Seth Wenig / AP

Iran-Saudi rift over Hajj decreases chances for solution to Syria

Analysis: Growing antagonism between Iran, Saudi Arabia will only feed more mutual conspiracy theories and paranoia

NEW YORK — In the aftermath of a horrific stampede at Mina, Saudi Arabia, near Mecca, that claimed the lives of possibly more than 1,000 pilgrims — many of them Iranian — relations between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran have reached a new low.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in New York for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly, cut short his trip to return to Iran to meet the coffins of victims. Before leaving, in his address to the General Assembly on Monday, he inserted a blast at Saudi authorities, accusing them of “incompetence and mismanagement” of the Hajj. He demanded immediate consular access for Iran and other nations so that they could identify and return bodies of the victims and called for an independent investigation of the disaster.

On Friday he suggested before an audience of U.S. media that Saudi military intervention in Yemen deprived the kingdom of experienced manpower, leaving authorities unable to adequately oversee the annual influx of millions of pilgrims. 

Although Rouhani, at a session with U.S. political analysts and Iran experts on Sunday, acknowledged that “we do not know all the underlying causes and do not want to pass judgment,” social media in the region has exploded with blame and conspiracy theories. Some Saudis claimed that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were responsible for the stampede, while Iranians alleged that their countrymen were singled out because of differences over religion and regional affairs. Some Iranians called for a multilateral organization of Muslim countries to oversee the Hajj instead of the Saudis.

The timing of the new crisis could hardly be worse, given the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Syria and the world’s continuing inability to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The fighting has created the biggest exodus of refugees since World War II and put huge burdens on many states, including Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

Europe has been overwhelmed by refugees who are risking their lives to find stable new homes. On Monday the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq sent an email warning that it has exhausted its ability to care for more than 250,000 Syrian refugees and 1.5 million internally displaced people from other parts of Iraq.

Without some meeting of the minds between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is hard to see how the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen can be successfully addressed. Iran and Russia appear to be doubling down on support for the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose repression fueled the uprising against him. Rouhani on Sunday said that while the Syrian regime needs to be “reformed,” the first priority has to be defeating ISIL. In his speech on Monday, he again called for support for “established central governments” to destroy the group.

In recent weeks, the U.S. and European powers have shown a willingness to soften previous demands that Assad depart swiftly as part of a political solution to the war in Syria. President Barack Obama, addressing the General Assembly on Monday, said that there could be a “managed transition” in Syria but that after so much “bloodshed and carnage, there cannot be a return to the prewar status quo.”

While Obama said the U.S. was prepared to work with Iran and Russia to reach a political solution in Syria, the Saudis have continued to reject the inclusion of Iran in a U.S.-led coalition against ISIL and rebuffed bilateral talks with Iran, even before the recent crisis over the Hajj.

In 2013, in his first press conference after taking office, Rouhani said his top priority would be improving Iranian relations with the Saudis and other Sunni Arab powers, which deteriorated during the belligerent and erratic presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Abdullah, the Saudi King at the time, sent Rouhani a letter “the next day [expressing] gratitude” for the remarks, the Iranian president said on Sunday. But after Abdullah died in January, “conditions really changed tangibly in Saudi Arabia.” 

Rouhani faulted the decision by the new Saudi king, Salman, to intervene militarily in Yemen in March for the growing rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran also blames Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states for funding armed groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

The Saudis, in turn, accuse Iran of meddling throughout the region, including by providing support to Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis earlier this year marched out of their strongholds in the north and seized the capital, Sanaa, and significant territory elsewhere. A Saudi-led coalition, backed by U.S. intelligence, has pushed the Houthis out of a major southern city, Aden, and other territory but at the cost of creating yet another humanitarian catastrophe in what was already one of the world’s poorest nations.

Rouhani on Sunday repeated Iranian assertions that Tehran was not responsible for the Houthi decision to take Sanaa and blamed a campaign of “Iran-ophobia” for what he said was a false accusation that Iran wants to run the affairs of neighboring countries. He said that Iran wants the Houthis to reach a negotiated solution with their adversaries on a unity government. But compromise appears to hinge on the Saudis’ exerting pressure on the president of Yemen to sit down with Houthi leaders.

In his speech on Monday, as in other public appearances during his truncated trip, Rouhani praised the recently concluded nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers as a potential model for the diplomatic resolution of other disputes. However, that deal, instead of reassuring Iran’s Arab neighbors, has only fueled anxiety that the U.S. is somehow preparing to abandon its traditional allies in the Middle East for a new alliance with Tehran.

Far-fetched as that may seem, given continuing U.S. tensions with Iran over the prolonged detention of Iranian-Americans and other issues, the growing antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia promises only to feed more mutual conspiracy theories and paranoia and give the two countries incentive to continue their support of opposing proxies throughout the Middle East.

“Given the proper conditions, we can resolve our problems with Saudi Arabia,” Rouhani said on Sunday, adding that this would benefit both countries as well as the the rest of the region and the world at large. When and how those conditions can be created — especially in the aftermath of the Hajj disaster — is hard to see.

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