On Thursday, Al Jazeera reported upon Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s latest contribution to an ongoing war of words between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The remarks were arguably indicative of continued alignment between the supposedly moderate Rouhani administration and the avowedly hardline regime elements associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Rouhani won reelection in May after a campaign of reformist talking point, but quickly began to turn away from such promises as the appointment of female ministers to his cabinet and the release of Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. But for many international observers, the more disturbing betrayal of his moderate credentials involves his apparent endorsement of hardline foreign policies, including the proliferation of Iranian ballistic missiles and aggressive intervention in the affairs of nearby countries.
His moderate label was arguably on display, however, in his remarks about Saudi Arabia, as it has been in the past, albeit without disavowing or contradicting the hardline positions of his colleagues. On the surface, Rouhani seemed to appeal for peace between the two regional rivals, insisting that Iran enjoys good relations with other Middle Eastern countries and poor relations only with those who have allowed Saudi Arabia to exacerbate existing problems. But these claims were couched in ridicule for the Saudi government, likely aimed at provoking it toward ongoing escalations.
“Saudi Arabia is looking for tension with Iran to cover up defeats in the region and internal problems,” Rouhani said in his interview with Iranian television, which was broadcast on Tuesday.
Tehran and Riyadh are frequently described as being engaged in proxy wars around the region, particularly in Yemen where Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition aimed at pushing back the Iran-backed Houthi militants that control about half the country including the capital of Sanaa. The coalition’s inability to dislodge the Houthi may be among the supposed defeats that Rouhani sought to bring attention to, especially in light of the Houthi attempting to strike back with missile attacks on Saudi territory.
In early November, the Houthis launched their deepest-penetrating missile to date, although it was successfully shot down by the Saudis over King Khaled International Airport. Another missile was intercepted on Thursday in what the Washington Examiner called a less serious incident that should nonetheless serve as a “wake-up call” regarding Iranian influence in the region. The report declared that readers can “confidently assume” the missile used in the latest launch was of Iranian origin.
Saudi Arabia was quick to make this claim about the missile used in the earlier launch, and American officials subsequently expressed support for that conclusion. United Nations experts saw corroborating evidence, although they stopped short of declaring the matter settled. Even so, it is well understood that Iran has a long history of supplying weapons to militant groups like the Houthi, including the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah. This is a key reason why the US government and other critics of the Iranian regime have called for constraints on its missile activities. Iran has repeatedly rejected the idea of negotiations, in no uncertain terms.
Tasnim News Agency reported on Thursday that Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a senior member of the Iranian parliament and chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, had once again reiterated the regime’s position, telling reporters, “Iran’s (stance on its) missile capabilities has been declared times and again. (The issue) is non-negotiable indeed.”
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has underscored this position with more than a dozen ballistic missile launches since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers in July 2015. Senior IRGC officials have made boastful public statements on the matter, some of which highlighted the proximity of American military bases to those weapons. Other Iranian figures including Boroujerdi and Rouhani have insisted that Iran’s missiles are only for defensive purposes, but they have in no way pushed back against the rather transparent belligerence of the IRGC.
Naturally, this feeds into the suspicions of Iran’s rivals, including both the US and Saudi Arabia, especially given that even Rouhani’s commentary on foreign policy occasionally strikes a militaristic tone. Al Jazeera notes that his remarks on Tuesday expressed a commitment to resolving regional problems through “dialogue instead of confrontation” but then went on to declare that “military power” would be an important means for Iran to achieve its foreign policy objectives.
The president and his moderate colleagues have also acknowledged the nature of some of those objectives in their public statements. Agence France Presse reported on Thursday that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had boasted of Iran’s entrenchment in neighboring countries while in attendance at a conference in Rome. “It's our region; it's the Persian Gulf, not the Gulf of Mexico. We are going nowhere,” he said after dismissing the US’s interest in seeing Iranian forces depart from Syria following the defeat of ISIL militants there.
Iran’s persistent foothold in both Syria and Iraq has been linked to the regime’s desire to lead a “Shiite crescent” that spans much of the region. Toward that end, a number of militant proxies of the Islamic Republic have established themselves in those countries, even to the extent of being integrated into the armed forces. The IRGC and Hezbollah have each maintained a notable presence, also, with the IRGC reportedly having played a role in the retaking of Kirkuk from the forces of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.
The effects of that operation on Iranian entrenchment were made clear with the news of an agreement that would give a growing share of Kirkuk’s oil to the Islamic Republic. Platts reported on Thursday that the Iranian and Iraqi oil ministers had met in Vienna to discuss this arrangement, whereby Iraqi petroleum will be piped to Iran in exchange for refined oil products.
Competition for oil markets is another flashpoint in the escalating tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as among the allies of each. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reported on Thursday that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had met with Bahrain’s crown prince “to discuss how to counter the Iranian Regime’s malign influence.” Bahrain was recently the site of an apparent attack on an oil pipeline by a terrorist cell with links to Iran.
Such incidents simultaneously highlight Iran’s efforts to establish its own influence throughout the region and the danger that this influence could pose for competitors with links to Arab states or the West. They also undermine the Iranian president’s assertion that Saudi Arabia is solely to blame for the tensions that continue to escalate across the region. Barring a significant change in Iranian foreign policy in the near future, that escalation can be expected to continue.