(Picture: Hashemi Rafsanjani with the late King Abdullah during a visit to Saudi Arabia. Rafsanjani has been frequently criticized by hardliner media for his friendly relations with the Saudi household.)
Last Friday, the London-based Arabic newspaper al-Hayat quoted Saudi Pilgrimage Minister Mohammed Bentin that Riyadh had invited more than 80 countries, including Iran, to discuss the details of the 2017 Hajj. Though denied by Iranian officials on Sunday, the news sparked strong reaction among hardliner media in Iran, who are fiercely opposed any reengagement with Saudi Arabia amid the regional wrestle between Tehran and Riyadh across the region. In Fars News, Hadi Mohammadi, conservative analyst, accused Iran’s diplomatic apparatus and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani of a conspiracy to make a bad deal with the Saudis. Here is an abridged translated version of Mohammadi’s piece. Links embedded in the text are added by Iranian Diplomacy:
Reports that Saudi Arabia has invited Iran’s Haj Organization for annual coordination regarding the upcoming haj pilgrimage bring to mind several questions. Developments taking place parallel to this news are also [alarmingly] notable. Saeed Owhadi, Director of Iran’s Haj and Pilgrimage Organization, has recently been replaced [by Hamid Mohammadi], a change that implies the beginning of a new project in the organization.
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has also recently stated that relations with Saudi Arabia would not have reached this point, if he had been in charge. The Sultan of Oman, who had remained impartial for about two years in the aggressive war against Yemen, has announced that his country would join the “Islamic Coalition” led by Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism. More interestingly, Iran’s new ambassador to Muscat, a protégé of the House of Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a person who had established both open and secret relationships between the Hashemi family and Saudi officials as well as Saudi business sectors, during his tenure as Iran’s ambassador to Riyadh.
Given Saudi Arabia’s increasing hostility against Iran, pursued through both official channels and media, what does the recent invitation mean and what ends does it target?
We are well aware of Saudi Arabia’s status in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq and know from confessions in media outlets and remarks made by Western officials that despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars over the past six years, the Saudi House has lost the game in the region. The country’s domestic situation is also vulnerable and on the verge of collapse in economy and security. Since Salman’s ascension to kingdom and his son Mohammad’s assertion of full control over the country’s affairs, many Saudi princes and commanders have left the country and turned into opposition. There are even speculations about the possibility of a coup to oust Salman and his son. Saudi Arabia’s record in the region is one of failure and loosening alliances. European parliaments are pressing their governments on the grounds that arms sold to Saudi Arabia have led to war crimes in Yemen, suppression in Bahrain, and the birth of worldwide takfiri terrorism.
In the meantime, voices are heard from the United States that Trump will not have ties as strong as the Obama administration’s with Riyadh. Rumors suggest that a high-ranking Saudi prince visiting the United States has offered huge concessions in order to preserve the status quo in relations with the US and alleviate concerns back home. Has this fragile status forced the Saudis to give the green light to the Iranian Haj Organization? Is haj the ultimate end in this invitation or is it a regional project Hashemi wants to add to Rouhani’s record as a foreign policy achievement?
The rapport between the new director of Iran’s haj organization and the Hashemi family, put besides the appointment of Iran’s new ambassador to Muscat, remarks by Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Rouhani’s need [to collect votes] in the upcoming presidential race, put together, render this a project most likely orchestrated by Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In constant meetings of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, and Arab parliaments, or even in their routine positions expressed in media outlets, Saudi officials have not signaled any desire for rapprochement with Iran. This means that Saudis have not been the initiators of the rapprochement project. They have been accusing Iran of intervention in domestic issues of Arab countries and set as a precondition for rapprochement Iran’s withdrawal from regional developments.
The 2009 sedition still lives on in new forms and guises, backed by the Rouhani administration’s policies and approaches. Seditionists and advocates of an Islamic Republic vs. Islamic Revolution have maintained their full potentials and have coordinated themselves with the Saudi approach.
This project will not be limited to resolution of Iran’s haj issues and [definitely] targets something beyond bilateral relations. That is particularly because in both Obama’s approach and those likely to be adopted by Trump, Iran’s capabilities must be diminished, especially at the regional level. This is a target passionately pursued also by Saudis as well as ‘seditionists’ who have infiltrated the Rouhani administration. The project’s ultimate end will serve neither the Islamic Revolution nor the Islamic Republic. One could have considered Saudis’ invitation for haj talks as sign of their regret and seeking détente with Iran in bilateral and regional ties, had it not been for the appointment of the new head of haj organization and the suspicious channels used to advance the talks.
The new diplomatic project vis-à-vis the Saudis could be another JCPOA, but of a regional scale and another concession. It is quite likely that in meetings between the director of Iran’s Haj Organization and Saudi officials, Saudis bring up the same humiliating remarks, threats, and old accusations regarding regional developments. The masterminds of this project should choose to either: offer concessions, just as they did in the nuclear deal, and obey the Saudis; or try to preserve the dignity of the establishment and its status in the region in order to achieve the country’s legitimate and legal goals regarding haj. On the Saudi side, compromise is tantamount to their annihilation. Thus, they will stick to their guns. On the Iranian side of the table however, negotiators have been tried and tested before: they merely sacrifice national loss for family and partisan victories.
A better guess is that the negotiation team, like its predecessor in nuclear talks, will resolve problems for the other party but gain no achievement for Iran unless leaders of the establishment intervene before it is too late and they face a fait accompli. Manipulation of national interests for electoral gains to repeat the failing nuclear deal at the regional level and save the Saudi house, currently drawn into the vortex of Takfiri policies, should not be covered up by the mirage of [empty] promises.