Facing the Middle East's 'Hardliner' Problem

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.

Saudi Arabia also lied about the number of Muslims killed during a stampede in Mina last September. It claimed that 700 people were killed, but the actual number was 2,177, of whom 464 were Iranian. Once again, Iran was utterly patient, and was also invited to the Vienna peace conference for Syria in the aftermath of the stampede, which angered the Saudis further. Russia’s military intervention in Syria has also turned the table against terrorist groups that are supported by the Saudis.

Thus, the Saudis’ barbaric execution of forty-seven dissidents was intended to provoke Iran. Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, the Shiite dissident and cleric, had been arrested in 2012 and sentenced on October 15, 2014, to “beheading and crucifixion in public.” The sentence was ratified on October 25, 2015, by the Saudi Supreme Court and signed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef.

Nimr’s arrest and trial angered Iran’s hardliners. Conservative Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi declared on July 1, 2014, that this was intolerable for the Shiites and their grand ayatollahs. Another conservative grand ayatollah, Hossein Nouri Hamadani, issued a statement the following day in which he warned about the treatment of the Shiites in Saudi Arabia, adding that “Shiite seminaries will not tolerate the execution of this great scholar.” On October 17, 2014, Ayatollah Sayyed Ahmad Khatami, the conservative Friday prayer imam of Tehran, called the execution sentence unjust, saying, “You [Saudi Arabia] will not be able to swallow this bite easily, because executing a free cleric will be costly to you.” Another cleric, Sayyed Mohammad Saeedi, Qom’s Friday prayer imam, said on the same day, “If the sentence is carried out, they will pay a heavy price. If this mojahed [fighter for God] is executed, a strong earthquake will topple the Saudi regime.”

Naqdi said on October 18, 2014, that the sentence has not been issued by the Sunnis, but by “an apostate and sinister regime… If the Saudis commit this crime their action will not remain unanswered and, as the Holy Quran says, Muslims will make this world a hell for them.”

The Saudis are unhappy with President Obama and had been aware of Iran’s anger, but they executed Nimr anyway in order to provoke Iran, force Iranians to react angrily, use the reaction to isolate Iran and create an impediment to implementing the nuclear agreement. Iran’s hardliners reacted angrily and unwisely through fiery speeches that led to the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran. The hardliners are happy to see the failure of Rouhani’s détente with other nations of the Middle East. Nouri Hamadani said, “We are not upset that our diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia was cut off.” The hardline judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani said, “The Saudi rulers are going downhill. Iran does not need to have any relations with them or their masters.”

President Rouhani quickly reacted and in a statement called the execution an “inhumane action which is in stark contrast with human rights and Islamic values,” adding that the Iranian people will “not let this crime be used by self-appointed groups and individuals in the country for their illegal actions and defamation of the holy system of the Islamic Republic. The move last night by some radicals in Tehran and Mashhad which resulted in inflicting some damage on the Saudi Arabian embassy and consulate—which should religiously and legally be safe under the shelter of the Islamic Republic of Iran—is by no means justifiable and, above all, is considered as an insult to the system and mars the image of the Islamic Republic of Iran. All officials are firmly determined to seriously confront with these kinds of wilful and criminal acts.”

Rouhani ordered his ministers of interior and intelligence, and asked the judiciary, to punish the culprits firmly so that “such ugly actions can end forever.” In a letter to Larijani, Rouhani asked him to immediately bring charges against the hooligans and speed up their prosecution. He emphasized that one can only put an end to such acts by punishing those responsible, and prevent attacks on national security and the credibility of the state.

When the Rouhani administration began its work in August 2013, it retained Safar-Ali Baratloo, deputy governor of Tehran province for political affairs during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration, and appointed him deputy governor for security affairs as well. After the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran, Rouhani’s minister of interior fired Baratloo.

But Iran’s hardline ayatollahs have kept attacking Rouhani. Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer imam of Mashhad criticized Rouhani for calling the mob that had attacked the Saudi embassy “extremists, radicals and law breakers” and condemning them, adding, “[Are you afraid that] they cut relations with us? They should go to hell.”