TEHRAN, Iran — “Saudi rulers' refusal to offer a simple verbal apology was indicative of their ultimate impudence and shamelessness,” said Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Sept. 5, addressing the families of the 464 Iranian pilgrims who died in the hajj stampede last year. Khamenei went on to criticize Saudi management of the annual pilgrimage, calling on Iranians and other Muslims to hold the Saudis accountable. “The stampede demonstrated that this government is not qualified to manage the Two Holy Mosques,” said Khamenei. Yet, his tone was not unprecedented in Saudi Arabia and Iran's shaky relationship. What was new, however, were the wording and tone of subsequent statements by President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 22, Rouhani demanded that the Saudis stop spreading their ideology of hatred, cease divisive policies, and accept their responsibility for the protection of pilgrims’ lives and dignity. Nine days earlier, on Sept. 13, Zarif had gone even further in a New York Times op-ed, “Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism,” on the ultraconservative Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia. In accusing Riyadh of promoting Wahhabism, Zarif described the movement as the “key driver of violence” in the Middle East. He also argued that there is no such thing as an ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict, but a conflict between Wahhabism and mainstream Islam. Zarif asserted, “Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of extremism repudiates its claim to be a force for stability.” Such rhetoric is new in Tehran’s stance toward Riyadh.
The Rouhani administration came to office in 2013 with a win-win attitude toward resolving foreign policy issues. Rouhani and Zarif’s rhetoric was all about the need for dialogue to bridge differences. At his inauguration, Rouhani alluded to the need to enhance Iran’s relations with its neighbors, specifically mentioning Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Rouhani began his tenure with calls to revive “brotherly relations” between the two nations.
Zarif was even more vocal about the need for dialogue, even penning an op-ed for the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat advocating dialogue. He declared, “Iran’s priority is its neighbors.” Zarif went on to cite the need for a win-win rather than zero-sum game, proposing the creation of a regional security framework among the eight littoral states of the Persian Gulf. He also appointed Hussein Sadeq, a well-known proponent of rapprochement with the Saudis, as ambassador to Riyadh. Thus, the rhetoric of Rouhani and Zarif signaled that things had changed in Tehran when it came to Riyadh, but why?
Perceptions are paramount in shaping policy, begging the question of what perceptions have taken shape in Iran about Saudi Arabia during Rouhani’s tenure. That the Saudis are on the offensive against Iran is the dominant perception in daily political and media debates in Tehran. This view is based on and shaped by various realities — that is, other perceptions. These include Saudi policies in the Middle East with an obvious anti-Iranian dimension, a hostile attitude and policies toward Iran’s friends in the region, anti-Iran rhetoric by the Saudi Foreign Ministry and economic war waged against Iran by keeping oil prices low.
From Iran's perspective, these four factors have been evolving since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2010-11. Indeed, developments such as Riyadh’s execution of the dissident Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr in January, the hajj stampede in September 2015 and the molestation of two Iranian boys at the Jeddah airport in April 2015 have been interpreted in Tehran as continued and flagrant offenses against Iran.
There has also been a growing debate in Iran on the reason behind Saudi policies. Some argue that the Saudi stance toward Iran is a mere indication of Riyadh’s regional opportunism. Others see it as an attempt to counter the United States' shift in strategic behavior in the Middle East, which includes a new approach to Iran. Another argument posits that Iran’s rising role in the region has motivated the Saudis to adopt a reactionary policy. Regardless of these theories, there is a consensus in Tehran that Saudi policies are anti-Iran, and such consensus on foreign policy issues is rare.
There is also a new phenomenon in that internal political debate is being discussed in public. Until now, only Israel (occupying Palestinian territories) and the United States (having instigated the 1953 coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh) had been public foreign policy issues. Saudi Arabia is now in a position to join Israel and the United States as the third. In other words, given perceptions of the current situation, Iranians are concerned about the future of the standoff with Saudi Arabia, and there is a wide range of opinion about what should be done going forward. The shift in perception of Saudi Arabia is important considering Iran’s recent history and could mark a paradigm shift.
Zarif’s New York Times op-ed reflects the public nature of the Saudi issue and the way it is perceived by Iranians. In addition, Rouhani’s criticisms, which note that the problems between Iran and Saudi Arabia go beyond bilateral relations, reflect the changing dynamics in the Tehran-Riyadh relationship. Thus, despite the Rouhani administration's initial agenda of rapprochement, a deadlock with Saudi Arabia has evidently been reached. Comparing Rouhani’s international and regional approaches, one cannot miss his success at the international level, highlighted by the nuclear deal, while on the other hand, his policy toward Saudi Arabia has not borne fruit. This, coupled with public perceptions, has changed the public and political mood in Tehran toward Riyadh, hence the change in official rhetoric about Saudi Arabia.
After years of a mindset inclined toward rapprochement, new thinking on how to deal with a hostile Saudi Arabia is gradually taking shape in Tehran. It holds that beyond the (unlikely) prospect of direct conflict, there is nothing more the Saudis can do to damage Iran’s national security or hurt its regional allies. This outlook could very well lead to an escalation in tension and forms of indirect conflict between the two rivals. In this case, the question becomes whether the Saudis have closed off all their options for checking Iran by already having played all their cards vis-a-vis Iran and overextended themselves in the region. On the other hand, for various reasons, Iranians have during the past decades not viewed Saudi Arabia as a threat. Thus, it is up for debate whether Tehran's new rhetoric is a true indicator of a change in Iran's longstanding view of Riyadh as not posing a danger.