Propaganda War Expands Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

The threat of ascendant Iranian power in the region has become more serious in the wake of the nuclear negotiations that concluded in July and are expected to result in broad-based sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic as early as next month. Foreign powers’ willingness to invest in Iran and to generally cooperate either with or against it will thus have a serious impact on the outcome of the rivalry between the two. And for this reason, the conflict has largely focused on propaganda and counter-propaganda. But combative public statements have also contributed to the general discord between the two sides, making greater aggression seem more likely.

Contributing to this landscape of mutual recrimination, Iran used its semi-official Fars News Agency to claim on Thursday that a meeting of Syrian opposition groups in Riyadh this week included groups affiliated with ISIL. This is among the strongest efforts that Iran has made so far to connect the Saudis to ISIL and blame them for the threat of terrorism in the region. Tehran regularly refers to all Syrian opposition groups as terrorists and rejects this label of the Shiite militant groups and Revolutionary Guards that it controls in the conflict.

Xinhua News Agency adds that at roughly the same time as the Fars report, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and North African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian used a telephone conversation with the UN special envoy to Yemen in order to call for the end of all operations by the Saudi-led coalition. In Yemen also, Iran strictly refers to the opposing side as terrorists, in spite of the Houthis being both a sectarian militia and rebels against an elected government.

For its part, Saudi Arabia has pushed back against the recent criticisms by levying very similar ones against Iran. Townhall reported on Thursday that Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir used a two day meeting of Arab states to declare that “Iran is playing a negative role in most regional issues” and making it more difficult to arrive at a political solution.

 

Jubeir also insisted that Riyadh is interested in better relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, but that Tehran’s behavior to date has made for dim prospects for reconciliation. It can be assumed that a portion of the offending behavior consists of Iran’s anti-Saudi propaganda. And this has been difficult for the Saudis to counter, due to the extensive reach of Iranian propaganda networks, and the absence of Saudi foreign media.

But Saudi Arabia is now making efforts to close this gap. According to NPR, the Arabian kingdom launched its first Farsi language news service on Thursday. The website is expected to be followed by a Farsi-language television network, as well, and both will compete with a range of Arab-language Iranian news sites and networks that have emerged since 2003, when Iran replaced the official government news service in Iraq during the US occupation.

Saudi Culture Minister Adel al-Toraifi described all of these as “very negative” to Saudi Arabia and characterized the new Farsi news site aiming to foster understanding in Iran of Saudi culture and society.

But even if this is an accurate description of its aims, it remains to be seen how far the venture will penetrate into Iran, which is notorious for censorship and is the world’s leading purchaser of equipment for blocking television signals and websites.