The following day, the New York Times published an editorial that presented essentially the same argument, in this case supporting it with reference to mutual repression of Iranian and Saudi religious minorities. The article also highlighted a long series of statements issued by Tehran suggesting that its Saudi adversaries were supporting and financing organizations deemed terrorists by the Iranian regime. Chief among these are Kurdish separatist groups. But the Times indicates that Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations and Iran has failed to present concrete evidence supporting them.
On the other hand, it was Saudi Arabia that severed diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic in January after Iranian mobs stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad. Opponents of the Iranian regime expressed certainty that these attacks had been instigated by the regime itself in response to the Saudi execution of a Shiite dissident cleric. Among those making this argument was the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Following this apparent declaration of common cause between the NCRI and Saudi Arabia, the former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal appeared at the annual Paris gathering of the NCRI, which took place on July 9, this year. Although the Saudis have denied providing direct support for rebel groups, Turki did explicitly endorse the cause of the Iranian opposition group, namely the overthrow of the existing Iranian regime.
The Times mentioned this incident in its analysis, as well, suggesting that it had put Iranian-Saudi relations at an even greater risk of “boiling over.” But this did not prevent the article from assigning apparently equal blame to both countries for the worsening situation, or from urging both of them to improve their treatment of religious minorities in order to help defuse that situation.
Still, it seems clear that such a change of behavior is extremely unlikely. And furthermore, it is easy to interpret some of Iran’s foreign policy activities as efforts to develop regional and international partnerships on the understanding that the Gulf Arab states will remain serious political rivals. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been described as being engaged in “economic warfare” as the newly de-sanctioned Islamic Republic has sought to siphon shares of the oil market away from its adversaries. And within this context, each expansion in bilateral relations with a third-party nation is a potential opportunity to challenge that same country’s existing relations with either Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Such expanded relations, or the potential for them, have been seen in the cases of countries such as India and Pakistan, both of which are pursuing joint development of oil pipelines and shipping ports. And as Iran’s relations with Middle Eastern countries have become increasingly strained and increasingly mired in actual military conflict, Tehran has continued to try to capitalize on sanctions relief by pushing for more trade relations with Europe, and also for an overall expansion in relations with African countries.
As an example of the latter, Ghana News Agency reports that Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama recently promised more bilateral deals between the two countries following the visit of a Ghanaian delegation to Tehran in February. The Iranian Foreign Ministry in turn publicly praised Mahama for being the first African President to make such a visit following the suspension of nuclear-related sanctions under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Iran presumably stands only to benefit from encouraging other African countries to follow Ghana’s lead. But those countries potentially face the same uncertainties as do potential European investors in Iran, namely that the Islamic Republic remains under some US-led economic sanctions as a result of its support for terrorism and its ongoing history of human rights abuses. Iranian officials have repeatedly criticized the US for failing to abide by the “spirit” of the nuclear agreement, insofar as it has supposedly scared off Western investment.
But others have insisted that the White House has gone above and beyond its requirements in explaining what is permitted under the JCPOA. Meanwhile, Iran has done little to actually improve upon the situation that continually creates barriers between the Islamic Republic and the global economy, even though it has repeatedly insisted upon greater access. In this sense, the status of relations between the Iranian and Western economies is reminiscent of the status of relations between the Iranian and Saudi governments. Iran has attempted to blame the Saudis for the escalating tensions, but as the Times makes clear, this depends upon disregard for clear contributions from the Iranian side.
There have been numerous indications of the same neglect in the case of Iran’s protests about lack of access to foreign markets. Illustrating this point, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran published an article on Wednesday commenting upon Tehran’s recent announcement that it would ban all iPhones if Apple did not open operations inside the Islamic Republic and register all devices with the government.
The article suggests that the threat may prove to be an empty one, since past efforts to implement such bans have met with resistance from the domestic service providers who stand to lose money. It may be that the regime is aware that the implementation of such a ban is unlikely but is putting it forward anyway as a way to try to pressure American companies into entering the Iranian market. The International Campaign explains that if Apple were to comply with the ultimatum, it would likely do so by resolving the technical issues that remain as barriers to other Western firms, thereby paving the way for those firms to follow Apple in.
Meanwhile, there are no reports to indicate that Iran has taken its own initiatives to help remove these barriers, as by demonstrating compliance with international banking regulations that call for verifiable safeguards against things like money laundering. The US Treasury has long regarded the entire Iranian financial system as being of “primary money laundering concern,” largely because of Iran’s longstanding support for international terrorist organizations.
It is evident that Iran is not taking any meaningful steps to address this more specific concern, either. The danger of indirectly financing terrorism by doing business with the Islamic Republic is certainly another barrier to entry for Western companies, at least from the standpoint of public relations. And as long as Iran continues to defy the Arab League statements calling for diminished Iranian influence in the broader Middle East, there is little doubt that Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism will persist or even escalate.
IranWire provided further evidence for this situation on Wednesday when it published an article on the integration of the Iran-backed Shiite militia al-Hashd al-Shaabi into the Iraqi military. As well as giving Iran more deeply rooted influence in Iran’s military affairs, this development gives militant groups expanded influence over Iraqi affairs. That influence can be expected to largely serve Iranian interests, thereby justifying the Arab League grievances, which have also arguably motivated Saudi Arabia’s calls for regime change.
IranWire notes that al-Hashd al-Shaabi is organized along the same lines as the Iran-controlled Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah, which the West has recognized as a terrorist group for decades. This year, the members states of the Gulf Cooperation Council joined in ascribing this label to the organization. And with the current situation being what it is, it appears almost certain that those same states will encourage the West and the world community to formally acknowledge that the Hezbollah threat has now been reproduced in Iraq.