But a crowd, organized by Hassan Kordmihan, on orders from Hojatoleslam Alireza Panahian, a member of the hard-line Haqqani School network of Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, prompting the Saudis to terminate relations with the regime. Rafsanjani’s subsequent efforts to calm the situation did not bear fruit either, not least because of Khamenei’s virulent anti-Saudi rhetoric. In his September 5, 2016, message for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, Khamenei was particularly offensive, calling on Muslim countries to recognize the true nature of the Saudi rulers who are “criminals, and servants of the American Satan and the Zionists.”
Like an unexpected naval escalation, a terror-driven provocation against Saudi Arabia can quickly get out of control, undermining the custodians credibility. Since there have been reports that, under the recently installed King Salman and his son, the defense minister, Saudi Arabia has created its own counterterror forces, the probability of a major skirmish has gone up.
It is clear that the process of normalization and return to the community of nations is intimately bound up with the custodians’ political future. Unlike a state treaty, which is binding, the JCPOA is a controversial deal that depends on the political health of Rouhani and other custodians. Hard-core spoilers have made clear that they would try to sabotage it in whatever ways. The outcome of the 2016 parliamentary election indicates that the custodians have an upper hand, but next year’s presidential election is crucial. Should Rouhani lose the ballot, normalization would be thwarted, but the JCPOA is not likely to be abandoned, because most spoilers do not want to see “snap back” sanctions return.
Still, spoilers can either utilize terror or benefit from an accidental escalation of terror or limited military action spearheaded by the Revolutionary Guard or its naval unit. The latter scenario is particularly troublesome, because it is difficult to control the dynamics of terror-driven encounters. A catastrophic terror attack against Saudi Arabia, for instance, or a blowup in the waters of the Gulf, has the potential to undermine the credibility of the project of normalization.
Farhad Rezaei is a research fellow at Middle East Institute, Sakarya University, Turkey. He is the author of the forthcoming Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Nuclear Proliferation and Rollback (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
Image: President Hassan Rouhani during a visit to Qazvin. Wikimedia Commons/Hossein Mir Kamali