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January 18, 2016 7:32 am

As Iran Squabbles With Saudi Arabia, Its People Continue to Suffer

avatar by Behrooz Behbudi

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (left) and President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Wikipedia.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (left) and President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: Wikipedia.

Iran’s condemnation of Saudi Arabian policy has done it few favors with its neighbors in recent weeks, attracting the wrath of the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCG) states, as well as Egypt, Al Azhar — the leading Sunni institution based in Cairo, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The diplomatic debacle began when protesters in Tehran stormed the Saudi Embassy after Riyadh executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Saudi national, Shia cleric, and opposition leader, earlier this month.

The UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who led an emergency meeting of GCC ministers to discuss the situation, condemned Iran’s failure to defend Saudi interests, given that the embassy attack “took place under the nose and within the earshot of (Iranian) security forces.”

Saudi’s Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir went further in warning that Arab nations would “confront” Iran if it does not change its ways.

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At the Arab League, Arab foreign ministers from all major states, with the exception of Lebanon — which has a large Shia population and is home to the powerful Shia militant group Hezbollah — strongly condemned what they described as Iran’s “meddling” in Arab affairs, accusing the Islamic Republic of breaking international agreements by intentionally failing to protect Saudi Arabian diplomatic posts.

The ensuing crisis has seen Saudi Arabia and several Arab states cut or downgrade diplomatic ties with Iran.

Not all Arab countries agree with Saudi Arabia’s current policies abroad, but if it comes to a showdown few, if any, would throw their lot in with Tehran; there is a lingering distrust of the ruling regime there — a regime that many observers believe continues to exploit the current political climate to make sectarian mischief between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

“Iran has no qualms and no hesitation in using the sectarian card as a way to dominate the region and to interfere in the internal affairs of Arab countries,” the UAE’s Al Nahyan observed last week.

Al-Jubeir told fellow ambassadors at a closed door meeting: “The attacks at the Saudi embassy in Tehran followed inciting statements from Iranian officials against the kingdom.” He went on: “What happened was not because of the execution of a Saudi citizen,” the minister said, referring to al-Nimr.

Tensions with Iran, he added, only began after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which overthrew the secular Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and brought to power a conservative Shia Islamic regime.

That Iran should speak out so determinedly against Saudi Arabia at a time when its own domestic and foreign policies are under such close international scrutiny might well be described as foolhardy and hypocritical; and to employ, yet again, its government-sponsored rent-a-mob tactics to intimidate and inflame the situation carries with it the whiff of desperation.

Even those observers who have spoken out against Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights have been forced to admit that it pales when compared to that of Iran.

According to independent data collected by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia recorded 158 executions during 2015, with the total marking the highest number since 1995.

Meanwhile, Iran is second only to China in the number of people it executes annually. Amnesty International estimates that at least 743 executions were carried out at the behest of the Iranian government in 2014, with probably many more going unrecorded.

However, this is the tip of the iceberg. While the country’s smiling President Hassan Rouhani has become a regular feature in international news bulletins, as he seeks understanding and approval for Iran’s re-entry into the global arena, at home the situation is far less genial than the President’s demeanor would have us believe.

After 20 years of absolute control under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, this once proud country of more than 77 million is suffering from the cumulative effects of poverty, severe food shortages, power cuts, catastrophic air pollution in its major cities, rampant inflation, and, for those few who can still afford it, staggeringly expensive costs for medical care and education.

The Iranian constitution entrusts the Supreme Leader with vast authority over all major state institutions, and Khamenei, who has held the post since 1989, has found many other ways to further increase his influence. Formally or not, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the government all operate under his absolute sovereignty; Khamenei is Iran’s head of state, commander in chief, and top ideologue. His views are what ultimately shape Iranian policy.

Under his “guidance” the Islamic Republic has fallen from being one of the most prosperous, educated, cultured and innovative countries in the region to its present position as extremely poor relation to its Gulf neighbors.

Feuding and fighting, resulting in international sanctions has cut budget spending to a fraction of previous levels. Once funds have been allocated to Hezbollah and other related groups responsible for currently causing mayhem in Syria and other unfortunate destinations around the globe, there is precious little left to ensure the comfort and well-being of those at home.

Meanwhile bribery and corruption are rampant among all sections of Iranian society; everything is available to the highest bidder be it alcohol, drugs, or merely bread. Yet Ayatollah Khamanei seems unperturbed and unmoved by the deteriorating plight of his fellow countrymen.

It is well known that Rouhani’s landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1 negotiating partners in July has unsettled the Supreme Leader who fears the deal is a first step in the Rouhani’s government’s grand designs for increased economic cooperation with the rest of the world, a situation that could irrevocably alter the balance of power in Tehran.

Some observers fear that the ageing Ayatollah is losing his grip believing he can hold onto power forever. The Supreme Leader has already claimed to have conversations with God on a nightly basis. Meanwhile, many millions of Iranians pray that one night soon, the conversations will conclude and the Ayatollah will fly away with his maker to a better place.

Dr Behrooz Behbudi, founding president of the Centre for a Democratic Iran (CDI), looks at the recent diplomatic debacle between Iran and Saudi Arabia and points out exactly why the Iranian regime should not be among those “throwing stones.”

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