For a few weeks, it seemed that the terror of ISIS had brought a thaw in the strained relationship between Riyadh and Tehran: Foreign ministers met and promises to strengthen relationships were exchanged.
This short spring was finally cut off when the Saudi FM, Prince Saud al-Faisal, icily stated that Iran is “part of the problem” of terrorism and extremism and that Iran should withdraw its troops from Syria (as well as Iraq and Yemen) in order to become “part of the solution”.
He is not alone in thinking this: Tehran DOES support terrorism and IS constantly meddling in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and the Gulf States, to name a few. But since Rouhani took office and especially since ISIS went on a rampage, Iranian leaders are blaming everyone, except for themselves, for the advent of terrorism. Apparently none of them can tolerate a dosage of truth that cuts through waves of hypocrisy, accusations and denials.
The Saudi’s Case Against Iran
- Iranian Meddling in the Gulf: Iran’s efforts at “exporting the Islamic revolution” to the Gulf States include supporting Shiite factions and operating spy-terrorist cells – some of which have been apprehended. The Saudi monarchy rightfully fears an Islamic revolution in Saudi Arabia but more than that, it fears Tehran’s aspirations for regional dominance. The (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council ((P)GCC) recently issued a warning against Iran for meddling in its neighbors domestic affairs bringing about loud denials from Tehran which “believes” in “moderation, domestic wisdom, good neighbor process and non-interference in affairs of adjacent countries” to the disbelief of the Saudis.
- The Possible Nuclear Deal: The nuclear negotiations opened Tehran’s doors to the West and unnerved Riyadh to the point of seeking to purchase its own atomic bomb. Once the darling of the West, the Saudis were exasperated by the flow of Western delegations to Tehran and the steady crumbling of sanctions. The Saudis believe that any nuclear deal would only help Tehran create an atomic bomb.
- The Civil War in Syria: While the Saudis simply funded the insurgents to topple Assad’s regime, the Iranians extended to Assad billions of dollars in credit, supplied him with munitions and operated Hezbollah/IRGC troops under the Qods chief Qassam Suleimani. Tehran further exasperated the Saudis (and the West) by repeated hypocritical requests to not interfere in Syria. The Saudis believe that Tehran wants to turn Syria into the next Lebanon, a satellite state that will support Iran at all costs.
- The Crumbling of Iraq: The Saudi’s influence in Iraq dwindled with the rise of president Maliki, a Shiite, who naturally opened his doors to Tehran. But both Tehran and Riyadh were taken by surprise by ISIS’s indiscriminate rampage in Iraq. Facing a common enemy brought the grumbling neighbors together but Tehran’s accusations against the US and Saudi Arabia for the birth of ISIS unnerved the Saudis who are worried that Iran would like to turn Iraq into a supporting state as well.
- The “Revolution” in Yemen: While all eyes were on the atrocities of ISIS, Shiite insurgents swiftly and quietly took over Yemen which had historically been a stronghold of Saudi influence. Unlike the situation in Syria, everything happened quickly, without bloodshed, and the Saudis at first outwardly accepted the change without any outcry. But inwardly, the Saudis were seething: Once again, Tehran’s influence was growing at the expense of Riyadh. For the Saudis, it was obvious that Iran wanted to turn Yemen into another Syria/Iraq/Lebanon.
Tehran at Cross-Roads
It’s obvious that Tehran was initially keen on the budding rapprochement with Riyadh. Many Iranian leaders, specially the smiling Rouhani & Zarif team, viewed a good relationship with Saudi Arabia as part of its “open-arms” to the West strategy. If Tehran and Riyadh could become “Best Friends” (at least for a while), a nuclear deal and elimination of sanctions would be imminent.
But the (P)GCC accusations of Iran’s meddling efforts was viewed by Tehran as orchestrated by the Saudis and any remaining good feelings between the two finally evaporated following the “Iran is part of the problem” speech: ISIS was, Iran accused, a rogue child “funded by Saudi petrodollars” and “every act of terror in the Muslim world was funded by the Saudis”.
Furthermore, the Iranians feel that the Saudis are being hypocritical themselves since what seems to be bothering the Saudis is not the expansion of Iranian influence per se but the fact that this expansion is at the expense of the Saudis. For some in Tehran, a “third world war” has already begun and Saudi Arabia is just another obstacle doomed to extinction.
Finally, the recent death sentence issued by Saudi Arabia on Shiite Sheikh al-Nimr for anti-government speeches and subversion sparked more vitriolic accusations and warnings from Tehran.
Tehran is at a cross-roads: the changing spheres of power in the region, especially the ones fuelled by Islamic fundamentalism, are playing into Iran’s global vision of “exporting the revolution” and Tehran is heavily invested on several fronts at the same time. The danger for Tehran is in over-extending itself into substantiating a veritable Iranophobia not from the West but from its Arab neighbors who are less hesitant to call Iran’s bluffs than the West.