LONDON – Iran with a population of over 77 million is the leading Shiite Muslim state. Despite its oil Iran, partly as a result of Western sanctions, remains relatively poor with an annual GDP per person of under $5,000.
Saudi Arabia with a population of just under 30 million is predominantly Sunni. It is a wealthy country because of its huge oil reserves. Its annual GDP per person is over five times that of Iran. It includes within its borders the holy places of Mecca and Medina.
There are many more Sunni adherents than there are Shiites in the world today. Sunnis include many different types of believers such as proponents of puritanical Wahhabism and Sufism, which developed in Saudi Arabia. Both Sunnis and Shiites have varying attitudes to the modern world. Some are ascetics and some intolerant extremists with a medieval mindset, but there are moderate Sunnis and Shiites who support democratic ways and institutions,
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have bad human rights records and persecute critics and opponents of their regimes. In terms of women’s rights, Iran and Saudi Arabia come near the bottom in international comparisons. In Saudi Arabia, women can’t even drive.
Both countries retain capital punishment. According to Amnesty International, Iran carried out in 2014 more than 289 executions and Saudi Arabia over 90. Neither country executed as many people as China, but no statistics were available for executions in China as these “are regarded as state secrets.”
In Saudi Arabia, executions are usually held in public and involve the head of the victim being cut off. Crucifixions are also sometimes carried out. Under Shariah law (as applied in Islamic countries) brutal and inhumane punishments including death by stoning for adultery, amputations, and vicious and prolonged flogging can be ordered and carried out.
In Iran, stoning and flogging are also legally approved punishments. The treatment of “alleged criminals” in both countries is often brutal and cruel, and judicial procedures operated in both countries do not give reasonable rights to the accused.
Homosexual behavior among men is regarded in both countries as heinous and subject to extreme penalties.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia claim to have democratic institutions and elections, but neither country is in a Western sense a democracy.
The February elections in Iran were relatively free, women were allowed to vote and a significant number of women were elected to the Majlis, which now has a majority of moderates, but all candidates had to be approved in advance as suitable to stand for election and many who wished to stand were disbarred. In Western terms the election results cannot be regarded as democratic. Iran under the aegis of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei is a theocracy, which is controlled by anti-Western clerics who do not believe in religious or political tolerance.
Saudi Arabia is an autocracy based on the Saud family. It has a consultative assembly and various local councils to which women can now be elected. But the Saud family have shown no inclination to cede powers to any kind of elected body.
Relations between Iran, which leads the Shiite minority in Islam, and Saudi Arabia as the wealthiest Sunni power are rancorous and hostile. The two powers have instigated armed clashes in the Yemen, where there is a significant Shiite community. In Bahrain, the Saudis have backed the Sunni ruler of the state in his oppression of the Shiite majority there.
Iran backs the Shiite majority in Iraq and opposes compromises with the Sunni minority there, some of whom as a result have backed the Islamic State group and extremists in and around Mosul and northern Iraq.
In the Syrian civil war, the government of Iran has supported Syrian President Bashar Assad and his tyrannical regime. Iranian aid for Assad and his army has to a significant extent been provided through Hezbollah, the political and guerilla organization that has undermined government in Lebanon and which makes Israel its other main target.
Iran no longer publicly calls for the extermination of Israel, but Israelis still regard Iran as posing the greatest threat to its existence in the Middle East.
Despite strong Israeli disapproval and some skepticism among expert observers, U.S. President Barack Obama regards the recent international agreement with Iran to limit its atomic research and development as one of his most important foreign policy achievements and considers it a major contribution toward peace in the area. The agreement has led to the ending of some sanctions against Iran and has opened the way toward expansion of trade with Iran, which should in due course lead to a rise in living standards.
As a major oil producer, Iran wants to increase its oil exports significantly but this has not proved easy. As a result of decreased demand from China and the development of fracking in the United States and of alternative sources of energy, the price of oil has fallen. Although there have been signs that the price may stabilize, oil has become yet another bone of contention between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Saudi Arabia remains a major market, particularly for defense equipment. This means that there is a powerful lobby opposed to any measures that might jeopardize sales.
A further significant factor for Western governments is that Saudi Arabian intelligence, particularly about Islamic State and its contacts in Europe and North America, is highly valued. The Saudi regime condemns IS, although the extremist attitudes propounded by some Saudi imams have provided ideological inspiration for terrorism.
Our governments have to deal with both the Iranian and Saudi governments. But for economic and security reasons they are inhibited from condemning as strongly as many democrats would wish the appalling human rights records of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Those who trade with “the devil” would be wise, as the saying goes, “to sup with a long spoon.”
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.