Facing the Middle East's 'Hardliner' Problem

What Saudi and Iranian leaders gain from taking a hard stance.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of forty-seven dissidents including a Shiite cleric, attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Iran and a break in relations between the two nations have attracted wide international attention. If the already-high tension between the two nations escalates further, it will complicate efforts to end the war in Syria and defeat Daesh/ISIS. In fact, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, has threatened that his country might take stronger measures against Iran.

What motivated the two sides to take such actions?

On the Iranian side, the hardliners are willing to do anything to bring down the administration of President Hassan Rouhani. They want a government that is absolutely obedient to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and run by them, and do not tolerate any dissenting voice. They are highly concerned about the nationwide elections on February 26 for the Majles and the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that appoints the supreme leader, and are worried that moderates and reformists will take control of the Majles.

The hardliners have planned extensively to achieve their goal. Although they have been forced to accept the nuclear accord between Iran and P5+1, they consider it treason and refer to it as the second Treaty of Turkmenchay, a reference to the 1828 treaty between Iran and Russia whereby Iran gave up its sovereignty over vast areas in the Caucasus. They claim that Iran made major concessions to the West, but received nothing in return. Recognizing that the accord is popular with the Iranian people, the hardliners are concerned about the implications of the nuclear agreement for the upcoming elections.

Iran bears the most crippling economic sanctions in history from the U.S. and its allies, but the final report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on the possible military dimension of Iran’s nuclear program stated that Iran’s past efforts were limited to research. Thus, there is cautious optimism for rapprochement between Iran and the West, particularly the United States—but the hardliners oppose that and any further negotiations between Iran and the United States.

During his presidential campaign in 2013 Rouhani said repeatedly that the centrifuges for enriching uranium must keep spinning, but so, too, must the economic engine. He rejected the hardliners’ insistence on not making any concessions to the West. To him, Iran’s deep economic depression, inflation rate of more than 40 percent and contraction exceeding 5 percent, as was the case in 2012, were unacceptable.

Recalling what Rouhani had said in 2013, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the hardline commander of the Basij militia, said sarcastically on January 6 that “both the centrifuges and the engines of our industrial plants were supposed to spin, but either of them is working, the economy is in recession and we received no benefits [from the nuclear accord].” Explaining why this has happened, Naqdi added, “Of course, if we lose our strength and walk under the U.S. flag fifty times, laughing [a reference to the strolls by Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during the negotiations], other countries would feel that Iran is collapsing and they can do whatever they want.”

The attacks on Rouhani have been going on since his election, but have intensified as the aforementioned elections are approached. The attacks on the Saudi embassy must be seen as part of the hardliners efforts against Rouhani. His supporters, the moderates and reformists, are confronting not only the hardliners, but also Iran’s enemies who consider them as a threat to their interests. It is universally known that both Israel and Saudi Arabia opposed the nuclear accord, and did what they could to prevent it.

On the Saudi side, its confrontation with Tehran has been going on for decades. Saudi Arabia’s main goals are isolating Iran politically, preserving economic sanctions imposed on it, continuation of enmity between Iran and the United States and preventing Iran’s rise as a major regional power. To achieve these goals, the Saudi ruling elite has taken high-risk actions, including attacking Yemen under the baseless excuse that Iran is helping the Houthi Shiites, in order to provoke Iran. But Iran has not reacted strongly to the attacks, and major human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have declared that Saudi Arabia has committed war crimes in Yemen.