Is Iran shifting its Policy toward Saudi Arabia?

By Hassan Ahmadian, for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran Business News.

“Saudi rulers’ refusal to offer a simple verbal apology was indicative of their ultimate impudence and shamelessness,” said Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on Sept. 5, addressing the families of the 464 Iranian pilgrims who died in the hajj stampede last year.

Khamenei went on to criticize Saudi management of the annual pilgrimage, calling on Iranians and other Muslims to hold the Saudis accountable. “The stampede demonstrated that this government is not qualified to manage the Two Holy Mosques,” said Khamenei.

Yet, his tone was not unprecedented in Saudi Arabia and Iran’s shaky relationship. What was new, however, were the wording and tone of subsequent statements by President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 22, Rouhani demanded that the Saudis stop spreading their ideology of hatred, cease divisive policies, and accept their responsibility for the protection of pilgrims’ lives and dignity. Nine days earlier, on Sept. 13, Zarif had gone even further in a New York Times op-ed, “Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism,” on the ultraconservative Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia.

In accusing Riyadh of promoting Wahhabism, Zarif described the movement as the “key driver of violence” in the Middle East. He also argued that there is no such thing as an ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict, but a conflict between Wahhabism and mainstream Islam. Zarif asserted, “Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship of extremism repudiates its claim to be a force for stability.” Such rhetoric is new in Tehran’s stance toward Riyadh.

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