As the Saudi bombardment of Yemen’s Houthi separatists stretches into another week, the Iranian regime and Shia militants across the Middle East have begun denouncing the Saudi monarchy in their strongest language yet. A week ago, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, condemned Saudi Arabia’s “genocide” in Yemen, warning that the kingdom would “not emerge victorious.” Earlier this week, in an interview with the Associated Press, Hezbollah’s Deputy Chief Sheikh Naim Kassem said, “Saudi Arabia is committing genocide in Yemen, we cannot be silent after that.” Dated a few days ago, President Rouhani’s tweets on the Saudi incursion speak for themselves:
Though none of these leaders have expressly condemned King Salman himself—the Ayatollah rather places blame with the “primitivism” of a young man, presumably Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, a son of the king—the remarks by the Iranian government and Hezbollah signal a profound animosity usually reserved for Israel and the U.S.
But even barring the incredible hypocrisy of Iran and Hezbollah’s denunciation of Saudi’s intervention in Yemen while they have clearly and directly contributed to the slaughter of Syrians under Bashar al-Assad, the backlash against the Sunni kingdom signals an elevation in the usual terse rhetorical conflict common between Iran and the Gulf States. It’s worth noting that the ire the Iranians and Hezbollah are currently dishing out at the Saudis is highly suggestive of their usual rhetoric toward Israel, in which Iran regularly characterizes Israel as perpetuating genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza. In fact, prior to the current conflict in Yemen, one of the most recent Saudi-Iranian flare-ups saw former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “accuse the former Saudi king and other Arab leaders of being complicit in a ‘genocide’ perpetrated against the Palestinians,” according to The Economist in 2009.
The rhetorical strategy of the Iranian and Hezbollah leadership indicates that they see the GCC states and Israel in the same light—specifically, as a threat to Iranian expansionism in the region. If that claim hasn’t received much play in Western media, it’s undoubtedly because, influenced by the Iran deal, Western journalists and their governments have been hesitant to identify Yemen as the unfortunate site of a proxy war between regional rivals and non-state combatants like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS. Now that the nuclear deal has dominated headlines for months, the media acts as if the Iranian agenda in the region is directly proportionate to the number of centrifuges left in the country after the cessation of talks. But a much better way to evaluate a potential nuclear Iran is to look at the regional dynamics as they exist now, instead of relying on hypotheticals concentrating on nuclear armament.
And how do the regional dynamics stack up? As I wrote last week, the GCC member states—previously plagued by minor diplomatic spats involving potential currency unions—have briefly put aside their differences to focus on countering what they perceive to be Iran’s attempt to further destabilize the region. And though Egypt’s relationship to Saudi Arabia has been rocky at times, last year the Saudis brokered a “reconciliation” between Egypt and Qatar and news sources have revealed that Egypt and Saudi will begin holding “large-scale” military exercises.
Israel’s relationship to the GCC states cannot easily be explained in terms of a cohesive Gulf State policy, though there’s been speculation for years that even Riyadh, which has perhaps the most acrimonious relationship with Israel, exchanges security-related intelligence with Jerusalem. So if Iran’s goal in the region is increased hegemony and enforcing ever more deference toward Tehran’s agenda, it seems rather to be forging unlikely partnerships among powerful states with their own regional interests. And yet, as is so typical in the Middle East, cooperation between GCC-member states and nations such as Egypt and Israel could have come so much sooner (and, especially in the case of Israel) been so much more pubic. If the Gulf States, the Israelis, and the Egyptians had worked to counter Iranian-backed militias in Syria, Yemen, and Gaza years ago, the political situation might look much differently now.
As it stands, an increasingly legitimatized regime in Tehran faces relaxed sanctions from Western countries who seem to believe that Iranian threats to the Middle East are only worth talking about if nuclear weapons are involved. But with state after state in the region facing chaos, Iran has shown that it can do plenty of damage even without nuclear proliferation. And as Tehran increasingly refers to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States with hostile language normally reserved only for Israel, it remains to be seen how far Tehran will go to further alienate the GCC allies and what, if any, lasting consequences the “enemy of my enemy” mentality will yield for nations in the region.