On Tuesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement accusing regional rival Saudi Arabia of “a betrayal of the Islamic Ummah and the Muslim world.” The remarks referred to the Saudis’ longstanding alliance with the United States and also to the recent signs of emerging Saudi-Israeli cooperation in countering the perceived threat of Iranian influence in the broader Middle East.
As Al Jazeera reported, Khamenei’s speech on this topic was delivered at a conference in Tehran that was attended by parliamentary representatives from a number of Muslim countries. The gathering took place one day prior to the second annual Arab-Iranian Conference in Beirut, wherein representatives of the Islamic Republic further underscored the supreme leader’s position both with regard to Saudi-Iranian relations and their impact on Iran’s potential relationships with other Arab and Muslim countries.
Khamenei expressed an evident interest in leveraging his criticism of the Saudis to encourage other countries to instead align with Iran in regional disputes. More specifically, the supreme leader seemed to set his sights on the possibility of peeling away Saudi allies. “We're ready to act brotherly even with those among the Muslims who were once openly hostile to Iran,” he said without specifically identifying any such entities.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was less aggressive in his commentary on Saudi affairs, but he was also more explicit about the types of regional players that Iran was hoping to secure as allies while undermining their existing relations with Riyadh. In the first place, Tasnim News Agency quoted Rouhani as praising the government of Lebanon, the host for the conference that began on Wednesday. Speaking to the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Rouhani reportedly credited Beirut with thwarting a plot by “Zionists” to perpetuate “rift and division” in the Arab world.
These remarks were apparently focused on the incident in November in which Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri traveled to Saudi Arabia and resigned his position, alleging that he had come under threat from assassination plots by the Iran-backed Lebanese paramilitary and political party, Hezbollah. Hariri eventually withdrew his resignation after Tehran had helped to portray the incident as part of an effort to divide the Lebanese government and compel Hezbollah to reduce its influence.
By connecting this issue to Iranian notions of a “Zionist plot,” Rouhani was also underscoring the narrative that had been advanced by Khamenei in the wake of the two weeks of protests that spread across the Islamic Republic beginning on December 28. Khamenei described those demonstrations as the product of a “triangle of enemies” consisting of the US and Israel as planners on one side, the Saudis and their Arab allies as financiers on another, and the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran as “foot soldiers” inside the country.
This narrative clearly sought to delegitimize the movement, which began with protests in Mashhad against the economic hardships of ordinary Iranians before expanding to include calls for resignations and outright regime change, spanning as many as 130 different cities. But Khamenei’s earlier comments also set the stage for the recent continuation of Tehran’s efforts to similarly delegitimize Saudi activities in the region, which are increasingly directed at countering Iran’s growing influence.
The competition between these two leading regional powers includes an ongoing proxy war in Yemen, which has killed approximately 10,000 people over the past year and placed millions on the brink of famine. Tehran’s support of the Shiite militant group known as the Houthi has effectively provided the Islamic Republic with a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, just south of the Saudi border. Accordingly, the Houthi have attempted several missile strikes into Saudi territory, in retaliation for Riyadh’s leadership of an Arab coalition fighting Iran’s local proxy.
The US, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all accused Iran of providing the Houthi with the weapons used in these launches, and US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley held a press conference in Washington in December where she publicly displayed recovered components and decried the destructive nature of Iranian influence. These accusations were recently upheld by a confidential report prepared by the UN, as CNN reported on Monday.
Persons who are familiar with the report indicated that it confirmed the Iranian origin of the missiles used by the Houthi, as well as concluding that Iran either provided those weapons directly to the Shiite militants or willfully failed to prevent their transfer out of Iranian territory. The report does not absolve Saudi Arabia of responsibility for the bloodshed in Yemen, but it does declare Iran to be in violation of a UN Security Council resolution regarding arms trafficking, as well as potentially providing further justification for American measures aimed at further restraining Iran’s behavior.
Over the past year, the White House has been pressing for comprehensive, internationally enforced restrictions on Iran’s missile activities following reports of arms transfers and the more than a dozen ballistic missile tests carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps since the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in 2015. One of the common points of criticism of that deal involves its failure to address the issue of ballistic missiles, which could be used by the Islamic Republic to carry a nuclear warhead if it ever succeeded in developing one.
There has reportedly been some progress in securing European support for measures that would restrain these activities independently of the JCPOA. But Tehran has categorically rejected the idea of negotiations on this topic, and that position was reiterated in the context of the Arab-Iranian Conference. Mehr News Agency reported on Wednesday that Kamal Kharrazi, the chairman of Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations had highlighted Iran’s missile capabilities as being necessary to the nation’s defense against “conspiracies of foreign enemies.”
Kharrazi also reiterated criticisms of Saudi Arabia and the UAE while also speaking positively about dialogue and Muslim unity as a means of “foiling the enemies’ plots.” Similarly, President Rouhani declared, “The Islamic Republic of Iran is firmly determined to deepening brotherly, inclusive ties with Islamic countries,” according to The Iran Project.
Rouhani specifically highlighted the supposed development of Iran’s relations with Oman. To Saudi Arabia, this emphasis is presumably perceived as a threat of further expansion of Iranian influence in the area immediately surrounding Saudi territory. Oman is situated side-by-side with Yemen on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula and both have reputations for being economically disadvantaged by the standards of the Persian Gulf region, arguably making them ripe targets for foreign influence predicated on promises of expanded trade and financial support.
Last year, Tehran successfully utilized such tactics to capitalize on a diplomatic crisis involving Saudi Arabia and another neighbor and erstwhile partner, Qatar. Following reports that the Qatari emir had urged Arab cooperation with Iran as an “Islamic power,” Saudi Arabia and the UAE severed diplomatic relations with the small nation, as well as cutting it off trade and travel routes pending Qatari compliance with the Saudi-led plan for confronting Iranian influence.
By most reports, this has prompted Qatar to move closer to Iran’s orbit instead of capitulating to the ultimatum. This further complicates the power dynamics in play between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it underscores the ongoing Iranian project of luring to its side those nations that are currently torn between the region’s two leading nations.