by LobeLog’s Tehran Correspondent
Since September 24, 2015 when hundreds of Iranian pilgrims were killed in the stampede in the holy city of Mecca during the annual hajj, the public rage against the Saudi regime has reached a peak in the history of the relationship between the two countries.
The Iranian reaction to this national tragedy could be divided into two time periods: between September 24 and 27 and post-September 30.
In the beginning, prominent figures in both the reformist and fundamentalist camps criticized the Saudi government for their lack of management. They expected Riyadh to apologize for the loss of what was initially reported as 200 lives and to allow Iranian authorities to enter Saudi Arabia to help identify the bodies and to return them home.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei delivered his first speech on September 27. He summed up this attitude when he said, “Instead of laying the blame on others, the Saudis should accept the responsibility and apologize to the grieving Iranian families and the Muslim World.”
But as more details of the horrific accident were revealed and the Saudi government kept ignoring Iranian requests, the course of the conflict also changed.
A few hours after Khamenei’s speech, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, who was in New York City to attend the UN General Assembly, accused the Iranian government of taking advantage of the situation. He said, “The Iranians should know better than to try to make play politics with a tragic event that has befallen people who were performing the most sacred religious duty, which is the pilgrimage.”
Finally, on September 30, the combination of Saudi secrecy about the number of the casualties (which had reached 450) and its refusal to allow the Iranian government to travel to Mecca during the first week after the tragedy prompted the Supreme Leader to deliver a threatening speech.
Seventy-two hours after his initial remarks, Ayatollah Khamenei’s tone had changed. He addressed students at a military college in the port city of Noushahr in Northern Iran and criticized the Saudis’ rude treatment of the Iranian corpses during their transfer. “To this day, with patience and based on Islamic ethics, the Islamic Republic of Iran has respected the brotherhood among the Muslim nations. However, they should know that any disrespect to the tens of thousands of Iranian nationals who are [currently] in Mecca and Medina, as well as failure to fulfill responsibilities regarding the transfer of the bodies would meet a harsh Iranian reaction.”
With similar claims—which Iranians interpreted as a threat of military action—the Supreme Leader said, “Iranians are better than many and have more resources as well. If they want to, they can ruin the bullies and the insidious. When it comes to competition, Iranians have no challengers.”
If there were doubts about meaning of these rough words, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Mohammad Ali Jafari declared on October 3, 2015, after the arrival of the first caravan of deceased pilgrims, “The revolutionary guard is prepared in all possible capacities to fulfill the demands of the Supreme Leader in regards to the horrific events of Mina and is waiting [his] commands.” He then added that the retaliation would be “fast and harsh.”
Even though different sectors of Iranian society welcomed these threats, Iran hasn’t closed the Saudi embassy or asked its diplomats—even temporarily—to leave the country. Here, the diplomacy of Hassan Rouhani and his firm détente policies have exerted a moderating influence.
An anonymous source close to the Foreign Ministry has told LobeLog that both Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are working hard to convince the high authorities in Iran that retribution and suspending diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in the current regional atmosphere are not good ideas.
In the past two years, Rouhani has expressed his desire on several occasions to resolve the conflicts between Riyadh and Tehran, particularly given the escalating crisis in Syria. Currently Iran and Russia support the Assad regime, which clashes with the American and French stance. Thus, the Rouhani administration does not want to challenge a third party (the Saudi military) that also has a hand in the Syrian crisis—at least not until the defeat of jihadists such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front.
Rouhani’s recent take shows that his diplomacy doctrine after the conclusion of the nuclear deal is focused on resolving conflicts in the Middle East. During the UN General Assembly, he said, “The Middle East is seeking development and is tired of war.” Also, as the involvement of senior Iranian officials in the verbal assault against Saudi Arabia was increasing, he stressed cooperation among all powers in the region as the means to find a solution to the current crisis. “We support any measure to promote cooperation between Islamic nations to combat extremism, threats, and aggression, and in this connection, are prepared to play our permanent constructive and positive role,” he said.
On returning to Tehran, Rouhani also told the media that he is willing to negotiate with anyone in order to solve the situation in Syria and Yemen. By “anyone” he might have been including the Saudi leadership. “If we see conditions that permit us to hold a doalogue with Saudi Arabia, we will do that,” he had told senior U.S. media representatives at a private meeting in New York several days before.
In Iran, Rouhani is known as a pragmatic president whose long career in the political structure of the government and moderate views have enabled him to gain legitimacy when it comes to negotiating. Also, his Western education and academic background in foreign relations have given him a deep understanding of Iran’s diplomatic priorities. So, despite the pressure of public opinion and the Iranian senior officials calling for retaliation against Saudi Arabia, Rouhani would prefer to avoid tension in order to bring the two countries closer to solving the Syrian crisis. Meanwhile, he most likely will convince Iranian officials to be patient and avoid a serious conflict—whether diplomatic or military—with Saudi Arabia in favor of securing a more wide-ranging partnership.
Photo: Saudi security oversight of Mecca pilgrims
Translation by Parisa Saranj