating table, and it also means increased competition for Saudi Arabia, one of the superpowers in the region. 

Cultivating differences

Warnaar will put forward on 21 March that sectarian differences in reality do not play as  important a role as we often think. But heads of government - such as Saudi Arabia - tend to cultivate the difference between the two religious movements for their own political gain. A common enemy can be a useful distraction from internal problems. 

Reconciliation

Is there no hope of a reconciliation between the two countries? Warnaar doesn't see it quite as sombrely as that. 'For a long time Iran had a good position in the Arab world; it was the only country that stood up for the Palestinian affair. And government leaders like former President Ahmadinejad were very critical of Western intervention in the region. That earned him a lot of respect, including among Sunnis.' 

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