Iran Pulse

Khashoggi crisis boosts Iran but could complicate ties with Turkey

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Article Summary
While the outcry over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has weakened Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief Arab rival, the prospect of Turkey emerging as a victor may complicate the regional landscape.

During his life, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was an outspoken critic of Iran’s regional role. Indeed, Khashoggi used every occasion to criticize Tehran’s growing footprint in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, whether on television, in articles, and sometimes in front of Iranian academics and political analysts at conferences around the world.

Since his murder in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul Oct. 2, Iranian media have treated the case as a top story. Newspapers from different sides of the internal political game, as well as the state broadcaster, have dedicated their front pages to the case on several occasions. The interest shown prompted one Iranian journalist to tweet, “If only Jamal Khashoggi knew the amount of coverage the state media gave him, he might have changed his view on Iran a bit, but unfortunately we can’t know what he thinks since he’s not with us right now to tweet.”

The attention given to Khashoggi's case by the media wasn't reciprocated on the official political front. Only on Oct. 24 did the Iranian government adopt a clear stance. President Hassan Rouhani told his Cabinet that he didn't “believe any country would dare commit such a crime without the support of the US.”

Rouhani’s stance was followed by another, from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who tweeted the same day: “To deflect from headlines on Saudi brutality in Istanbul and across Yemen, US Treasury — while in Saudi Arabia, no less — sanctions Iran for 'supporting' anti-Iran Taliban. Conveniently omitting that US is negotiating with the very same Taliban now & its clients have long backed it.”

It was clear the Iranians were touching on the issue from afar, but for a calculated reason. “The Iranians knew if they made any major statements they would have distracted attention from the nature and cruelty of the murder,” said Mohammad Marandi, a Tehran University professor. 

Marandi knew Khashoggi and took part in several debates with him. Over the past several weeks, Marandi has appeared on Iranian state TV and wrote several articles on the case. He said the murder of Khashoggi was “something different in the eyes of the Western media and Western think tanks because of Jamal’s status, and Iranians knew if they made any specific statement it’d just make Iran the issue, because Western governments, and mainly in the US, will try to exploit this and help the Saudis escape their predicament.”

For the past few years, Iran has been under a media spotlight when it comes to news coming out of the Middle East. This is mainly related to the country’s role in the region and its many intersections and contradictions with the United States. “What happened rid Iran of the media attention for some time, in a very important timing,” Tehran-based Arab journalist Farah al-Zaman Shawki told Al-Monitor.

Shawki added that the media blackout in Iran came as the new batch of sanctions approached. The Islamic Republic was already negotiating with the Europeans on financial measures to save the ailing nuclear deal, she added. “This doesn’t mean Iran will stay away from [the media’s] attention for long, yet Tehran is going to make use of the political implications of the Khashoggi case, alongside other developments, to counter Washington’s anti-Iran policies,” she said.

It’s not only about Iran and the United States, Marandi said, it’s also about Iran and Saudi Arabia. “I think it’s a very important turning point. It shows that after all the deeds of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the arrests of the princes, the abduction and beating of the Lebanese prime minister, the holocaust in Yemen, the siege of Qatar, the reaction to the Canadian official and now the cruel and brutal murder of Jamal — all of this shows that Saudi Arabia is going downhill, and this enhances Iran’s position across the globe.”

It’s obvious that the regional standoff between Riyadh and Tehran temporarily stopped because of the Khashoggi case, yet Tehran will still need to anticipate the implications of the situation, not only for Saudi Arabia, but for Turkey's shift toward a more Saudi-like role in the region, which is what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be after.

According to Marandi, the crisis is going to reflect positively on Iranian-Turkish relations, bringing the countries much closer, especially since both are against Wahabbism. Marandi said, “This is going to strengthen Iran’s allies’ hands. The Syrians, the Yemenis, the Iraqis, the Lebanese and the people of Bahrain — all those who are subjugated by the Saudis, all of them are going to gain.”

Another point of view sees the pressure Erdogan is exerting on Saudi as a clear tendency to go to the end with the case. Erdogan’s objective might not be to reach a deal with his Sunni rival in the region, but rather, to strip the Saudi crown prince of his influence and credibility as a pretext for Turkey to take over Sunni leadership in the region. This could have a direct implication on Iranian-Turkish relations, with Ankara likely adopting a harder position on conflicts in Syria and Iraq and on the Iranian role in Yemen.

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Found in: Khashoggi

Makram Najmuddine is a pseudonym for a correspondent based in Lebanon.

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