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How Mohammed bin Salman unites usually divided Iranians

The Saudi crown prince’s harsh words against the Islamic Republic seem to have a unifying effect among Iranians.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud is seen during a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy - RC1FA9FE58F0

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s war of words against Iran seems to have had a unifying effect among usually divided Iranians. The 32-year-old prince adopted a particularly tough tone against Tehran during his March 19 interview with CBS' "60 Minutes," sparking Iranian anger both toward him and Saudi Arabia.

In the interview, Mohammed accused Iran of supporting terrorism, saying, “Many of the al-Qaeda operatives are protected in Iran. … This includes the son of Osama bin Laden, the new leader of al-Qaeda. He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran.” Mohammed also ridiculed the idea of Iran and Saudi Arabia being comparable in terms of military and economic strength and said, “Iran is not a rival to Saudi Arabia. Its army is not among the top five armies in the Muslim world. The Saudi economy is larger than the Iranian economy. Iran is far from being equal to Saudi Arabia.”

These statements quickly triggered reactions in Iran, where people took to social media to express their anger. Many criticized Mohammed on Twitter, with some arguing that despite its powerful army and three years of war, Saudi Arabia has yet to succeed in Yemen. While Persian social media is usually sorely divided over political issues, there seems to be a consensus when it comes to condemnation of Mohammed's words.

In addition to condemning the Saudi-led war in Yemen, other Iranians were quick to point out the contradictions in Mohammed's statements. For instance, Bahman Kalbasi, a New York correspondent for BBC Persian — which is outlawed in Iran — tweeted March 15, “The Saudi crown prince has given an interview to CBS’ '60 Minutes' on the verge of his visit to the United States. On the one hand, he says Iran’s army and economy is so weak that it cannot be a rival for Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, he says Iran’s [supreme] leader is the new Hitler and is seeking to expand his power.”

Meanwhile, calls have been made on Instagram to target all social media pages linked to Mohammed. Amid these calls, “Special Royal” — which claims to be a dedicated account for the images and life of the crown prince — has come under attack by Persian speakers who have written anti-Mohammed comments in both Persian and Arabic.

Nosratollah Tajik, a former Iranian ambassador to Jordan, told Al-Monitor, “Iranians do not take [Mohammed's] threats seriously for different reasons. First, Saudi Arabia is sitting on several critical fault lines, including the topic of succession and the growing [public] demands that have yet to be met. Therefore, it is going through a sensitive period. Second, to bypass its internal crises, it needs to create an external enemy. On the other hand, [Mohammed] is trying to gain [US President] Donald Trump’s political and military support.”

He added, “However, Trump’s comments after meeting with [Mohammed] indicate that the main priority for Trump’s America is to exhaust Saudi finances as much as possible and under different pretexts, such as the sale of military armaments. Therefore, it is natural that Iranian society, despite its political differences, adopts a unified stance against such an issue and such a foreign enemy. Iran must pursue strategic patience in this situation and allow for this country [Saudi Arabia] to become more engulfed in its own self-inflicted problems.”

The concept of the creation of a foreign enemy in order to advance a domestic agenda is well established in political science. In this vein, some analysts in Iran believe that one of the main reasons why Mohammed is fueling the fire with Iran is to pave his domestic Saudi road for advancing his internal reforms and agendas. However, it should be noted that he has simultaneously provided the Islamic Republic with this same gift. Iran has no desire to increase tensions with Saudi Arabia, and its senior officials have on numerous occasions called for the need to engage in dialogue and remove tensions with the kingdom. But these efforts have done little to allay the tension and hostility between the two regional powers.

Under such circumstances, the Iranian public tends to trust its own political system more than before, thereby creating a stronger sense of patriotism and thus greater unity on the issue at hand. This unity allows senior Iranian officials to stand up to Mohammed bin Salman’s threats and adventurism with more confidence.

For now, things in Washington seem to be moving in Mohammed’s favor, especially as his allies keep being added to Trump’s team. However, one important point should be borne in mind: Former US President Barack Obama succeeded in instilling divisions among Iranians by increasing doubt about the prospect for serious political reform within Iran. Now, thanks to Trump and Mohammed, attention is on US and Saudi threats, with many among even the die-hard opponents of the Islamic Republic now in agreement on the need to deal with foreign adversaries.

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