In his article in The New York Times on 13 September, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif appears to have almost given Saudi Arabia the “Great Satan” title that Tehran normally reserves for the United States.
The enemy of the Islamic Republic is no longer American imperialism but Saudi Arabia's “Wahhabi ideology” which is now portrayed as the bigger threat to regional stability and peace. This is substantiated by three main narratives he has been using for the last few years.
First, they claim that it's the ideology of Saudi Arabia and not the American invasion of Iraq which is the source of violence and terrorism in the region. The American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have bolstered the Iranian role in the region. In 2007, the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei had called for dialogue with the United States, which should focus on “the responsibilities of the occupiers in Iraq”. Now, as the narrative goes, Saudi Arabia is desperately trying “to revive the regional status quo of the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq” which is not acceptable to his country.
Second, the propaganda continues: there is no moderate among the entire anti-Assad camp in Syria. Zarif can be seen using “moderates” and Nusra front almost interchangeably, very purposefully indeed, to advance the Iranian narrative on the Syrian quagmire. With this narrative, the Iranian leadership has successfully used a “terror” card to legitimise Bashar al-Assad and to denounce those who plot his ouster.
Third, as the argument goes: Saudi Arabia’s hostility towards Iran is based on the premise that “plunging the Arab world into further chaos will somehow damage Iran” and hence regional instability is only to “contain” Iran.
However, as several thousand Iranians and Shia fighters were reportedly recruited from Pakistan, Afghanistan and other countries to “defend” Shia shrines in Iraq and Syria, it is inconvenient for Zarif to explain how his country’s role is not destabilising the region.
Nevertheless, Zarif avoids recognising the very nature of Saudi-Iranian rivalry and he has tried to reduce it to an ideological threat. If WikiLeaks documents are to be believed, Zarif is wrong that Riyadh has spent billions of dollars exporting Salafism in the last three decades. Saudi Arabia has indeed funded Salafism more aggressively in the 1990s but in the last three decades, as the WikiLeaks papers indicate, Saudi funding to Sunni institutions has covered non-Salafi groups and non-religious projects. In fact, in recent years, Saudi society has been allowed to become more open and liberal, and King Abduallah had played a vital role in transforming Saudi Arabia.
Zarif should have taken a look at his country’s ideology. The rise of Persian nationalism and its alliance with religious hardliners has played a role in redefining the Iranian politics in the region. Can Iran stop manipulating Shiaism for its nationalist-hegemonic aspirations? Is Iran ready to abandon the Vilayat-e-Faqih, which many Shia scholars, including Sistani of Iraq, do not welcome? Is Iran ready to withdraw its support from all non-state militant groups in the region like Hezbollah and Houthi militias, a long-standing Saudi demand towards normalising the relations between the two rivals?
Iranian politics today is deeply divided. Both reformist and revolutionary voices compete with each other, by using anti-Saudi, anti-West and anti-Israel rhetoric to strengthen their relation with the Supreme Leader – the ultimate authority in Iran. Moderates cannot afford to disengage with the United States. To sideline the hardliners and to normalise relations with the United States, they have found a new Great Satan – Saudi Arabia.
The author is a PhD and a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.