In less than a month, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal made two different statements regarding relations with Iran: The first was ambivalent, albeit it had an optimistic tone, while the second was escalatory, and perhaps best reflects the true sentiments of Saud al-Faisal personally.
In the bilateral meeting that brought Faisal together with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in New York, on the sidelines of the 69th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 21, Zarif came across as too optimistic, even considering the meeting the beginning of a “new chapter” in the relations between Tehran and Riyadh. Zarif went further and said the meeting would have a positive impact on efforts to restore peace in the region and the world, and safeguard the interests of all Islamic nations.
Saud al-Faisal’s statement was similar in tone. Faisal said, “Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the influential countries in the region,” adding that cooperation “between Tehran and Riyadh could help promote peace and security in the region and the world.” Yet the Saudi minister did not stop there, and continued in a “loaded” manner, “The mistakes of the past must be avoided, so that it may become possible to end the crises afflicting the region.”
Zarif also mentioned a visit he would make to Riyadh soon, to continue consultations with the Saudi side, following a visit by Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdel-Lahian in August.
The Saudi and Iranian ministers parted in New York, and to date, there has been no new chapter, and no visit. Subsequent developments that followed the solitary meeting reinforced the estrangements, most notably:
The Yemeni card
First: In Yemen, a painful blow has been dealt to Saudi influence by Ansar Allah (the Houthis). Ironically, the meeting between Saud al-Faisal and Javad Zarif was held on the same day that the government led by Mohammed Basendwah, who is close to Saudi Arabia, collapsed at the hands of those the latter considers as allies of Iran. Although Riyadh welcomed the peace and partnership agreement signed by the political forces in Yemen in the north and south, brokered by President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, there seems to have been a quick Saudi “realization” that dispelled what was thought to be a positive climate with Tehran.
At the Jeddah meeting of the interior ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on October 1, a warning was issued collectively saying that the GCC countries “would not stand idle regarding foreign factional interferences in Yemen, as the security of Yemen and that of the GCC are an integral whole.” The interpretation of “foreign interferences” here refers to Iran, meaning that the GCC countries believe Yemen should be exclusively in the Saudi backyard, and an undisputed part of its vital sphere of influence.
The official press, which is usually a good gauge for Saudi political thinking, waged a coordinated campaign against Ansar Allah, describing the protests as an attempt to spread sedition and undermine a political achievement that was made through the Gulf initiative.
Al-Riyadh, a newspaper close to the royal family, wrote in an editorial on October 11, “Iran’s involvement in steering the Houthis and creating a president for Yemen with the specifications of Maliki in Iraq would bring back the negative perceptions of al-Qaeda by countries that want to drown Yemen in sectarian and tribal wars, which is what the current circumstances are conducive to.”
This attempt to turn Yemen into another Iraq, suggested by the newspaper, is actually nothing more than a threat to the Yemenis in the north and the south, the gist of which is this: any attempt to bypass the terms of the Gulf initiative would open the door to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
In effect, the Saudi veiled threat concerning terrorism is very similar to the US threat following the attacks of 9/11, when the US linked the fight on terror to democratic reforms in the Middle East. This later turned to a political weapon, which someone summed up as follows: “Be nice to America or we will bring democracy to your country.” In Saudi’s case, it becomes: “Be nice to Saudi Arabia or we’ll bring ISIS to your country.”
In the religious context, incitement has reached new heights with some sectarian channels and Wahhabi imams in mosques in Riyadh issuing fatwas for jihad against the Houthis. This was translated immediately into a suicide attack against the protesters in Sana’a on October 9, which killed more than 30 people and wounded close to a 100 others.
Sheikh Khalid al-Ghamdi, a presenter on the channel Wesal, even gloated at the scene of sectarian carnage at the bombsite. He tweeted, “How nice for a person to see a beautiful sight, and help spread it for others to enjoy it.” He also tweeted, “There is nothing but blood and destruction between us and al-Houthi’s people.”
The ‘power struggle’
Second: the international anti-terrorism coalition: From an Iranian point of view, terrorism is nothing more than a crude pretext for perpetual war that would ultimately lead to an open confrontation between the two main camps (the US with the moderate countries, and Russia with the axis of defiance), which would unfold across the Resistance states (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, if necessary).
Saudi-Iranian relations have thus soured, reigniting all forms of paranoia. As Saud al-Faisal resumed his exclusive control over the issue, he revealed the fact that the dynamic between Riyadh and Tehran is actually one of a “power struggle” playing out on many fronts.
This is the main theme that has imposed and will continue to impose itself on their relationship. Saud al-Faisal himself confirmed this explicitly in a joint press conference with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier on October 13, when he said, “There is no reservation on Iran as a nation and citizens, but the reservation is on the policy of Iran in the region.”
One of the unspoken conditions Riyadh demands out of the two sides’ relationships is that a détente depends upon Tehran withdrawing its forces from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and anywhere else Riyadh might have a foothold in. In other words, Iran would have to retreat from the entire region and let Riyadh be alone the master. Thus, the Saudi minister’s position settled speculations regarding whether or not a settlement is in the offing in various issues in the region, from Yemen and Lebanon, to Iraq and Syria, shutting the door on whatever optimism was left among the two sides.
Riyadh has decided to go to war in different forms with Tehran, including using oil as a weapon. Recall that during the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008/2009, Saud al-Faisal mocked Iran’s call for using oil to put pressure on the international community to force Israel to stop its aggression, and said in a press conference in New York on January 8, 2009 that using oil “especially in these times is an idea that has lost its worth,” adding, “oil is not a weapon.” And yet, Saudi Arabia is now using this weapon effectively against its opponents, particularly Iran and Russia.
Still, the question is this: What is the occasion for which Saud al-Faisal made his fiery statement?
Before trying to answer, let us remember that there is near complete consensus within the royal family over Saudi foreign policy matters, and that differences, if they exist at all, would only be over form and style.
The answer is that Saud al-Faisal, the veteran diplomat who gave the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs a special and largely personal character, was fighting his own battle within the royal family, especially with the King Abdullah-led wing, which had a seemingly different approach to the relationship with Iran. This is despite the fact that the king was the one who famously called for “cutting off the head of the snake” in reference to Iran, according to leaked WikiLeaks cables.
The relationship between Abdullah and Rafsanjani/Khatami had followed a different path when Khatami became the president of Iran in May 1997, based on the personal and family ties between Rafsanjani, then-head of the Expediency Discernment Council, and King Abdullah. At the time, the former Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdel Aziz was not happy with that relationship. Nayef thus made sure to tell King Abdullah, Crown Prince at the time, that Saudi Hezbollah was behind the Khobar bombings, in eastern Saudi Arabia, on June 25, 1996, before the investigations were completed, in order to sabotage the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement.
A few months ago, Abdel-Lahian met with the king’s son, Abdel-Aziz bin Abdullah, in Senegal. The discussions centered on the “sabotage” being done by Saud al-Faisal, to prevent the opening of a new chapter in the relationship between Riyadh and Tehran. Abdul-Aziz pledged at the time to his Iranian counterpart that the “king’s wing” would handle the issue, and asked him to visit the kingdom in preparation for other visits by more senior officials.
Saud al-Faisal heard about the meeting and waited for the opportune moment to extend a loaded invitation to his Iranian counterpart. The latter understood it to mean the opposite, i.e. that there was no invitation, and to mean that Saud al-Faisal now knew about the arrangements and that he alone was running the Foreign Ministry.
Bilateral meetings were put on hold. The meeting between Faisal and Zarif in New York last month had been prepared a long time in advance, and Saud al-Faisal was obliging at the request of his uncle, the king, before he vanished from the scene for mysterious reasons, which sources say are likely to be health related.
The Saudi minister was looking for an excuse to sever communications with Tehran. The excuse came from Yemen and with the war on ISIS, in addition to the mysterious health condition of the king. Saud al-Faisal finally settled the situation with his fiery statement, making an impossible condition for normalizing relations with Tehran, as though he was saying that the road is closed, until further notice.
Tehran: The term ‘occupier’ befits Saudi Arabia
On Tuesday, reactions continued to the statements of Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, in which he accused Iran of “occupying” Arab countries. After the quick response that came on Monday from Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Amir Abdel-Lahian, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Policy and National Security of the Iranian Parliament Alaeddin Boroujerdi said on Tuesday that Faisal’s statements could be explained by his “old age and illness.”
Boroujerdi said these statements were more fitting for the countries that “support terrorists in Syria and Iraq, and intervene militarily to suppress peaceful protests in Bahrain,” adding that the term occupier was more fitting for Saudi Arabia. Boroujerdi also said, “Even America, our number one enemy, recognizes that Iran is playing a constructive regional role, and that solving the region’s problems without it is not possible.”