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An improbable détente. Iran-Saudi Arabia Relations in the post-deal environment

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The historic signature of a nuclear deal with Iran on the 14th of July 2015 has had a strong impact on the Arab world. Iran’s arch foe, Saudi Arabia is growing increasingly wary of Iran’s ascendancy in the post-deal environment. Once can notice an increased presence of the accusative rhetoric in the social media or/and the press, which ultimately continues to spread to the general public. On both sides of the Persian Gulf, inflammatory speech goes back and forth, fuelling divisive approaches and undermining cohesion for the politics of the broader Middle East.

When President Hassan ROUHANI took office back in 2013, it seemed as a promising step to improve relations with Saudi Arabia. But after the death of late King ABDULLAH in January 2015, no concrete steps have been taken to enhance the bilateral relations. On the contrary, there is a feeling of circumspection from the Saudi side, once Iran is emerging as an increased presence in the international fora. In fact, things have turned for the worse. The last incident coming on the background of other contestations (more of a political nature), the stampede in the holy city of Mecca, resulting in killing of dozens of Iranians, has definitely deepened the divergences between the two countries. It is understandable that the incident has created difficulties on the internal level, and it is expected to also translate into international repercussions, “as both countries seek more active and influential roles in the region.”[i] The international community expressed its concerns in this regards, as both countries have the possibility and seek to influence peoples through their direct and indirect actions in the other countries of the region.

When it comes to the official discourse, the rapprochement promises are still latent and there were some initiatives to remediate the widening gap between the two countries. However, this clout was not met with success. For example, very recently, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad ZARIF, has spoken to Arab reporters, on the 14th October in Tehran to be precise, and called for talks with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s Foreign Minister made a pitch for reaching a common ground and set aside the antagonisms, especially that there is no end in sight for the situation in Syria or Yemen and considering that a détente can positively influence the future of the crises in cause.[ii]

He answered to the editor of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, and to other Arab journalists, the following question: “What does Iran want from the Arabs?”, with: “We and Arabs in the region are in one ship, and if this ship sinks, everyone will drown together, and there is no one that will save us. I hope that our Arab friends pay attention to this principle and know that our future is the same and understand that Iran is with them to reach an oasis of stability.”[iii]

On the other hand, shortly after this speech, Saudi Arabia accused Iran, on Monday, 19th October 2015, of meddling into the regional affairs, having the upper hand on wars waged in the broader region. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mrs. Marzieh AFKHAM has announced the official response to the claims made by the Saudi foreign minister Adel AL-JUBEIR, who on that occasion undermined Iran’s role in any future endeavor regarding Syria’s recovery process. IRNA quoted AFKHAM, saying that “The Saudi foreign minister, whose country has taken a military-led approach and fostered extremism in regional conflicts ... is not qualified to talk about Iran's role in the region”.[iv]

The foreign minister JUBEIR accused Iran fighting side by side with Shiite militias elsewhere in the region; therefore Iran performs as an “occupier of Arab lands”. In sum, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of acting as a “colonizing state”.[v]

AFKHAM speaking from the Iranian perspective accused the Saudi Arabian leadership that is not capable to make concessions and it is deeply involved into the Arab affairs. Inherently, Iran implies that Saudi Arabia, not Iran, is destabilizing the Middle East. Claims that Iran is acting like a colonizing state were strongly opposed.

One can observe there is a wave of accusations that goes reciprocally the responsibility for the regional crises shifts from one disputant to another. The common denominator is that both sides manifest strong feelings towards one or another’s dominion.

In fact, in terms of political decisions, Iran openly backs President Al-ASSAD in Syria and it is also accused by the Gulf countries of supporting Al Houthi rebels for taking control over Yemen. As a result, relations between the two sides have further deteriorated after Saudi Arabia’s decision to take the lead of the Firmness Storm, an air campaign in Yemen (meant to annihilate the Houthis), bringing the two sides once again on antipodal positions.

The two countries are fighting for gaining the hegemonic role in the region and exchanging unfriendly comments has become a bit of a habit. Last year, the bitter stances were in connection with economics, following the dramatic fall in global oil prices, for which Iran blamed Saudi Arabia and its resilience for keeping the oil production high.

All these tensions have eventually materialized into the broader public space. For instance, in this year’s Asian Football Confederation Champions League, sparkles stirred during the confrontation of Iran’s Persepolis football team and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Nassr. “Iranian forward Mehdi TAREMI scored the only goal of the game, and after doing so, made a gesture with his hand indicating that he had cut off the rival team’s head.”[vi] Ordinary people of Arab origin were attacking TAREMI’S Instagram page in the aftermath of the incident, expressing how much ire the gesture caused.

Apart from football, greater sensitivities surfaced in relation with the religious practical aspects. There are also a lot of unsolved circumstances between Iran and Saudi Arabia regarding the hajj pilgrimage to the holy places of Islam, in Saudi Arabia. During this year’s pilgrimage some sad events occurred, such as the crane collapse at Mecca’s Grand Mosque, or the stampede causing death to hundreds, including Iranian pilgrims while performing the “stoning the devil” ritual at Mina. The Iranian public received the news with much discontent. Criticism looms over how Saudi Arabian authorities dealt with the incident: “Ten million people gather in Karbala during the Ashura ceremonies every year, and there’s not even a bloody nose. But the Al Saud can’t manage a lower population of pilgrims.”[vii]

The negative sentiments were accentuated because what happened in Minawas not treated with transparency and it created confusion instead. The Saudi Health Ministry reported more than 800 victims, whilst the Iranian Hajj Authorities had higher estimates. “Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization put the final number of Iranian casualties alone at 464.”[viii] The international agencies also announced different figures from those of Saudi Arabia’s officials. The way in which the matter was dealt with has stressed the animosity between the two countries. “The accumulation of these events has led to all sorts of extreme and radical comments being posted under virtually every article related to the tragic stampede published by Iranian news sites.”[ix] The political analysts try to distance themselves from the trend, but they cannot deny that the public perception is accumulating vehemence against Saudi Arabia.

Anti-Saudi sentiment has only intensified with the recent events. For example, public persons, such as Amir JAFARI, Iranian actor, has not shied away from graphic images posting. In the same vein other artists have also made indelicate comments about the Saudi. Public figures allow themselves a certain degree of freedom to release virulent attacks. Hence, it is not surprising to see this as a growing trend among individuals. Not everyone goes for the ultimate harshness, but one can witness a tendency to do so.

Many caricatures bearing racist or hate speech messages have appeared on the web and social media. Regrettably, this sentiment goes both ways. Arabs on the Web have, at their own end, engaged into attacks against Iran. Some voices find joy into stirring controversy and feed themselves with the sad turn of events. This leads to consternation for moderate voices, “With radical racism growing by the day, it appears that the voices of moderates will continue to grow weaker.”[x]

Simultaneously, the international community is concerned by the increased tension between the two powerful States of the Gulf region. This is why German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter STEINMEIER, while visiting Tehran for trade purposes, also met with Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi RAFSANJANI, pushing for a change, namely a détente with the regional rival Saudi Arabia. He expressed the concern that by keeping antithetical positions, inherently we encourage a frozen conflict plaguing the Middle East, rendering it into indirect actions affecting other countries in the Middle East that fall under one or another sphere of influence. Iran and Saudi Arab are the powerhouse of Shiite and Sunni Islam, respectively, and both enroll into indirect military conflicts in the Middle East, maneuvering sides in Syria and Yemen (just to name few examples) to their own advantage, at the cost of the stability of the region.[xi]
 

 
Photo Source: Reuters


[i]Al Monitor, Abbas Aslani, How will hajj stampede impact Iran-Saudi relations?, 21 October 2015, as in:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/10/hajj-stampede-implications.html#ixzz3pKFGJkNb

[ii]Al Monitor, Arash Karami, Zarif calls for talks with Saudi Arabia, 15 October 2015, as in:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/10/zarif-iran-saudi-talks.html#ixzz3p6woLShV

[iii] Idem.

[iv]Qantara, Iran returns Saudi accusations of cross-border meddling, 21 October 2015, as in:

http://en.qantara.de/content/iran-returns-saudi-accusations-of-cross-border-meddling

[v]Gulf News Report, Iran irked by Saudi criticism, 20 October 2015, as in:

http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/saudi-arabia/iran-irked-by-saudi-criticism-1.1603560

[vi]Al Monitor, Saeid Jafari, The rise of Persian-Arab racial tensions, 16 October 2015, as in:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/10/persian-arab-racism.html#ixzz3p6wdGDQ0

[vii]Idem.

[viii] Idem.

[ix] Idem.

[x]Idem vi.

[xi]Al Monitor, Arash Karami, German FM: Iran, Saudi tensions strengthen terrorists, 19 October 2015, as in:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/10/iran-saudi-germany-foreign-minsiter.html#ixzz3p7BC1oKE

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