Conflicts in the Middle East, whether in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, or Yemen, share a common factor: the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. For years, this rivalry has inflamed violence in areas already torn by war and created new battlefields where there had been relative peace before.
It is thus hard to imagine that the two countries could come together for the region’s greater good. But they’ll have to find a way to coexist if the region is ever to be peaceful. Even if they can’t fully resolve their rivalry, they can still contain their hostility. Making this happen will be a challenge, but both sides can take steps now that will help bring the Middle East back from the brink of destruction.
U.S. President Barack Obama, among others, has suggested that the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran “dates back millennia.” But history says otherwise. Despite some periods of heightened tension, particularly following the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers, Iran and Saudi Arabia were civil toward each other from 1989–2005. In fact, Iranian Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatemi took a more moderate tone than their predecessor and pursued improved relations with the Gulf states. This led to Iran and Saudi Arabia restoring diplomatic relations and conducting reciprocal visits between their leaders. Relations even remained polite during the early days of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rule. But the 2011 Arab Spring changed the region’s political power structure. Longstanding dictatorships fell, leaving disorder in their place. Iran and Saudi Arabia took the opportunity to try to establish their primacy in newly destabilized countries, and proxy wars followed.
Things could easily escalate into outright war between the two countries. For example, in April 2015, an Iranian plane attempted to break the Saudi-imposed blockade on Yemen by landing in Sanaa. Saudi fighter jets flew extremely close to the Iranian craft, and destroyed airport runways to prevent the jet from landing. Two Saudi F-15s came so close to the Iranian could see each other’s faces. If an accident had occurred, the Iranian media would have reported that Saudi Arabia had intentionally downed the Iranian jet. Iran might have had little choice but to retaliate. Such near-misses highlight the need for broader and smarter communication between the two countries. As difficult as is for Iran and Saudi Arabia to speak to one another, this is still the best way for both powers to avoid war.
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