OPINION: Iran ratcheting up anti-Saudi rhetoric

While the anti-American rhetoric has not subsided, anti-Saudi rhetoric has increased exponentially, writes Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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Iran’s foreign policy has fundamentally shifted toward ratcheting up anti-Saudi sentiments and mobilizing hatred toward Riyadh. Tehran is doing so by trying to reach out to three groups of audiences: first, the Iranian people living in Iran, second, Iranians and Shiite communities living abroad, and third, the Westerners. Iranian government’s concerted efforts are applied through four critical tools.

The first tool used to ratchet up anti-Saudi sentiments or hatred toward Riyadh is being conducted through Iranian state-owned media outlets (newspapers such as Keyhan, Hamshahri, Jomhour Islami, Etela’at, as well as TV and radio outlets).

In the research that I conducted by analyzing one of Iran’s major newspapers, Keyhan, I quantitatively examined anti-Saudi and anti-American rhetoric in two separate months – August 2016 and August 2009 – i.e. before the nuclear agreement and Syrian conflict, and after those developments.

While the anti-American rhetoric has not subsided significantly, anti-Saudi rhetoric has increased exponentially by approximately 300 percent in the one-month period. It is crucial to point out that this finding is solely linked to one newspaper. This amount can be multiplied by the myriad of TV and radio outlets as well as newspapers that are owned by the Iranian government.

To reach Iranians abroad and Shiite communities, and in order to shape and influence the public opinion in the region, Iranian outlets, broadcasting in various languages – Arabic, English, and Persian – communicating the same messages through various satellite TV stations.

Some of the more prominent outlets used to spread Iranian propaganda include, Al-Alam (The World), an around the clock news channels in Arabic, Jaam-e-Jam international TV channels (in Persian language), the multilingual Sahar TV, the state-run Farsi-language Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting channels (IRIB), the English-language Press TV channel, and the Lebanese channel, Al-Manar, which is operated by Hezbollah but supported by the Iranian government.

The Iranian government has also used the radio station, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, which is produced in 20 languages, and various newspapers, such as the Tehran Times, which is published in English.

Other Iran media outlets, irrespective of their affiliation toward moderates, reformists, or the IRGC and the Supreme Leader, echo the same message when it comes to accusing, attacking and mobilizing resentment toward Saudi Arabia.

Other Iran media outlets, irrespective of their affiliation toward moderates, reformists, or the IRGC and the Supreme Leader, echo the same message when it comes to accusing, attacking and mobilizing resentment toward Saudi Arabia

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

While the Iranian government appears to have been successful in mobilizing anti-Saudi sentiments in the West, among Iranians and Shiite communities, Iran has encountered significant limitations in influencing public opinion of majority of Arab nations and Middle Eastern countries.

This is most likely due to the fact that majority of the people in the region see how Iran’s military is engaged on a daily basis in supporting the Syrian regime and they see Iran as complicit in the killing and displacement of millions of Syrians.

Foreign service, western media and educated Diaspora

The second and third tools used to mobilize hatred and anti-Saudi sentiments is conducted through Iran’s moderates and reformists who hold high positions in the presidential office and the foreign service- including Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and the President Hassan Rowhani – as well as the manipulation of Western media.

It goes without saying that the American-educated Zarif has been repeatedly reaching out to the Western media and journalists in order to offer the “true” picture of the Middle East, terrorism, and conflicts. He argues that Saudi Arabia is to be blamed for every issue, while he projects Iran to be the victim and the benign force in the region.

Excited to speak with Iranian leaders after decades of stand-off and being willing to adopt the dominant framework of not holding Iran accountable for regional issues after the nuclear agreement, Western journalists and media outlets are more than willing to spread the Iranian leader’s narrative.

In addition, people such as Zarif and Rowhani are playing well into Western public opinion by offering an unsophisticated and binary story of the Middle East, terrorism and Islam to a Western audience.

More importantly, Zarif, Rowhani and hardliners have been fortunate and successful at creating the Saudi image that they desire because the Iranian educated diaspora in the West, particularly in the US (who play an important role in the media, politics and academia) have been promoting a positive picture of Iran’s culture, tradition and civilization. Other Middle Eastern countries lack such powerful Diaspora in the West.

Iran’s effort to mobilize hatred toward Saudi Arabia has become one of its main pillars of foreign policy. Due to the aforementioned reasons, Iran appears to have succeeded in shaping and influencing Western public opinion, Shiite communities’ and Iranian public opinion, while camouflaging Tehran’s complicity in terrorism and regional conflicts.

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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