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Pot, Kettle: Why Iran Blames Saudi Arabia For Islamic State Attacks, by James Dorsey

Terrorist killings at Iranian parliament and mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini bring into focus something Riyadh and Tehran have in common – the stoking of ethnic tensions and proxy wars they use to destabilise each other

Islamic State’s targeting of key religious and political symbols in Tehran is likely to aggravate an already escalating proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A war of words in recent weeks between the two Middle Eastern heavyweights offered Iranian officials a rich background to justify their pinning of responsibility on the Saudis for Wednesday’s simultaneous  attacks on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini , the founder of the Islamic republic. At least 12 people were killed and 42 others wounded in the attacks, the first in Iran to be claimed by Islamic State (IS).

Iranian policemen deploy in the main hall of the Iranian parliament to protect lawmakers during the attack by Islamic State. Photo: AFP

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview last month with Middle East Broadcasting Corp, warned the battle with the Islamic republic would be fought “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia”.

Iranian Defence Minister General Hossein Dehghan responded that if Saudi Arabia engaged in “such stupidity” nothing would be “left in Saudi Arabia except Mecca and Medina”, Islam’s two holiest cities.

The irony is that Wednesday’s attacks laid bare a picture of the pot calling the kettle black, highlighting mirror images that both the Islamic republic and the kingdom would have like to have kept hidden.
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Saudi Arabia and Iran both discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities that populate their oil-rich provinces: primarily Sunni Muslim ethnic Arabs in Iran’s Khuzestan as well as Sunni minorities elsewhere in Iran, and Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The perpetrators of Wednesday’s attacks appear to have been Sunni Muslims, including an Iranian Baloch and an Arab with a Gulf or Iraqi accent.

Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard secure the area outside the Iranian parliament during the attack by Islamic State. Photo: AFP

Saudi Arabia and Iran moreover both employ proxies to fight their battles. Saudi support for militant groups opposed to the Islamic regime in Tehran does not by definition implicate the kingdom in the attacks in Tehran. Yet, the dividing lines between militant groups are often fluid in the murky world of militancy and the possible covert operations of intelligence agencies.

Iran has recently recruited at least 3,000 Pakistani Shiites into its Xenobia brigade that is fighting in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Pakistan also detained in May a commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who was on a recruiting mission in Balochistan. The commander has since been released.

An image released by Islamic State shows a person inside the Iranian parliament in Tehran. Photo: Reuters

Wednesday’s attacks moreover came amid mounting indications that Saudi Arabia is hoping to exploit ethnic and Sunni Muslim grievances to destabilise Iran. Pakistani militants report an influx of funds into viscerally anti-Shiite and anti-Iranian religious seminaries in Balochistan, the troubled Pakistani province that borders Iran’s province of Sistan and Baluchistan, a crown jewel in China’s  Belt and Road Initiative .

Balochistan has witnessed a series of devastating attacks in the past year, some of which were claimed by IS, others by groups with past links to the kingdom, including cross border operations against border guards in Iran.

Saudi thinking was further reflected in the publication by a government-backed think tank in Riyadh of a roadmap for instigating unrest among Iran’s Baloch written by an Iranian Baloch activist.

Wednesday’s attacks, wittingly or unwittingly, served the purpose of both Saudi and Iranian hardliners. The attacks came weeks after a resounding electoral victory for Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, who has allowed official representatives of the Iranian Arab community to voice grievances.

“The more that this happens, the less the Saudi-backed separatists win. What the separatists want is the polarisation of views and to incite the regime to attack the [Iranian Arab] community, thereby securing a popular backlash. In recent weeks, they have conducted more murders, mostly of security personnel but also of non-security officials. They want mass arrests and public executions in order to establish themselves as the vanguard of the Ahwazi resistance,” said an Iran watcher with close ties to the Iranian Arab community that refers to itself as Ahwazi.
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IS, apparently preparing the ground for the attacks, has stepped up its Farsi-language propaganda in recent months. In a video in March, the group called on Iran’s Sunni minority to revolt against Iran’s Shia-dominated establishment. It also publishes four Farsi-language editions of Rumiyah, an online IS magazine.

Like with the attacks in Tehran, nothing suggests that IS’s new found focus on Iran was inspired by Saudi Arabia. Yet, in distancing itself from IS as well as the attacks, Saudi Arabia is likely to struggle with the fact that IS ideology is rooted in the anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian, puritan Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism propagated by the kingdom – even if it has condemned the group, denounced its world view as deviant, and at times been an IS target. Saudi denials are further muddied by the fluidity of militancy in Pakistan in which the kingdom’s footprints are visible.

The US Treasury last month designated a Saudi-backed Pakistani religious scholar from Balochistan, Maulana Ali Muhammad Abu Turab, as a specially designated terrorist.

Putting Saudi Arabia on the spot, the Treasury announced the designation of Abu Turab, a leader of Ahl-i-Hadith, a Saudi-supported Pakistani Wahhabi group, and board member of Pakistan’s Saudi-backed Paigham TV, who serves on Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, a government-appointed advisory body of scholars and laymen established to assist in bringing laws in line with the Koran and the example of the Prophet Mohammed, as he was visiting the kingdom and Qatar on the latest of numerous fund raising trips to the Gulf.

Abu Turab, a major fund raiser for militant groups who runs a string of madrassas attended by thousands of students along Balochistan’s border with Afghanistan, also heads the Saudi-funded Movement for the Protection of the Two Holy Cities (Tehrike Tahafaz Haramain Sharifain) whose secretary general Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil has also been designated by the Treasury.

Abu Turab regularly shows pictures of his frequent public appearances to Saudi diplomats in Islamabad to ensure continued Saudi funding, according to sources close to him.

The covered body of a gunman outside the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran. Photo: AFP

The Treasury described Abu Turab as a “facilitator…[who] helped…raise money in the Gulf and supported the movement of tens of thousands of dollars from the Gulf to Pakistan.”

The Treasury said funds raised by Abu Turab, an Afghan who was granted Pakistani citizenship, financed operations of various groups, including Pakistan’s Jama’at ul Dawa al-Koran; Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani intelligence-backed group that at times has enjoyed support from Saudi Arabia; the Taliban; and Islamic State’s South Asian wing.
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There is, perhaps surprisingly, a silver lining in all of this: the mirror images potentially offer Saudi Arabia and Iran an opportunity to scale down their confrontation by reducing support for their proxies and granting minorities more equal rights. However, with their horns firmly locked and Iran enraged by Wednesday’s attacks, neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran is likely to have the political will to avert an escalation that would only further enflame a Middle East already on fire.

Gulf Crisis: Rewriting the Political Map?


A rupture in Arab diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar as well as the Gulf state’s involvement with a Saudi-led, 41-nation Sunni Muslim military alliance threatens to force non-Arab Muslim nations as well as China to choose sides.


SAUDI ARABIA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), by breaking off diplomatic relations and seeking to impose an economic boycott of Qatar, have opened the door to a rewriting of the political map of the Gulf, with potentially far-reaching consequences for nations across the globe.

The dilemma for non-Arab nations like Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan is most immediate. Qatar’s expulsion from the 41-nation, Saudi-led, Sunni Muslim Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism complicates their strenuous efforts to avoid being sucked into an increasing visceral power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. So does the fact that the crisis is likely to be prolonged given that Qatari acceptance of Saudi and UAE demands would not only humiliate the Gulf state, proud of a history of charting an independent course for decades, but also turn it into a vassal of its bigger Gulf brethren.

Political Fallout

The demands are believed to include the muzzling if not closing of Qatar-backed media such as Al Jazeera, expulsion of leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip, and the limiting of Qatar’s relations with Iran to issues associated with the fact that it shares the world’s largest gas field with the Islamic republic.

The fallout of the crisis in Asia is likely to be initially more political than economic. Saudi and UAE isolation of Qatar could push the Gulf state to draw closer to Iran, Turkey and Russia, a move that would increase regional polarization and could significantly weaken the Gulf Cooperation Council. The GCC groups the region’s six monarchies: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain.

Saudi soft power across the Muslim world is also complicating efforts by non-Arab Muslim states to remain on the side lines of the escalating Saudi-Iranian rivalry and an increasingly aggressive UAE-driven campaign against expressions of political Islam that is now also targeting Qatar.

Decades of Saudi funding in what amounts to the largest public diplomacy in history has bought the kingdom significant influences in branches of government in multiple Muslim majority countries.

The timing of the crisis in the Gulf was for Malaysia, for example, particularly unfortunate. It came weeks after Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman visited Qatar to further enhance relations with Qatar. Malaysian defence minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein had earlier announced that Malaysia and Qatar were elevating their diplomatic ties by forming a High-Level Committee (HLC) to focus on the structural framework of both countries' defence institutions.

Responding to the rupture in diplomatic relations and the military suspension, sources close to the Malaysian foreign ministry said that the government was advising its agencies to remain neutral in the dispute. Some sources cautioned however that the defence and interior ministries may adopt a more independent approach.

A Global Boycott?

The dilemma for Pakistan is no less acute. Pakistan’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE initially soured after the Pakistani parliament in 2015 rejected a Saudi request for Pakistani military assistance in Yemen. The unprecedented decision ultimately left Pakistan with no choice when the kingdom two years later asked it to allow General Raheel Sharif, who had just retired as chief of army staff, to take over the command of the Saudi-led military alliance.

Despite insisting that Sharif would use his position to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Pakistan has seen violence along its volatile border with Iran increase, relations with the Islamic republic deteriorate, and prompted calls for Pakistan to recall Sharif.

Equally worrying for Muslim and non-Muslim countries like China and Singapore alike are indications that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies may want to turn their cutting of air, land and sea links to Qatar into a more global boycott.

Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Saudi Press Agency reported that the kingdom would “start immediate legal procedures for understanding with fraternal and friendly countries and international companies to implement the same procedure as soon as possible for all means of transport to and from the State of Qatar for reasons relating to Saudi national security”.

The statement appeared to be referring to Saudi transport links with Qatar but seemed to hold out the possibility of Saudi Arabia pressuring its public and private economic and commercial partners to follow suit in cutting ties with the Gulf state. Leaked emails showed the UAE ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, campaigning against Qatar and supporting efforts to persuade US companies not to pursue opportunities in Iran. That approach could be also applied to Qatar.

Rewriting the Gulf Political Map

The crisis in the Gulf could also complicate implementation of China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A potential effort to force countries to join the boycott adds to Chinese fears that Saudi Arabia intends to expand its proxy war with Iran into Balochistan, a key Pakistani node of OBOR, in a bid to destabilise Iran.

The crisis could also complicate Chinese efforts to keep its Middle East policy in sync with that of the United States, the major power in the region, if Washington were to side with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

From the perspective of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the confrontation with Iran as well as Qatar is an existential battle for survival of absolute monarchies. It increasingly threatens to become a battle in which they take no prisoners and adopt a “you are with us or you are against us” approach that would put Muslim and non-Muslim nations in a bind.

The outcome of the Gulf battle, irrespective of who wins, is likely to rewrite the political map of the region and force Muslim and non-Muslim nations to take stock. The map is already changing with Turkey and Iran coming to Qatar’s aid and Turkish troops being dispatched to the Gulf state. If Qatar survives the battle with its controversial policies and media assets intact, it will have put the limitations of Saudi and UAE power on public display. By the same token, a Qatari defeat would allow Saudi and UAE-inspired sentiment against Iran and political Islam to reign supreme.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wurzburg, Germany.