The two Persian Gulf powers have been on a collision course since the 1979 Iranian revolution, and tensions between the two have increased over the past eight years amid rising oil prices, the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon and the Arab Spring.
The Justice Department’s announcement last week that it had foiled an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador “is just the most recent episode, but it’s also the most dramatic,” said Toby Jones, Rutgers University professor of Middle East history. “This is just one moment in a recent history of escalation that began to develop at the beginning of this year.”
Iranian officials have denied the plot. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Al-Jazeera on Monday that the U.S. manufactured the claim to “create conflict between us and Saudi Arabia.”
But analysts say the conflict was there - and widening - long before the announcement.
“Riyadh and Tehran have always been very wary of one another, very suspicious of one another’s motives, and really determined to see the other government weakened, if not eliminated entirely,” said the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department adviser on Iran.
“If Iran has been engaged in a campaign of trying to knock off Saudi envoys abroad - and the latest public statements suggest that Iran was involved with prior incidents against Saudi officials - then clearly, they have removed any sort of boundaries or restraints on their own willingness to take on the Saudis.”
Analysts say the most important difference could be their attitudes toward the region’s status quo, which diverged in 1979 after Iran’s secular, U.S.-backed government gave way to a Shiite Islamic regime determined to remake the Sunni-dominated Middle East in its own image.
That inherent tension has taken on new life as the Arab Spring has destabilized or toppled regimes throughout the region, opening proxy battles in places as diverse as Egypt, Syria and Yemen.
The contest has been starkest in Bahrain, an island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Saudi forces entered Bahrain in March to help the ruling Sunni royal family quell a revolt from its Shiite majority, which was backed rhetorically by Iran.
High oil prices have given the two giants from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries more funds to pursue their interests abroad, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has heightened Saudi fears that Tehran could become more reckless in its meddling in the region.
According to an April 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable released last year by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, Adel Al-Jubeir - the Saudi ambassador targeted in the purported Iranian plot - spoke bluntly to his U.S. counterparts about the Saudi wish for the U.S. to strike Iran militarily.
“Al-Jubeir recalled the King’s frequent exhortations to the U.S. to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear-weapons program,” the cable said. ” ‘He told you to cut off the head of the snake,’ he recalled to the [charge d’affaires], adding that working with the U.S. to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq is a strategic priority for the King and his government.”