The Middle East’s two great geopolitical adversaries entered into a war of words ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which starts this weekend. Their rivalry, shaped by sectarian Sunni-Shia divisions, can be seen in numerous bloody proxy conflicts across the region. But it also flares up in heated rhetorical broadsides.
The latest round began with comments from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in full bluster condemned the Saudis for prohibiting Iranian pilgrims from joining the hajj after talks about security and logistics collapsed. Last year’s pilgrimage was marred by the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims caught in a stampede with more than 2,000 killed, according to one unofficial tally, although the Saudis say the death toll is lower.
Khamenei ventured that the slain devotees, including many Iranian nationals, lost their lives either because of Saudi complicity or incompetence. (He errs toward the former.)
“Saudi rulers … who have blocked the proud and faithful Iranian pilgrims’ path to the Beloved’s House, are disgraced and misguided people who think their survival on the throne of oppression is dependent on defending the arrogant powers of the world, on alliances with Zionism and the U.S.,” Khamenei said in a statement posted on his official website Monday.
“The world of Islam, including Muslim governments and peoples, must familiarize themselves with the Saudi rulers and correctly understand their blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic nature,” the statement went on, asserting that the kingdom’s rulers were unfit to be the custodians of Islam’s holiest sites: “Because of these rulers’ oppressive behavior towards God’s guests, the world of Islam must fundamentally reconsider the management of the two holy places and the issue of hajj.”
A day later, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, fired back, dismissing Khamenei’s criticism as a feature of supposed Iranian hatred toward Sunnis. Iran’s theocratic regime sees itself as the vanguard of Shia Islam, similar to how the Saudis, practitioners of a particular orthodox Wahabist brand of the faith, style themselves as the leaders of the Sunni world.
The grand mufti pointed to the pre-Islamic history of what’s now Iran, where the bulk of population were once monotheistic Zoroastrians, and suggested that this ancient legacy still shadowed the present.
“We must understand they are not Muslims, for they are the descendants of Majuws” — a term for Zoroastrians — “and their enmity toward Muslims, especially the Sunnis, is very old,” he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded to Al Sheikh’s remarks with a tweet, linking Saudi Wahabism to the fundamentalist terrorism of the moment.
But the Saudis themselves cast the Iranians as international pariahs, bent on fomenting armed struggle and terrorist plots around the world. Zarif’s Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, said in a speech last week that the regime in Tehran “is behind some of the operations threatening national security of the region.”
He added: “We wish from Iran, a great nation with great history and great people, to be able to change its policies which it built in 1979 so it can be a new member in the international community, weaving new policies with it.”
On June 14, the leadership in Tehran will deceive the Iranian people. It won’t be the regime’s first lie, but it is characteristic of the most recent history of the Islamic Republic. On Friday, 55 million Iranian eligible voters will elect the future president from a selection of more than half a dozen candidates. The propaganda machine of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 74, is leading them to believe that they can indeed shape their country’s future.
But in the last four years, Iran has become a republic of fear. The prisons are filled with countless activists and dissenters, and some of them may be there because they laughed too loudly at Khamenei at some point. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to be arrested, interrogated and locked away. But the fear is mutual. While the people tremble at the thought of being apprehended by the regime’s henchmen, the leadership is also nervous about new demands for more freedom and democracy.
In the 2009 election, Khamenei made the mistake, disastrous from his standpoint, of allowing candidates to run who aroused hopes of liberalization. After three decades of being ruled by the turban-wearing ayatollahs, merely the prospect of a small measure of freedom was enough to drive millions to the polls and then into the streets, when they believed that their “green movement” had been cheated of its rightful victory.
This time Khamenei has deliberately obstructed a large number of potential candidates who have shown only the slightest potential of wanting to question the pure doctrine of the Islamic Republic that the revolutionary leader fiercely defends. The ayatollah is so fearful that he didn’t even permit the candidacy of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Despite being a staunch supporter of the system, Rafsanjani did cautiously side with the opposition four years ago and could very well have developed into the leader of a protest movement.
Instead, the political stage is now filled with a group of especially lackluster apparatchiks. The favorites include conservatives from the ayatollah’s machinery of power: his foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, 67, and Saeed Jalili, 47, Iran’s chief negotiator in the nuclear conflict, who served as Khamenei’s chief of staff for four years. Could the ayatollah have picked more loyal candidates?
Elections in Iran are not democratic and fair. The run-up is marked by haggling and the post-election period by maneuvering. Only those who unconditionally support the “Wilayat al Faqih,” or Guardianship of the Jurist, are permitted to run for president. The office of the Wilayat al Faqih was created for Ayatollah Khomenei, who drove out the Shah, and after Khomenei’s death in 1989, Khamenei became the new supreme leader. He is the arbiter of war and peace, which means that he can issue the order to build a nuclear weapon or to reconcile with the “Great Satan,” the United States. Khamenei is essentially the country’s supreme leader for life, and his decisions are considered irrevocable. Because of this absolute power, he is no different than the autocrats the revolutionaries once vowed to defeat.Officially, the constitution does provide for democratic corrective action, a right that many Iranians desperately invoked in the past, constantly pinning their hopes on the next election, the next parliament or the next president. Eventually they also came to believe that Khamenei, who considers himself a man of the people, could not completely ignore their desire for change.
But Khamenei clings tightly to his power and is not interested in the sort of change that has taken hold in many neighboring countries. In the 25th year of his rule, he views any change as a threat. Surrounded by enemies within his own ranks, the ayatollah sees an abyss running alongside the path of the revolution. The campaign slogan of his former assistant, Saeed Jalili, is entirely in keeping with Khamenei’s mindset: “No compromise, no submission. Only Jalili.” Nevertheless, the ayatollah even has to be cautious with this candidate, because it was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who appointed Jalili to serve as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. The “martyr” Jalili, who lost his right lower leg in the war with Iraq, is a second-tier radical, like Ahmadinejad. “He is one of us,” many Revolutionary Guards shouted during one of Jalili’s campaign appearances last week.
A greater threat to Khamenei comes from the nationalist wing, where his strongest challenger is the current president, who assumed office in 2005 with the support of Khamenei himself. For populist Ahmadinejad, nationalism is more important than Islamism. In the populist form of Islam that he preaches, the position of the once untouchable Khamenei is reduced to that of representative of a useless caste of clerics. Ahmadinejad reportedly used every tool within his power, including blackmail, to have his office manager, friend and brother-in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, admitted as a presidential candidate. But the Guardian Council, a sort of religious constitutional court filled with loyal supporters of the revolutionary leader, barred Mashaei, as well as 669 other potential candidates, from entering the race.
This time is far different from the 2009 election, when supporters of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, now under house arrest, filled stadiums and took to the streets in the middle of the night to show their support.
With only days left before the election, the group of candidates – some of whom have been absent from the political scene for years – are giving Iranians few indications they can expect much change.
Even the campaign stops are muted, with state-run TV showing candidates walking through small groups of enthusiastic supporters and offering vague assurances about Iran’s struggling economy.
At first glance, Khamenei now seems stronger than before. The reformers are intimidated, the favorite of the recalcitrant Ahmadinejad has been thwarted, and even Rafsanjani and his pragmatists have been weakened. But the Rafsanjani case, in particular, shows just how cornered the revolutionary leader must feel. Many Iranians felt that the wealthy businessman, religious scholar and experienced politician was the country’s last hope of being led out of its current plight. They believed that Rafsanjani would be capable of crafting a face-saving compromise in the nuclear conflict and reviving the ailing economy.The international community’s hopes that a new president could resolve the nuclear conflict are unlikely to be fulfilled. A man like Jalili would distance himself from Ahmadinejad’s abrasive diplomacy, although he too has attacked Israel and made other defiant remarks in the campaign. As chief negotiator in the nuclear conflict, Jalili more than exhausted the patience of his Western counterparts. He was “polite, and occasionally even exceedingly pleasant,” says someone who was involved in the negotiations with Jalili, and yet when it came to the negotiations, Jalili showed “zero good will, zero ability to reason and zero imagination.”
In recent months, political observers in Tehran had hoped that the stalling tactics in the nuclear conflict were attributable to Khamenei’s rift with Ahmadinejad. They speculated that the revolutionary leader was determined not to grant his adversary a success in foreign policy, and that once the elections were over, Khamenei would give a new president more room for maneuver. It was all a matter of patience, they said. For a time, this view seemed to make sense. But now pessimists aren’t the only ones who fear that the new president could become a standard bearer of the old revolutionary ideology. It’s no consolation that this person could perhaps behave more diplomatically than Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad.
For the election, at least, Khamenei’s plan could work out. The massive security contingent that could be expected to quell possible student protests or reform initiatives will probably not be deployed in a large-scale operation. Even the notorious provocateur Ahmadinejad seems to be keeping a low profile. Supporters of the ayatollah have allegedly threatened the current president with arrest should he cause any problems. And perhaps the official turnout can be increased enough to ensure that Khamenei saves face.
After two-thirds of the world’s countries listened silently last week to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei launch an anti- Semitic diatribe against Israel at the Non-Aligned Meeting summit in Tehran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would respond at the UN General Assembly next month.
“In Tehran, the representatives of 120 countries heard a blood libel against the State of Israel and were silent. This silence must stop,” Netanyahu said.
“Therefore, I will go to the UN General Assembly and, in a clear voice, tell the nations of the world the truth about Iran’s terrorist regime, which constitutes the greatest threat to world peace.”
Khamenei, speaking to the NAM gathering that included UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said “an independent country with a clear historical identity called ‘Palestine’ has been taken away from its people through the use of weapons, killings and deception, and has been given to a group of people the majority of whom are immigrants from European countries.
“This great usurpation – which at the outset was accompanied by massacres of defenseless people in towns and villages and their expulsion from their homes and homeland to bordering countries – has continued for more than six decades with similar crimes and continues to this very day.”
Khamenei said the political and military leaders of the “usurping Zionist regime” killed the people, destroyed their homes and farms, arrested and tortured men, women and children, humiliated and insulted the Palestinians and tried to digest it all into the “usury-eating stomach of the Zionist regime.”
“Even now after 65 years the same kind of crimes marks the treatment of Palestinians remaining in the occupied territories by the blood-thirsty Zionist wolves.
They commit new crimes one after the other and create new crises for the region,” he continued.
Khamenei said the Zionists controlled the world’s media and were responsible for America’s “hateful image” in the region.
“Our standpoint is that Palestine belongs to the Palestinians and that continuing its occupation is a great and intolerable injustice and a major threat to global peace and security,” he said. Khamenei called for a referendum among all the Palestinians – “both the current citizens of Palestine and those who have been forced to immigrate to other countries but have preserved their Palestinian identity, including Muslims, Christians and Jews” – to choose the country’s political system.
Ban, whose presence in Tehran for the conference, is widely seen in Jerusalem as giving legitimacy to the Iranian regime, addressed the gathering and said he “strongly” rejected threats by one UN member state to destroy another, and “outrageous attempts to deny historical facts, such as the Holocaust.
Claiming that another UN member state, Israel, does not have the right to exist, or describing it in racist terms, is not only utterly wrong but undermines the very principles we have all pledged to uphold.”
His words, however, did little to soothe Israeli anger at his very participation in the event.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, at a gathering in Jerusalem marking 60 years of Israeli-Japanese ties, characterized the event in Tehran as “a march of folly and hypocrisy not seen since the 1930s. Against the background of all the threats to destroy the State of Israel, erase the State of Israel, attack Jews wherever they are, we see the representatives of 120 counties, with the UN secretary- general, come to Iran and give legitimacy to the regime of the ayatollahs.”
Liberman asked what Israel was supposed to understand from the willingness of so many world leaders to take part in the conference, and how this would impact on the future.
“How can we rely on them,” he asked. “What is the meaning of international guarantees of our security?” Liberman slammed the Palestinian Authority presence at the conference.
He said that a speech delivered by PA Foreign Minister Riad Maliki – accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing, apartheid and crimes against humanity – could have been written by Joseph Goebbels.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, is scheduled to leave for the UN on September 27, immediately after Yom Kippur, and return to Israel on September 30, just before the onset of Succot.
Although there has been talk of a meeting at the UN with US President Barack Obama, no meeting has yet been officially announced.