Iran election and Qatar crisis set Middle East on edge as Saudi Arabia seeks to extend its influence

The US in particular must strike a difficult balance in a region going through a volatile period. Kim Sengupta reports from Tehran

Kim Sengupta
Tehran, Iran
Thursday 03 August 2017 21:35 BST
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and President Hassan Rouhani greet at the official endorsement ceremony of President Rouhani in Tehran
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and President Hassan Rouhani greet at the official endorsement ceremony of President Rouhani in Tehran (AP)

“Some of the Saudi-funded mosques in the UK are as dangerous as many mosques in Saudi Arabia and the UK has suffered because of that. We have seen the Saudis spreading the extremist Wahaabi form of Islam in other parts of the world and the highly damaging effect of that as well,” said Mohammad Marandi.

Mr Marandi, an academic with influence in Iran’s governing circles, was speaking about the state of power-play in the Middle East which is going through a particularly volatile period, even by its turbulent standards, with repercussions spreading far beyond.

A Saudi-led coalition including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt has imposed a blockade on Qatar, gouging a faultline in the region’s Sunni confederacy. The main reasons for the bitter confrontation are Doha’s amicable relations with Shia Iran, Riyadh’s sectarian rival, as well as Doha’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation loathed by Saudi Arabia.

At the same time there is deep international apprehension about what happens in the aftermath of the war against Isis in Iraq and Syria with thousands of jihadists on the loose and al-Qaeda making a comeback. Meanwhile, looming in the horizon, is the baleful shadow of Donald Trump whose blunderings have played a key role in the crisis.

Mr Trump had boasted about how he helped to shape the actions of the Saudi alliance against Qatar. “During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding for Radical ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look”, he tweeted. The trip was to Riyadh to sell arms to the Gulf States with Saudi Arabia alone signing a deal to buy $110bn (£83.6bn). While there the US President repeatedly attacked Iran claiming it “funds arms, trains militias [and] that it trains militias that spread destruction and chaos.” Saudi King Salman also railed against Iran calling it “the spearhead of terrorism”.

There is now general consensus among observers that the Saudis did actually see Mr Trump’s remarks as a green light to go after Qatar, sending a set of demands to Doha which was always unlikely to be met, followed swiftly by announcement of punitive action.

Qatar, however, has refused to capitulate, and the Saudis have failed to get broader international support for their stance. Most significantly, James Mattis and Rex Tillerson, America’s Defence Secretary and Secretary of State, aghast at Mr Trump’s attitude towards Qatar, a valued allied state with a major strategic US military base, have very publicly signalled their support for Doha.

In Washington, senior figures have pointed to the long history of Saudi funding for terrorism. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, considered a hawk on Iran, has bluntly stated “the amount of support for terrorism by Saudi Arabia dwarfs what Qatar is doing.” Before his election Mr Trump had himself blamed the Kingdom for terrorist attacks in America. “Who blew up the World Trade Centre?” he asked on Fox TV in February last year while criticising the US invasion of Iraq. “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi – take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents!”.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly denied any responsibility for, or link to, the September 11 attack and denies funding extremism.

Iran’s immediate response to the standoff between the Saudis and the Qataris was cautious, with calls for reconciliation. But then it was only too happy to take advantage of the situation, starting to fly in food to Qatar and, when the Saudis banned Qatari flights from its airspace, Tehran was quick to allow them into its skies.

The inauguration of Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, takes place this week and Qatar has said it will send a high-level delegation. “We will never forget the accomplishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the time of the sanctions and we appreciated it”, said the country’s prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani. Saudi Arabia and its close allies, unsurprisingly, will not be at the ceremony on Saturday. The US will also be absent, but Britain and the EU, Russia and China are due to attend.

Alireza Rahimi, of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of Iran’s parliament, the Majlis, wanted to stress: “We have a hundred countries being represented, this will send an important message to the world when America is once again trying to get countries to act against Iran.”

The Sunni states of Oman and, to a lesser extent, Kuwait, have sought to build relations with Iran and the Qatari move further weakens the Sunni league which the Saudis seek to lead. The crisis has also warmed relations between Tehran and Turkey, which has troops based in Qatar and offered to send reinforcements when there was some talk of a possible Saudi military offensive.

There is no sign of thawing of the animosity between Riyadh and Tehran. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was named heir apparent to the Kingdom’s throne by his father King Salman in July, had stated two months before: “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran.”

Prince Mohammed is the architect of the current war in Yemen in which the Saudis and their allies have been bombing the country for two years with no sign of victory in sight, but more than 10,000 civilians have been killed so far and homes, schools, hospitals and vital infrastructure destroyed.

A month after Prince Mohammed’s statement a terrorist attack took place in Tehran, targeting parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini’s tomb, killing 17 people. Isis claimed “credit” but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards charged that the Saudis were responsible. No evidence has been presented, however, to support this.

Mohammad Marandi is sceptical that the Saudis could offer a conventional military threat. “When it comes to this region the Saudis have, fortunately, been shooting themselves in the foot for a while, and their influence and power is nothing like they pretend it is.The Yemeni war, as we know, has been a disaster and it continues to be very costly. We have also been told by a couple of countries which should know that the Saudi economy is in a far worse state than they can admit,” he held.

Neither does he and his colleagues feel that Mr Trump is necessarily a military threat to Iran. The rhetoric has become much more aggressive with him, but what we have also seen is how isolated the US is becoming under him, how many countries he is driving away,” he said. “Unlike Barack Obama, it is unlikely that he will be in a position to build a viable international coalition.

“As for terrorism, well we know about what happens with Wahaabi extremism in so many countries. But the West seems happy to continue the way they are with Saudi Arabia, selling them the bombs being used to kill people in Yemen.”

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