On Monday, Rudaw reported that an advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei made the unsubstantiated claim that Saudi Arabia had set up military bases in Iran’s Kurdistan region and in neighboring Pakistan. Mohsen Rezai, the head of the Expediency Council asserted that Riyadh had been materially supporting separatist groups as part of an effort to “destabilize” the Islamic Republic.
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been strained by economic competition and sectarian differences, but matters have been particularly problematic since the beginning of this year, when Saudi Arabia executed a Shiite dissident cleric and Iranian mobs responded by sacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad. Although it has been reported that court cases recently began in Iranian courts against several people alleged to be involved in that incident, critics of the regime insist that regime authorities instigated the attack and that security forces were present at the embassy but failed to intervene.
Since then, relations between the two Middle Eastern powers became more complicated as sanctions relief allowed Iran to vie for larger shares of the global oil market, in spite of the fact that doing so has helped to keep prices excessively low. In the interest of trying to influence the extent of Iran’s return to global markets, both sides of this conflict have attempted to blame each other for worsening animosity, partly in hopes of currying favor from foreign powers.
Iran’s claims about Saudi military bases can easily be seen as the latest iteration of this trend. Those claims also serve to counterbalance some of the international criticism that has been levied against Iran for its ongoing interventions in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Because much of that intervention has involved recruitment for and direction of Shiite militias, it represents a clear challenge to the influence of Sunni Arab powers.
Rezai elaborated upon that threat by declaring that the Islamic Republic would actually take military action against the Kurdish region and the supposed Saudi bases there if the Kurdish capital of Erbil failed to take action to bring it back in line with the Iranian government. This may have negative effects upon the Iranian effort to gain sympathy for its side of the ongoing proxy war between the two traditional rival states. But what may be more important to Iran under current circumstances is the opportunity to reclaim the upper hand in a rhetorical competition with the Saudis.
Rudaw points out, after all, that Rezai’s comments came only about a week after Turki al-Faisal, a prominent member of the Saudi royal family and former head of Saudi intelligence, appeared at a gathering of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and endorsed the movement’s goal of regime change by the Iranian people.
A new write-up of that event appeared in Ground Report on Monday, which reported that over 100,000 people had participated in the rally, including former legislators, military officers, policymakers, and diplomats from a range of countries throughout the world. It also quoted Turki as responding to the crowd’s chants by saying, “I want regime change, too. We in Islamic world will support you from the depth of our hearts.”
Rudaw notes that the Saudi participation in the rally has generated a notably angry response from Iranian officials. And the NCRI agrees with this assessment. Spokespersons have described Iran’s response as “hysterical,” and they have suggested that the strength of that response betrays the extent of the regime’s fear of popular revolt. In the days following the rally, Iran’s Foreign Ministry apparently attempted to punish France, where the NCRI is headquartered, into obstructing future rallies or otherwise attacking the organization.
This and the latest threat to Saudi Arabia may indicate that Iran is intensifying its rhetoric to compensate for the psychological effects of such public endorsement of regime change. This is in keeping with how many critics of the regime have characterized its response to previous developments that might be perceived as signs of weakness. Iran has responded with waves of domestic arrests and foreign provocations at each stage following the election of so-called moderate Hassan Rouhani, the conclusion of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiations last summer, and the implementation of the resulting agreement in January.
Now Reuters reports that there is increasing backlash from among Iranian hardliners, which might “sideline” Rouhani ahead of next year’s presidential election, wherein he is expected to pursue his second term. This would ostensibly reassert the regime’s hardline identity, although the NCRI and other such groups have always insisted that that identity was never in doubt. And indeed, the Rouhani administration had never seriously challenged the regime’s existing domestic or foreign policy, in spite of having spearheaded the nuclear negotiations.
The Reuters report may be seen as supporting the notion that Rouhani is generally aligned with the hardline faction. That is to say that it indicates Rouhani may willfully step down from his reelection bid in response to the pressure from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and their assorted allies.
In any event, Reuters reminds readers that those hardliners have made full use of the structure of the Iranian political system in order to make sure that there is no serious challenge to the supreme leader’s will.
“Khamenei’s allies control the bulk of financial resources as well as the judiciary, the security forces, public broadcasters and the Guardian Council which vets laws and election candidates,” the report explains. And this control over public dialogue may help to explain the steadily intensifying rhetoric in the wake of the NCRI rally and other developments, even if that rhetoric threatens to negatively affect global sympathy for the Iranian side of conflicts with Saudi Arabia and other traditional adversaries.