Although the nation initially disavowed the supposedly fabricated comments, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani apparently contradicted this move and reiterated his embrace of the Islamic Republic of Iran over the weekend. On Saturday, he spoke by phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who had been elected to a second term of office earlier in May, on promises of further engagement with the world beyond Iran’s borders. Al-Thani reportedly indicated that he would take these promises seriously and direct his officials to make a concerted effort to expand relations with Tehran.
The Arab News report on the latest communications suggest that Qatar’s Arab neighbors are annoyed by the incident, in keeping with the initial reaction to earlier comments posted to Qatari state media. Indeed, this is to be expected, as it comes at a time when relations are growing recognizably tenser between Iran and most of the Gulf Arab states, driven by actions and rhetoric on both sides of the divide.
Those relations reached a new level the weekend before last, when US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia for the Arab Islamic-American Summit. The president’s first official overseas trip also took him to Israel, where he repeated the critical commentary on the Iran situation that has become a familiar feature of his administration, thereby influencing traditional allies in the Middle East region.
This past Sunday, US Defense Minister James Mattis appeared on CBS Television’s Face the Nation and, when questioned on the matter, stood by his former description of Iran as a centerpiece in virtually all of the crises in that part of the world. Mattis’ remarks also called attention to the solid grounds upon which Arab animosity toward the Islamic Republic is built, pointing out for instance that high levels of the Iranian government had been involved in the attempted assassination of a Saudi ambassador in New York in 2011.
But there are more recent and more broadly significant factors at hand in Iranian-Arab tensions, including the deepening Iranian involvement in regional conflicts, some of which place Iranian proxy forces on the very borders of Saudi Arabia and its allies. Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen has divided the country into segments controlled by the Shiite militant group and by the duly elected President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. With a Saudi-led coalition backing the government, the conflict has long been seen as a Saudi-Iranian proxy war.
This perception has been steadily reinforced, in part by the incursion of Houthi rockets into Saudi territory. Iran has been credited with expanding the depth of these incursions by providing the rebels with missile technology. Several Iranian vessels have been turned away by an international blockade when they were discovered trying to send weapons to the militants, but other shipments have no doubt made it through, in whole or in part, using small fishing boats as relays.
Facts like these help to justify the perception among many Arab leaders that they need to bolster their military capabilities and alliances to stave off a growing Iranian threat. This perception may have been a guiding principle during Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which led to over 300 billion dollars in trade agreements, including 110 billion dollars’ worth of arms sales.
Naturally, this move drew the ire of Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whom the Daily Mail quoted as calling Saudi Arabia the “milking cow” of the United States, in a public address delivered to mark the start of Ramadan. The supreme leader’s speech referred to the US and other Western powers as “infidels,” thus underscoring the close relationship between Iran’s animosity toward Western, secular governments and its animosity toward regional countries that have traditionally been allied with the US.
In this way, the speech may also be seen as casting further doubt upon Rouhani’s promises of broader engagement with the world. Indeed, the Daily Mail notes that Rouhani himself echoed the supreme leader’s tone regarding US-Saudi relations, saying for instance that Mr. Trump’s visit to Riyadh was “a show with not political or practical value.”
Khamenei also used his Ramadan speech to criticize Iran’s regional adversaries for alleged misallocation of funds. “They are close with the infidels and offer the enemy the money they should be using to improve the lives of their own people,” he said.
But this is a criticism that is regularly levied against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and this week was arguably a particularly inopportune time for Khamenei to attempt to invoke it against regional rivals. This is because a Voice of America News report pointed out on Sunday that the Syrian government had confirmed earlier reports of its request for the Iranian government to begin directly supervising and handling the payroll of thousands of Shiite militants fighting in that country’s civil war.
Iran has already been deeply involved in that war, as well as the conflict in Yemen, spending untold quantities of money on the combat operations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as the costs associated with recruiting, arming, and providing logistical support for militant proxy groups, some of which have publicly declared allegiance to Tehran and its supreme leader. Critics of the Iranian regime, including domestic activists and the exile network of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, have used these ongoing expenditures as grounds for accusing Tehran of neglecting its own people at a time when the economy is struggling to recover from years of nuclear-related sanctions.
Economic protests have become fairly common place in Iran during recent months, despite the persistent crackdowns being carried out by the security state against activists, journalists, and others. With the presidential election still a very fresh memory, the Associated Press reported that a crowd had gathered outside of the central bank building in Tehran on Monday, to protest for the return of money to citizens affected by a years-old banking scheme.
Such protests reportedly recur on a semi-regular basis, even after previous iterations are violently suppressed. The NCRI underscored the fact that female participants in the latest rally were physically attacked when Iranian security forces sought to disperse them. In the past, the NCRI has also reported upon protest gatherings that specifically drew attention to the wasteful spending of Iranian finances on unpopular foreign wars.
The emerging arrangement would add to that financial burden by having the Iranian government pay the salaries of at least 10,000 foreign fighters, according to analysts. The pro-opposition Syrian news website Zaman Al Wasel puts the precise figure at 88,733 individuals. Meanwhile, Tehran has already offered salaries and promises of a place in the Iranian job market for Afghan refugees and emigrants who have agreed to enlist in IRGC-led militant groups bound for fighting in Syria, Iraq, and/or Yemen.
Voice of America News associates all of these efforts with a longstanding Iranian ambition for the creation of unified regional army under its own command. In August, IRGC officer Mohammad Ali Falaki boasted that this goal had already begun to come to fruition where Syria was concerned. And much earlier, several other Iranian officials had boasted of their control over multiple Arab capitals, namely Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, and Saana.
Naturally, the pursuit of regional unification under an Iranian banner is dependent upon the acquisition of more territory by Iranian proxies, as well. And as reported by Reuters, this is something that some of those forces claim to have recently accomplished in Iraq with their capture of several formerly ISIL-held villages along the border with Syria. The precise location underscores the effort to tie multiple countries together with Iran-backed militias as the binding agent. And this in turn can be expected to add to the motivation for both the Gulf Arab states and the Trump White House to push back against such Iranian influence.
In addition to arms sales to bolster the defenses of stable allies in the region, there have also reported efforts to hamper Iran’s advance in the midst of the multilateral conflict against ISIL. US-backed forces have evidently already forced Iran to re-draw a planned route linking Tehran, through Iraq, to Damascus. And they may now be taking aim at preventing that route from taking shape at all.
Meanwhile, as the conflict between Iran and its traditional adversaries continues to take shape, some countries stand to be caught in the middle, where they may face the challenge of choosing one side to back, or else struggling to remain out of the conflict. For instance, the government of Pakistan has a long history of cooperation with the US and its allies, yet a leading foreign policy advisor to the Pakistani Prime Minister recently said that they do not want to do anything to “make Iran unhappy at any cost.”
Sartaj Aziz added that Pakistan intends to strengthen relations with Iran, but this comes at a time when the country has also committed to participating in the Saudi-led alliance against terrorism. For the time being, Pakistan intends to avoid conflict between these two goals, but over time this may become impossible as Saudi-Iranian tensions approach a breaking point.