Muslim Unity Conference Highlights Iranian-Saudi Discord

Rouhani subtly invoked conspiracy theories about Israel and the West being the puppet masters behind Middle Eastern conflicts when he asked, “Does the destruction of Syria help strengthen Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or other countries? Is anyone pleased by Syria’s destruction apart from Israel?”

The Associated Press adds that Rouhani described Israel as an enemy to all Muslim states. Such rhetoric seems to belie Rouhani’s moderate image, which has been embraced by the Obama administration and other Western policymakers, and which has been reinvigorated by those same foreign powers in the run-up to February elections in Iran.

At the same time, Rouhani’s own comments and those of other Iranian officials seem to undermine the notion that Iran is truly amenable to reconciliation with the Saudis. The AP notes that Rouhani asked of the Saudis, “How many bombs and missiles have you purchased from the U.S. in the past year?” adding, “If you had distributed the same money among poor Muslims, none of them would have gone to bed hungry.”

The Rouhani administration was criticized last year for increasing the budget for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps by about one third at a time when he was supposedly trying to stabilize the virtually crippled Iranian economy. Indeed, prior to Rouhani’s election, Iran had responded to economic sanctions by increasing spending not only on established military infrastructure but also on expanding the very nuclear program that was the source of many of those sanctions.

Although Iran continues to insist that it has never sought nuclear weapons, the final report of the International Atomic Energy Agency determined this month that a coordinated nuclear weapons program had been in place at least until 2003 and some work on nuclear weapons-related components continued at least until 2009.

From this context it seems clear that Rouhani’s one-sided call for Muslim unity included serious criticisms of Saudi Arabia for activities that have been exhibited by both countries. This is even more obvious with respect to his criticisms of Iran’s regional activities. The AP notes that Rouhani blamed the Saudis for spreading “poverty and terrorism” both through their military opposition to rebels in Yemen and through their support for rebels fighting to oust Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria.

Iran presents a mirror image of this support, being actively engaged in fighting in defense of Assad while also arming and training the Yemeni Houthi rebels, if not fighting alongside them. There is no clear reason why Iran regards one rebel group as terrorist but not the other, nor why it decries the poverty resulting from war in Yemen but not in Syria.

In spite of these apparent contradictions, Iranian officials insist that they are ready for a change in the traditionally adversarial relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But even looking beyond Rouhani’s speech, comments to this effect seem to place the burden for that change solely on the Saudi side.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hossein Jaber Ansari said on Monday that there would only be a change in that relationship if the Saudis demonstrated “serious will,” according to Gulf News. But while he also referred to recent, secretive talks between the two sides, neither he nor any other Rouhani administration official has indicated willingness to scale back activities that the Saudis find objectionable, such as support for Houthi rebels who have launched attacks across the border with Saudi Arabia.