Is Muhammad Bin Salman Another Saddam-Hussein-in-the-Making? Iranians Ask
(Picture: Muhammad Bin Salman (L) kissing the hand of his predecessor Muhammad Bin Nayef as a sign of respect.)
Amid the political drama that has been rattling the Middle East, from the battle to liberate Mosul to terrorist attacks in Tehran and the Riyadh-Doha brawl, the news of Muhammad Bin Salman’s appointment as heir to the throne by his father King Salman of Saudi Arabia did not sound as music to the ears of politicians in Tehran.
Since his rapid ascension to power in 2015, the young and ambitious prince has been viewed with suspicion by Tehran, mainly for his role as the key driver of Riyadh’s transformation from a conservative monarchy into a belligerent and aggressive regional power. Muhammad Bin Salman, aka MBS, is particularly detested for waging a war against Yemen, and for his backing of rebels in Syria where Iran has been steadfast in defense of its long time ally Bashar Assad during the past six years. In unusually strong remarks against Saudi Arabia in April of 2015, Surpeme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei criticized the country for letting its foreign policy to be controlled by “a bunch of inexperienced youngesters”, a thinly veiled reference to Bin Salman.
The front page of Iran’s newspapers on last Thursday were quite telling about how Iranian political circles feel about the new crown prince. Even Reformist media, generally taking a softer line towards Iran’s regional rivals and international foes, sounded sharp-tongued. The Reformist Aftab-e Yazd described the power transition in the oil-rich kingdom as a “disgraceful dismissal instead of murder” of the former crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef. Etemaad, also Reformist, called the new king-to-be “the young war-monger”. Iran, the official mouthpiece of the government, also felt no urge to play it diplomatically, speaking of a “velvet coup” by the “Al Salman”, the Salman household, against the larger “Al Saud”.
Principlist newspapers saw the reshuffling in higher echelons of the Saudi monarchy as an order coming from Washington. Javan, affiliated with IRGC, spoke of “US’ soft coup in Saudi Arabia”, while Kayhan called the new crown prince “United States’ New Agent in Saudi Arabia”. “Finally, in direct intervention and against Washington’s claims of [supporting] democracy, the US disimissed the Saudi Prince [Muhammd Bin Nayef] and brought to power its new agent, i.e. Muhammad Bin Salman, via King Salman” wrote Kayhan in its characteristically prophetical tone. Vatan-e Emrooz also spoke of “a coup in the tribe”, with a typical contemptuous undertone Iranians use to refer to the tribal structure of the Saudi state.
No reaction to the new appointment has been given by senior officials of the country so far, but official tribunes have reflected the general feeling in Tehran. In the latest Friday prayers of the capital, cleric Ahmad Khatami slammed Muhammad Bin Salman for his May 2017 remarks about channeling the war into Iran’s borders, calling him an “upstart, immature youngster”. Khatami reminded MBS of the fate of Saddam Hussein whom waged an 8-year war against Iran without ultimate success. “You are too weak to be taken seriously,” Tehran’s Friday prayers’ leader scoffed at the Saudi crown prince.
Another official with a first-hand experience of fighting against Saddam also drew comparison between MBS and the former Iraqi tyrant. Mohsen Rezaei, who served as commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, IRGC, during the eight-year war against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, warned in his Instagram account that “developments in Saudi Arabia are closely similar to that of Iraq before it attacked Iran.” Rezaei gave more details about the similarities in his post:
“Before attacking Iran, Saddam pushed Hassan al-Bakr out of power, occupied his position, martyred Ayatollah Sadr, and met Brzezinski in Jordan. Muhammad Bin Salman has martyred Ayatollah Nimr, met Trump in Washington, and is marginalizing his opponents in the Saudi royal family,” Rezaei said.
“Either they [sic] intend to dominate all sheikhdoms and states on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf, that is Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai and Sharjah, or they are looking after new adventures in the Persian Gulf and against Iran,” former IRGC commander concluded.
Tabnak, popular website affiliated with Mohsen Rezaei, also warned about the transformations taking place at the Saudi royal family, which “could have very significant implications for Iran” in a Middle-East-in-transition. The website aptly pointed that ascension of a young anti-Iran Muhammad Bin Salman to the throne could translate into a long spell of anti-Iran policy in Saudi Arabia and a stop to diplomatic, peaceful solution of the crises in Yemen and Syria.
“An increase in proxy wars, attempts to spread influence inside Iran, campaigns to add regional and international pressure on Iran, closer relations with Israel and its anti-Iran policies, and approach towards Iran’s allies, including Russia,” are some foreseeable developments to arrive with increasing power of the young Saudi Prince the website said in its report.
Writing for Iranian Diplomacy, former diplomat and analyst Sadegh Maleki warned about escalation of tension between Tehran and Riyadh in the region. Maleki framed MBS’s new role as part of a larger picture of ominous transformations in the region which include liberation of Mosul and Raqqa, upcoming referendum of independence in Kurdistan of Iraq, terror attacks in Tehran, Doha-Riyadh strife, and Iran’s launch of mid-range missiles against ISIS in Syria. “If we see the Middle East developments as links of a chain, the chain itself is not in the hands of Middle Eastern capitals, but Washington” he said, warning that Tehran-Riyadh struggle would eventually benefit neither of the two regional powers, but the United States. “Even if a staunch anti-Iran figure, Muhammad Bin Salman is the reality of Saudi Arabia today” said Sadegh Maleki, advising patience and détente for Tehran. “Many believe the unorthodox move of selecting MBS as heir to the throne is not the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s downfall, but the first step towards emergence of a more powerful and modern Saudi Arabia in the future,” he concluded.
MBS “is after integration and operationalization of power” in Saudi Arabia says Sa’dollah Zarei, Principlist analyst, in an interview with Iranian Diplomacy. The Saudi crown prince believes in following an American model of governance in political & security realms, Zarei added, which naturally requires proximity to the United States. Like other Iranian analysts, Zarei believes MBS harbors further confrontation with Iran and the Islamic Republic’s “revolutionary, dynamic policies” in his new role. However, he stated that Muhammad Bin Salman would fail in materializing his vision, since his country lacked the required infrastructure to pursuit these objective. Riyadh lacks seasoned security forces and a powerful army, while Mouhammad Bin Salman lacks the necessary political experience to turn his country into the leading military and security power in the Middle East, Zarei added. “Tehran should prepare itself for all scenarios,” he warned however.