Iran’s shifting policy on Saudi Arabia

Tehran believes that the geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East is significantly changing, reasserting its hegemony

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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Iran believes that the geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East is significantly changing, reasserting Iran’s hegemony, due to the lifting of sanctions, Iran’s improving ties with the Eastern and Western powers, as well as the geopolitical, strategic and economic tilt of Asian nations, Russia, Europe and the US towards Iran.

Iran also believes that the regional balance of power is significantly tipping in favor of Tehran. As a result, a fundamental shift in Iran’s policy toward Saudi Arabia is occurring because, from Iran’s perspective, a significant change in its policy toward Riyadh is a must at this critical juncture.

One critical indication of a fundamental shift in one of Iran’s domestic or foreign policies is when its political factions – across the political spectrum – join hands and are on the same page with regard to specific policy, not only privately behind closed doors, but also publicly.

This has happened with respect to Iran’s policy toward Saudi Arabia. Iran’s moderates (primarily led by Iran’s President Hassan Rowhani, foreign minister Javad Zarid and Rafsanjani) are totally and comprehensively on the same page with the hardliners (mainly Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s intelligence ministry, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the conservative judiciary and the Basij) when it comes to portraying Saudi Arabia as Iran’s main enemy and increasing resentment towards Riyadh.

This fundamental shift highlights the fact that Tehran’s animosity toward Riyadh is not only tactical or temporary, but is strategic, geopolitical, religious, and an enduring one.

Iran needs an “enemy” to survive. This has been the foundational pillar of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy since its establishment 1979. Directing hostility toward Saudi Arabia was the solution

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Moderates join hardliners

One of the few policies in which the moderates and hardliners are totally on the same page, coalesce and find shared interests with the hardliners, is the Islamic Republic’s shifting policy toward Saudi Arabia.

When Rowhani came to power, he advocated for diplomatic initiatives and dialogue with other countries, in order to bring Iran out of political and economic isolation, which was endangering the hold on power.

Rowhani and Zarif followed this tactical shift toward many countries including Iran’s “Great Satan”, the United States, while the hardliners persisted on pursuing the same policies. Although in public, Rowhani and Zarif did not completely and comprehensively join the hardliners when it came to the US and Western powers, behind the close doors, they were on the same page.

However, Rouhani and Zarif soon changed their private and public agenda and policy toward one specific country: Saudi Arabia. The harsh rhetoric from Khamenei and the senior cadre of the IRGC has increased. In almost every speech, Khamenei is lashing out on Saudi Arabia.

Zarif and Rowhani joined the hardliners agenda. Rouhani’s speech at the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, his speeches in Iran, Zarif’s statements, his New York Times Op-ed, all reflect this shift in Iran’s policy toward Riyadh.

For several reasons, the moderates were more than delighted to join hardliners’ increasing hostility towards Saudi Arabia.

First of all, for the moderates, they needed another state actor to replace Iran’s Great State, the US. From their perspective, the moderates believe that rapprochement with US is necessary because it gives Iran global legitimacy.

It not only brings in more revenue through trade with US allies but also pressures Washington and its allies to turn a blind eye to Iran’s military adventurism in the region. Finally, it will strengthen the hold-on-power of the Islamic Republic’s political establishment.

This tactical shift regarding Iran-US ties – whereas the moderates show one face in the public and another behind closed doors – is essential for them to better serve their interests.

The bigger picture

The recent rapprochement and communications between Iranian politicians and their American counterparts was distorting the bigger picture that Washington is Iran’s “Great Satan”. Moderates were also being criticized by the hardliners for being soft on the US and for stripping the Islamic Republic of its powerful tool in having an “enemy”.

Iran needs an “enemy” to survive. This has been the foundational pillar of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy since its establishment 1979. Directing hostility toward Saudi Arabia was the solution.

In addition, for Iran, labeling Saudi Arabia as Iran’s major enemy is a much more powerful tool. In order to unify its core against the “other”, Iran capitalizes on the ethnic differences (Arab versus Persian), on the sectarian platform (Sunni versus Shiite) and on geopolitical differences (Pro-Assad, pro Hezbollah, pro-Palestine versus the opposite).

This also allows the IRGC to crack down on the Sunni population of Iran or on the opposition by accusing them of being conspirators, allied with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s policy toward Saudi Arabia is fundamentally shifting due to the aforementioned reasons.

Iran’s narrative of who is its “major enemy” is changing as the moderates and hardliners join hands in their harsh policies, both publicly and privately, toward Riyadh.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and Harvard University scholar, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected], @Dr_Rafizadeh.



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