Iran and Saudi Arabia have had troubled relations since the inception of the Islamic Republic in Iran in 1979.

Although sectarian differences between the Wahhabi Saudis (occasionally, but inaccurately, referred to as Salafis by some observers) and Iranian Shiites play a role in this conflict, the major element is that Riyadh’s regional policies are deeply rooted in its domestic politics. In other words, the Saudis view external threats in the framework of internal risks that they believe endanger the political elite’s power.  

For instance, the Saudis have an antagonistic view toward both Shia Iran and the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood movement. This is because both can challenge the reigning status of the House of Saud. 

Riyadh considers the growing Iranian influence in the region an instigator for Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority – about 10 to 15 percent of its population – to demand a share of power and an end to religious discrimination in the kingdom.

When King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne in January 2016, he adopted an openly aggressive policy toward Iran with the aim of cementing Saudi leadership of the Sunni world and mobilizing Sunnis against Iran to limit Iran’s power projection capabilities.

On the Iranian side, tensions spiked over Yemen and Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, used exceptionally harsh language toward the Saudis. However, Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif congratulated his Saudi counterpart’s appointment, while at the same time President Hassan Rouhani described Iran’s foreign policy with a reference to an Iranian saying: “Generosity with friends and tolerance with enemies.” In practice, Iran’s apparatus of diplomacy adopted a tolerant position toward Saudi Arabia.

That changed after the execution of a prominent Saudi Shi’ite leader, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and Iran’s unfortunate reaction in permitting the trashing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

In a sea of hostile exchanges, another Saudi move brought the patience of all factions in the Iranian establishment to an end.

In July 2016, Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal, former head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate (GID), attended a conference in Paris of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian militant group that joined with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to try to topple the Iranian government in the 1980s and continued terrorist attacks in Iran through the 1990s. Turki delivered a half-hour speech and strongly supported the MEK’s goal of regime change in Iran.

In the eyes of Iranians this move was a clear indication that Saudis had entered a new phase in their conflict with Tehran. Their plan, Iranians thought, was to “resuscitate the moribund group” to attack Iran.

On September 11,  Zarif, a man who firmly believes in diplomacy even in dealing with the government’s harshest adversaries, issued a rare hostile statement attacking the Saudi leadership. The statement read: “Unlimited obstinacy, imbecility, bigotry, and wealth of Saudi rulers have turned the Al Saud into a ruthless and irrational regime which has plunged the Middle East and the entire world into the most deplorable and disastrous conditions in modern history by creating, nurturing and spreading terrorism.”

The statement was followed by an op ed in the New York Times, published on September 13, in which Zarif unprecedentedly launched an ideological attack on the Saudis for promoting Wahhabism across the world. Zarif  called for the abolition of that ideology, which he argued has inspired “virtually every terrorist group abusing the name of Islam – from Al Qaeda and its offshoots in Syria to Boko Haram in Nigeria.”

This war of words can potentially – perhaps not intentionally but inadvertently as a result of an unexpected mishap or miscalculation – transform the current Saudi-Iranian proxy war into an open conflict that would most likely consume the entire Middle East. So far, there has been no effort by the UN or world powers to mediate and reduce tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The recent agreement between Russia and the United States over potential coordination of their moves in Syria is potentially a giant step for defeating extremist Salafi groups and bringing the Syrian crisis to an end. But it is unlikely to be successful as long as Iran and Saudi Arabia remain at odds. The same logic applies to the Yemeni crisis.

The Syrian people are caught in the cross-fire. According to the latest reports, more than 300,000 have been killed, 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, 4.8 million have fled the country and 6.1 million are displaced internally.

The prolongation of the chaos in Syria is a threat to the security of both Russia and the West because of refugee flows and radicalization. It is thus time for the United States and Russia to take the initiative to involve the UN Security Council to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table and to create a roadmap to peace. Iran rejects working with the Americans in a bilateral framework, but as has been in the Syria case, is prepared to cooperate in a multilateral setting.

Despite the tough position that it has taken recently, Iran has left the door open for reconciliation. In the closing paragraph of his New York Times op-ed, Zarif wrote, “I by no means suggest that Saudi Arabia cannot be part of the solution. Quite the reverse: We invite Saudi rulers to put aside the rhetoric of blame and fear, and join hands with the rest of the community of nations to eliminate the scourge of terrorism and violence that threatens us all.”

The key question before the Saudis is: How can the country engage in ambitious domestic modernization efforts as stipulated in Saudi Vision 2030, while it is engaged in a dangerous confrontation with Iran that puts its long term stability in question?

Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian.