Iran is considering whether to come back to the Vienna talks on Iran in two weeks, according to Deputy Foreign Minister Hussein Abdollahian. He complained that Saudi Arabia’s behavior this past weekend had not been constructive and warned the kingdom “not to test the patience of the Islamic Republic.” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir was accused by Iranian officials of lecturing them about interfering in countries of the region, of being rude and sarcastic, and of insisting on the immediate overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran’s position is that the Syrian people should decide on Assad’s fate, not outsiders.
On Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani upbraided Jubeir without mentioning his name, saying, “An inexperienced young man in a regional country will not reach anywhere by rudeness in front of elders.” Jubeir is the first commoner to serve as Saudi foreign minister, a post that had usually been held by a prominent prince. Abdollahian said that in the seven hours of talks, the Iranian team had wanted to address how to hold elections in Syria that met international standards, how to ensure that they were not tainted by vote-buying by outside countries, and how to defeat the threat of terrorism. Instead, he said, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his colleagues were subjected to a barrage of sarcasm and invective by Jubeir. Abdollahian said the latter’s lack of evenhandedness ill suited a minister of foreign affairs.
That Iran was invited to be at this past weekend’s Vienna international summit on Syria at all was unprecedented. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Tehran has been isolated diplomatically except in the Global South. The invitation was said to have been forced by the Russian Federation and to have been opposed by the United States. Iran’s attendance had the effect of setting aside some of the principles of Geneva I, which had called for a transitional government to oversee elections. Instead, Russia and even Secretary of State John Kerry are now talking of allowing Assad to remain in office until new elections are held, sometime in the next two years. Saudi Arabia vehemently rejects this scenario, but Iran insists on it, and came out of the summit angry at Riyadh’s intransigence.
Syria is only one arena of contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia, who are conducting a regional cold war with each other. In Bahrain, the restive Shiite majority is being brutally repressed by the Sunni monarchy, with Saudi support. Bahraini Shiites are mostly Arabs and they adhere to Akhbarism, a conservative school of law in Twelver Shiism that disallows blind obedience to ayatollahs. They are not puppets of Iran, and their unrest is not primarily inspired by Iran but rather by a desire for more power for the majority community. Saudi Arabia and Iran routinely trade insults over their treatment. In Iraq, Iran backs hardline Shiite militias that scare Saudi allies among the Sunnis (though most of the latter are now under Daesh—ISIS or ISIL—and so beyond Riyadh’s ability to help them anymore). In Yemen, Riyadh has a crackpot theory that the Zaidi Houthi militia tried to take over the country mainly because of Iranian plotting. In fact, the Houthis are largely an indigenous movement. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have invaded the country and intensively bombed its Shiites, provoking howls of rage from Tehran. In Lebanon, as well, the Shiite Hezbollah party-militia is in a contest with the Saudi-backed Sunni Hariri clan for dominance of national politics. The barbs directed at Iran by Jubeir in Vienna welled up from Saudi fear that the kingdom is being surrounded by Iranian proxies.