By James M. Dorsey

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Two recent soccer incidents suggest that beyond optics little has changed in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry since China mediated the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries a year ago.

On the contrary, the Gaza war has highlighted the potential threat Iran and its non-state allies pose to the kingdom, even if both countries have toned down their rhetoric, are cautious not to provoke the other, and have regular diplomatic contact.

The war has reinforced Iran’s positioning as a staunch supporter of the Palestinians while Arab states struggle to end to the human carnage in Gaza. The war has also made Iran a key player in determining whether the Gaza conflict evolves into a regional military conflagration.

Even so, the war is not all good news for Iran.

If anything, the war has strengthened Saudi Arabia’s conviction that its security is vested in a closer defense relationship with the United States and formal relations with Israel, despite the kingdom’s condemnation of the Gaza carnage and criticism of the US refusal to force an immediate permanent ceasefire.

To be sure, the war has raised the bar for Saudi recognition of Israel but has not changed the kingdom’s fundamental strategic calculus.

Even so, that does not appear to have called into question Iran or Saudi Arabia’s continued interest in ensuring differences do not spin out of control.

Saudi Arabia fears that Hamas’ successful October 7 breach of Israeli defences could inspire Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi rebels if the kingdom and the Houthis fail to conclude an agreement that would offer the Saudis a face-saving end to its 2015 military intervention in Yemen.

Saudi threat perceptions have been reinforced by the Houthis’ demonstrated ability to impede shipping in the Gulf’s strategic waterways with missile and drone attacks intended to disrupt shipping to and from Israeli ports in support of the Palestinians.

The recent arrest and questioning of Shiite Muslim soccer fans in Saudi Arabia illustrates that the dialing down of Saudi-Iranian tensions has done little to change fundamental Saudi attitudes towards Iran and the kingdom’s Shiite Muslim minority. The kingdom has long seen Shiites as religious heretics and Iranian fifth wheels.

Saudi Arabia broke relations with Iran in 2016 after Iranians stormed the kingdom’s diplomatic missions in the Islamic republic in protest against the execution of a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric.

Neither the Chinese-mediated restoration of relations nor Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic and social reforms and subjugation of the country’s ultra-conservative religious establishment have done much to tackle anti-Shiite bias.

Authorities earlier this month arrested tens soccer fans and summoned 150 other supporters of Saudi First Division club Al Safa FC for chanting Shiite Muslim slogans and songs during a match against Al Bukayriyah FC in the city of Safwa in the kingdom’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province.

Saudi authorities asserted that fans’ chants were “sectarian.”

The sports ministry dissolved Al Safa’s board immediately after the incident for failing to adhere to the kingdom’s laws and regulations.

“The Ministry of Sports emphasises to everyone the need to adhere to the rules and regulations for sports competitions,” the ministry said.

In addition, the Saudi Football Federation’s Disciplinary and Ethics Committee ordered Al Safa to pay a US$53,300 fine. It also banned club fans from attending the team’s next five league matches.

The committee asserted that the fans had chanted slogans and songs that “violated the provisions of the disciplinary and ethics regulations.”

Iran targeted soccer fans at about the same time that Saudi authorities cracked down on Shiite supporters but for different reasons.

A Norway-based Kurdish human rights group, the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, said ten Kurdish teenagers had been arrested for celebrating Qatar’s recent defeat of Iran in the AFC Asian Cup.

Hengaw said that Kurds in several predominantly Kurdish cities in western Iran took to the streets to celebrate Iran’s loss.

The celebrations followed the sentencing three days earlier of Sherko Hejazi,, the head of the Saqqez football association in the predominantly Kurdish city of Saqqez, to six years in prison for “plotting to undermine domestic security” and membership in opposition groups.

The incidents, weeks before Iran’s March 1 parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections, reflected continued widespread discontent after mass protests in 2022 and 2023 in the wake of the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a Saqqez resident, for wearing her hijab “improperly.”

More than 500 people were killed by security forces attempting to quell the protests.

In many ways a mirror image of Saudi Shiites, Iranian Sunni Muslims played a prominent role in the protests.

However, unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran also faces a low-level militant Sunni Muslim insurgency linked to the Islamic republic’s Baloch minority.

Jaish al-Adl, a militant Sunni Muslim group operating across the border in Pakistan, attacked a police station in Rask in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan Province in December, killing at least 12 officers.

In a rare cross-border military operation, Iran targeted in January Jaish al-Adel bases in Pakistan’s neighbouring Balochistan province. Two days later, Pakistan struck at what it said were separatist militant Baloch hideouts in Iran.

This year’s election of the 88-member Assembly that appoints Iran’s Supreme Leader comes as Iran gears up for a potential succession to 84-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

Several reformist and centrist candidates, including former president Hassan Rouhani were disqualified in advance of the election.

Many Iranians had hoped that the détente with Saudi Arabia would provide relief for Iran’s economy hampered by harsh US sanctions. Saudi Arabia has been careful not to violate sanctions.

As a result, turnout is likely to be seen as a barometer of the Iranian public’s mood.

The government has claimed that voter enthusiasm is increasing but prevented publication of opinion polls that would back up its assertion.

In a rare exception, a poll conducted in December by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) suggested that a mere 28 per cent of those surveyed would cast a vote.

A Netherlands-based Gamaan Institute survey conducted in the first week of February concluded that only 15 per cent of respondents intended to vote. Seventy-seven per cent said they would not go to the polls, while eight per cent were undecided.

Three quarters of those surveyed said they would vote against an Islamic republic as their preferred governance system if given the choice.

The soccer incidents, while different and unrelated, tell a story of discontent among minorities in Saudi Arabia and Iran across ethnic and sectarian divides.

They also tell a story of stepped-up repression of human and minority rights and freedom of religion in both countries that casts a cloud over Saudi and Iranian efforts to manage their differences.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

By James M. Dorsey

is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.