Throughout the end of March and the beginning of April, the war of words between regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia has been continuing against the backdrop of the prospective Saudi king’s tour of the United States. That visit has provided Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with numerous opportunities to reach Western media with his particularly confrontational views on the Iranian government.
On Monday, The Atlantic featured an interview with Prince Mohammad, in which he described Iran as part of a “triangle of evil,” the other members of which are the Muslim Brotherhood and non-state Islamic terrorist groups. He also suggested that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei was worse than Hitler, in the sense that Hitler attempted to conquer Europe whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran has set its sights on the domination of the entire world. This, Prince Mohammad said, was the nature of “a regime based on an ideology of pure evil.”
The purportedly reformist Saudi royal also used the interview to level more specific criticisms against the Iranian government. He noted that economic problems have remained serious and possibly even worsened for much of Iranian society even in the more than two years after the implementation of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, which lifted many economic sanctions. Referring to the oft-cited 150 billion dollars figure for the value of this relief, the crown prince alleged that none of it had been used for the benefit of the Iranian people.
Additionally, Prince Mohammad proudly compared the Saudi public’s relationship with the internet to the levels of access enjoyed in Iran. “Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat. Name it, it’s open for all Saudis,” he said. “We have the highest percentage of people around the world using social media.” By contrast, Facebook and Twitter have been formally banned throughout the Islamic Republic of Iran since the 2009 Green Movement protests that these platforms helped to organize.
Many Iranians evade these restrictions through the use of virtual proxy networks, but in the nearly 10 years since the bans were put into place, much social networking activity has moved to the newer and reportedly more secure platform, Telegram. This smartphone app is used by the overwhelming majority of Iranians who own smartphones, and it was credited with helping in the planning and organization of nationwide anti-government protests in late December and early January.
In light of that fact, and coincidentally around the same time that Prince Mohammad shined his spotlight on Iran’s restrictions on social media, Iranian MP Alaeddin Boroujerdi announced via Iranian state media that the decision had been made to block Telegram permanently. The stage was previously set for that announcement when the indictment of several anti-government protesters described them as having been under the influence of “cyberspace.” Such statements reflect not only an ongoing crackdown on the recent demonstrations but also a larger pattern of paranoia about foreign “infiltration.”
Expressions of that paranoia have appeared at times to be closely related to Iran’s responses to Saudi rhetoric on the international stage. In other words, Tehran’s criticism of foreign adversaries often links together multiple entities into the depiction of a sort of monolithic threat. This was evident in the wake of the January uprising, when Khamenei delivered a speech describing the movement as the creation of a “triangle of enemies” consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel, with the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran operating as foot soldiers on the ground inside Iran.
The pattern has been put on somewhat more subtle display at various other times, in the form of targeted repression of dual nationals and persons with real or imagined links to foreign entities of any kind. As one example of this phenomenon, the Center for Human Rights in Iran highlighted the case of Nikan Khosravi and Arash Ilkhani, two heavy metal musicians who were arrested and interrogated by the Iranian Rev
lutionary Guard Corps over the course of ten days, before being sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting the sacred” and “spreading propaganda” through their music.
According to Khosravi, those interrogations and a subsequent trial included repetitive questions about supposed “connections” and foreign sources of financial support. There is no indication of evidence having been presented to substantiate this line of questioning, and in this way, Khosravi’s case is reminiscent of various other Iranian political prisoners who have been defamed as foreign spies for no apparent reason other than their possession of foreign citizenship or their promotion of views or lifestyles that are out of step with those enforced by the clerical regime.
One of the most prominent such political prisoners from recent years, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, marked a troubling anniversary on Tuesday. She has now been detained for a full two years, during which time her three-year-old daughter Gabriella has been barred from leaving the country to reunite with her father in the United Kingdom. The child is now in the care of her Iranian grandparents, whom she first met on the family visit during which her mother was arrested. Nazanin remains in Evin Prison serving a six year sentence after having been accused of being the leader of an infiltration network.
Buzzfeed News detailed the latest details in her case on Monday, including accounts of the frustration expressed by her husband Richard Ratcliffe over the efforts that have been made so far by the British government. The report emphasized that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was supposedly cleared for release months ago, following a visit to Tehran by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. This led to expectations that she would be free by the Iranian New Year holiday, Nowruz, which took place on March 21. But since then there has been no sign of progress on her case, and some reports indicate that negotiations are stalled over Iran’s demand for the settlement of a more than 500 million dollar outstanding debt.
In January 2016, the Obama administration made a cash payment of 700 million dollars at the same time as the nuclear agreement was set to go into effect and four Americans were set to be released from prison in Iran. Critics of the administration decried this as “ransom,” while the White House sought to portray the prisoner release as one benefit of a policy of outreach, made possible by 2013 election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate.
Subsequent developments have raised serious questions about Rouhani’s moderate credentials, and the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case has fueled accusations that the policies of the previous American president encouraged Tehran to view foreign nationals as potential bargaining chips. To the extent that this has been blamed on hardline political adversaries of the Rouhani administration, that narrative has been undermined by Rouhani’s personal participation in anti-Western rhetoric, particularly following his reelection last year.
Reuters reported upon one of the latest examples of this on Tuesday, noting that Rouhani had publicly attacked the US just before leaving from Tehran to meet with representatives of Turkey and Russia in order to discuss the future of Syria. In that speech, Rouhani reaffirmed his government’s support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and he suggested that American opposition to Assad’s long-term hold on power was indicative of a secret desire to partition the country.
Another report from Reuters detailed the expectations surrounding the talks that were scheduled to begin on Wednesday. It pointed out that although the three parties involved in the talks have been expanding relations in recent years, there is little sign of progress toward an agreement that is acceptable to each of them. Whereas Iran and Russia were both credit with saving Assad from overthrow during the seven year civil war, Turkey opposed his rule but is now more focused on containing the Kurdish separatist groups that helped to beat back Islamic State militants.
Russian priorities in Syria have also reportedly shifted, and Reuters indicates that Moscow may no longer be committed to Assad’s permanent hold on power. In fact, the report suggests that Turkey and Russia have both moderated their views on Assad’s future, which were once diametrically opposed. Iran, meanwhile, remains intransigent. One might thus conclude that Iran is the greatest obstacle to a compromise among the negotiating parties, and that this could even threaten to isolate the Islamic Republic from foreign powers that are cooperating with it but also with each other.
There has been longstanding speculation about the possibility of Russia and Iran being divided against each other in Syria. And although this has so far come to naught, it is also worth noting that there are other areas in which their interests might clash. Russia has been working with Saudi Arabia and its allies, for instance, in maintaining limits on oil output which are aimed at stabilizing prices that sank to 30 dollars per barrel in 2016.
As CNBC noted on Tuesday, that agreement might come under threat over the course of this year, as Iran and Saudi Arabia continue the mutual escalation of their war of words. If the OPEC-Russia oil agreement does indeed fall apart, it could prompt the war of words to escalate into a trade war, which would likely have knock-on effects upon the trade partners of the countries involved. For its part, Russia and other world powers may find themselves more seriously torn between Iran, which holds the world’s fourth largest oil reserves, and Saudi Arabia, which holds the second largest.