Can Iran and Saudi Arabia Reconcile? — Plus: Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism by Mohammad Javad Zarif

Tehran’s firefighters attempt to control a blaze inside Saudi Arabia’s embassy after it was stormed by Iranian protesters during a demonstration in Tehran, Jan. 2, 2016.  (photo by REUTERS/TIMA/Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA/File Photo)

By Ali Hashem

According to Islamic teachings, the hajj is the annual manifestation of Muslim unity. This is a common theme among Muslim scholars when describing the scene of millions of Muslim worshipers from around the world, all wearing plain white robes and performing the same rituals, despite their ethnic and sectarian differences. This grand, symbolic gesture of Islamic unity seems to be reeling under the effect of politics, in particular the row between the two dominant Islamic states in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which since 2012 appear to be engaged in an undeclared state of regional war.


The two countries opened a new chapter in their already tense relations Sept. 5 when Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, launched one of the harshest verbal attacks on the government of Saudi Arabia since being chosen to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. In his annual hajj message, Khamenei recalled the stampede during last year’s hajj that led to a reported 2,000 people being killed, among them 472 Iranians.

“The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers — instead of providing medical treatment and helping them or at least quenching their thirst. They murdered them.” Khamenei called Saudi rulers “disgraced and misguided” and referred to Saudi muftis as “impious and haram eating … who blatantly issue fatwas against the Book and Sunnah.” Khamenei said those who accuse Iran of preventing its citizens from making the hajj are “media minions” of Saudi Arabia and reporting lies. Khamenei added that Muslims should “reconsider the management” of the annual pilgrimage.

“The Saudi-Iranian tension is dangerous and takes the conflict to the edge of the abyss,” said former Saudi diplomat Abdullah Shammari in an interview with Al-Monitor. Shammari, an expert on Iranian and Turkish affairs, accused Tehran of starting the row by interfering in Saudi affairs, referring to Tehran’s reaction to the execution of dissident Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr earlier this year. Protesters then attacked Saudi diplomatic compounds in Tehran and Mashhad.

Shammari said, “This led to the severance of diplomatic ties [by Riyadh], and Iran stopped its pilgrims from doing the hajj this year despite the flexibility shown by Saudi officials, but it seems this is serving the agenda of certain lines in Iranian politics.”

In response to Khamenei’s comments, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, accused the Iranians of being non-Muslims, because they are descendants of Zoroastrians. “They are the sons of the Magi [Zoroastrians], and their hostility toward Muslims is an old one, especially with the people of the Sunnah [Sunnis],” said the mufti. His comment incited another round of responses, including from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who tweeted, “Indeed; no resemblance between Islam of Iranians & most Muslims & bigoted extremism that Wahhabi top cleric and Saudi terror masters preach.”

Al-Monitor has learned that Riyadh sent Tehran a message through unofficial channels clarifying that the grand mufti’s inflammatory comments were not an official position.

“The latest comments by the Saudi mufti should be put into the accompanying context,” Shammari said. “The interview was on the phone, and it reflects an angry personal point of view after the Iranian supreme leader’s message that crossed all red lines.” He added, “The comments are personal and political and can’t be regarded as a religious fatwa.”

The hajj is only one of several points of conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are already on opposite sides in several battles around the region. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is fighting alongside the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, while in Syria, Iran is fighting alongside the government of President Bashar al-Assad against rebels backed by Saudi Arabia among other powers.

“The [Iranian supreme] leader’s hajj message was linked to regional issues too,” Tehran University professor Mohammad Marandi told Al-Monitor. He explained that the message was also related to the “constant bombardment of civilian targets in Yemen, the support for Wahhabi extremists in Syria and Iraq, the subjugation of the people in Bahrain, and also it is linked to the general attitude of the Saudi regime toward non-Wahhabis and the fact that they treat non-Wahhabis as inferior beings.”

That said, Marandi thinks that there might be a chance for rapprochement. He said, “If there is a real change in Saudi policies, then it is very likely that there will be a change in course, but if not, then the Iranians feel that the Saudis are heading toward instability and perhaps demise. So if the Saudis want to spare themselves of such an end, they have to back off and swallow their pride.”

Shammari, however, expressed pessimism in regard to a significant change in the situation, explaining that the average Saudi knows very well that the Iranian supreme leader is not using his comments to boost his popularity at home, but means what he said. Shammari remarked, “A miracle is needed when the highest [Iranian] authority is using such harsh rhetoric against Riyadh. … Unfortunately, regional and world powers are exploiting this conflict for their interests, while the people of Saudi Arabia and Iran are the ones who will pay the price.”

While it is true that Khamenei’s hajj message was tough, it was not the harshest from an Iranian leader to date. That distinction goes to Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1988 hajj message, which made note of the killing of more than 402 pilgrims in Mecca the preceding year, most of them Iranians. He described the Saudi-Iranian struggle as a war between good and evil and presented the House of Saud as pre-Islamic idolaters. Despite the tough rhetoric of today, there might be cause to believe a change in course between Tehran and Riyadh could occur sooner rather than later.



Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism

By Mohammad Javad Zarif

Tehran — Public relations firms with no qualms about taking tainted petrodollars are experiencing a bonanza. Their latest project has been to persuade us that the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, is no more. As a Nusra spokesman told CNN, the rebranded rebel group, supposedly separated from its parent terrorist organization, has become “moderate.”

Thus is fanaticism from the Dark Ages sold as a bright vision for the 21st century. The problem for the P.R. firms’ wealthy, often Saudi, clients, who have lavishly funded Nusra, is that the evidence of their ruinous policies can’t be photoshopped out of existence. If anyone had any doubt, the recent video images of other “moderates” beheading a 12-year-old boy were a horrifying reality check.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, militant Wahhabism has undergone a series of face-lifts, but underneath, the ideology remains the same — whether it’s the Taliban, the various incarnations of Al Qaeda or the so-called Islamic State, which is neither Islamic nor a state. But the millions of people faced with the Nusra Front’s tyranny are not buying the fiction of this disaffiliation. Past experience of such attempts at whitewashing points to the real aim: to enable the covert flow of petrodollars to extremist groups in Syria to become overt, and even to lure Western governments into supporting these “moderates.” The fact that Nusra still dominates the rebel alliance in Aleppo flouts the public relations message.

Saudi Arabia’s effort to persuade its Western patrons to back its shortsighted tactics is based on the false premise that plunging the Arab world into further chaos will somehow damage Iran. The fanciful notions that regional instability will help to “contain” Iran, and that supposed rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are fueling conflicts, are contradicted by the reality that the worst bloodshed in the region is caused by Wahhabists fighting fellow Arabs and murdering fellow Sunnis.

While these extremists, with the backing of their wealthy sponsors, have targeted Christians, Jews, Yazidis, Shiites and other “heretics,” it is their fellow Sunni Arabs who have been most beleaguered by this exported doctrine of hate. Indeed, it is not the supposed ancient sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites but the contest between Wahhabism and mainstream Islam that will have the most profound consequences for the region and beyond.

While the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq set in motion the fighting we see today, the key driver of violence has been this extremist ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia — even if it was invisible to Western eyes until the tragedy of 9/11.

The princes in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, have been desperate to revive the regional status quo of the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, when a surrogate repressive despot, eliciting wealth and material support from fellow Arabs and a gullible West, countered the so-called Iranian threat. There is only one problem: Mr. Hussein is long dead, and the clock cannot be turned back.

The sooner Saudi Arabia’s rulers come to terms with this, the better for all. The new realities in our region can accommodate even Riyadh, should the Saudis choose to change their ways.

What would change mean? Over the past three decades, Riyadh has spent tens of billions of dollars exporting Wahhabism through thousands of mosques and madrasas across the world. From Asia to Africa, from Europe to the Americas, this theological perversion has wrought havoc. As one former extremist in Kosovo told The Times, “The Saudis completely changed Islam here with their money.”

Though it has attracted only a minute proportion of Muslims, Wahhabism has been devastating in its impact. Virtually every terrorist group abusing the name of Islam — from Al Qaeda and its offshoots in Syria to Boko Haram in Nigeria — has been inspired by this death cult.

So far, the Saudis have succeeded in inducing their allies to go along with their folly, whether in Syria or Yemen, by playing the “Iran card.” That will surely change, as the realization grows that Riyadh’s persistent sponsorship of extremism repudiates its claim to be a force for stability.

The world cannot afford to sit by and witness Wahhabists targeting not only Christians, Jews and Shiites but also Sunnis. With a large section of the Middle East in turmoil, there is a grave danger that the few remaining pockets of stability will be undermined by this clash of Wahhabism and mainstream Sunni Islam.

There needs to be coordinated action at the United Nations to cut off the funding for ideologies of hate and extremism, and a willingness from the international community to investigate the channels that supply the cash and the arms. In 2013, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, proposed an initiative called World Against Violent Extremism, or WAVE. The United Nations should build on that framework to foster greater dialogue between religions and sects to counter this dangerous medieval fanaticism.

The attacks in Nice, Paris and Brussels should convince the West that the toxic threat of Wahhabism cannot be ignored. After a year of almost weekly tragic news, the international community needs to do more than express outrage, sorrow and condolences; concrete action against extremism is needed.

Though much of the violence committed in the name of Islam can be traced to Wahhabism, I by no means suggest that Saudi Arabia cannot be part of the solution. Quite the reverse: We invite Saudi rulers to put aside the rhetoric of blame and fear, and join hands with the rest of the community of nations to eliminate the scourge of terrorism and violence that threatens us all.

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