The last Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia in an interview has discussed the root causes of Tehran-Riyadh conflicts and the necessity for improving bilateral relations.
Here’s IFP’s translation of an interview by Khabar Online with Hossein Sadeqi, the last Iranian envoy to Riyadh:
Hossein Sadeqi, the last Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is a calm but cautious diplomat. It was not easy to interview him, but the resulting interview contains interesting points. He talked about the time when he was an ambassador in the government of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his last return to Iran after the attack on Saudi embassy in Tehran.
Sadeqi says he doesn’t agree with the language of humiliation when talking about Saudis in spite of what Saudis have done to us. He believes we can sit at the negotiating table and make them finally understand that we are a united Ummah [Islamic society].
The Iranian diplomat also says that some other countries are stonewalling in the improvement of Iran-Saudi Arabia ties, because it is not to their interests that two major powers of Muslim world come to the negotiating table.
Why can’t we sit at the negotiating table with Saudis? Why two Islamic countries are this much unable to establish communication?
I believe if we could design and adopt an acceptable framework in our ties with Saudi Arabia, a major change could happen in the situation of the Middle East and the Muslim world.
The fact is that after the 1979 Revolution in Iran, a serious concern was created for Saudi Arabia and all Sunni countries, particularly the Persian Gulf littoral states. After all, a Shiite Muslim government had taken the office in Iran, and Saudi Arabia became the first to worry. I believe if the then US President Jimmy Carter could win in the hostage crisis, a serious change could happen in Saudi Arabia’s situation; at that time, the issue of human rights was very serious.
However, a number of events helped Saudis be relieved in spite of their concerns:
First, Republicans came to power in the US. Traditionally, the GOP has more consistency with Arab kingdoms. Saudis were worried about losing Washington’s trust. The concern was serious, particularly given the fact they held a special stance towards the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Second, the USSR’s occupation of Afghanistan.
Third, the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam Hussein’s motivation, and the consequent support he received from other countries in the imposed war.
Fourth, the domestic crises in Iran: Our country was faced with a range of border crises and the issue of MKO militants in the border areas.
All these issues allayed the majority of Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iran; Riyadh was no longer worried about the export of Iran’s revolution to other countries. At that time, there was a revolutionary atmosphere in Iran, and people had very special slogans, dreams, and causes. These were effective on the existing atmosphere, which continued until the end of the war and Iran’s adoption of the UNSC Resolution 598.
It is interesting to know that Saudi Arabia was worried about Iraq as well. The Constitution of Ba’ath Party considered all regional countries to be dependent and reactionary states, and believed that they all should be destroyed. However, the Iran-Iraq war removed the concerns of Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
After the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and its consequences, Arab neighbours started adopting a different approach towards Iran. In fact, our ties with Arab countries entered a new chapter. In 1988, Iran and Saudi Arabia severed their ties. Actually, what happened in that year was exactly repeated in 2016, and led to the severance of ties.
The relations were resumed thanks to the passage of time and regional developments as well as the willingness of both countries for restoration of ties.
Aside from the mistakes made by Saudis, what were our mistakes in your opinion?
I believe the fate of Middle East and the Muslim world could be different and we wouldn’t have this much extremism and violence in this region only if we could continue adopting the policy and approach that started in the time of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and reached its peak under President Mohammad Khatami.
Why can’t we go on with that policy today?
During the times I mentioned, the two countries moved towards moderation. All the doors had been opened thanks to the mutual trust between Tehran and Riyadh. At that time, King Abdullah was the Crown Prince, and because of King Fahd’s illness, Prince Abdullah was in charge of Saudi Arabia’s affairs. Therefore, the major obstacle had been removed for us.
Saudis were the ones who started official and unofficial reciprocal visits. That was while Saudis didn’t even dare to come to Iran in the past due to their worries and fears of us. After the thaw in Iran-Saudi ties, the reciprocal visits increased, and the image Saudi people had in their minds about Iran was changed.
If Iran could continue adopting the policy and approach that started in the time of President Hashemi Rafsanjani and reached its peak under President Khatami, the current wave of violence and extremism in the Middle East could be prevented. But everything was brought back to the zero point during the time of Ahmadinejad.
Unfortunately, during the time of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, everything was brought back to the zero point. Saudi Arabia’s assumptions about Iran were totally changed during Ahmadinejad’s presidency. During this era, Saudis concluded that Iran’s policy has not changed, and Tehran is still pursuing the same policy it used to adopt in the 1980s.
Is there any resolve to ease the tensions in Iran’s foreign policy?
As a matter of fact, we have yet to reach a conclusion inside Iran over our ties with Saudi Arabia. I believe in spite of all the problems and challenges we have, we can talk to Saudis and sit with them at the negotiating table.
Some believe that we cannot cooperate with Saudis because of ideological differences, political tensions between the two countries, and conflict of opinion in areas of influence; however, I don’t believe so. Many countries, Arabs or non-Arabs like Israel and the US, don’t want it happen. Americans themselves are not at all interested in the improvement of Iran-Saudi ties, because they don’t have any clear perspective about Iran and the Middle East. This is because everything in the region has become unpredictable after the overthrow of Iranian monarchy. There is a power vacuum; after 38 years, nothing has managed to replace it and crises are exacerbating on a daily basis.
Many countries, Arabs or non-Arabs like Israel and the US, don’t want to see a thaw in Tehran-Riyadh relations. Americans themselves are not at all interested in the improvement of Iran-Saudi ties.
Unfortunately, these crises have been extended into Northern Africa. Not until a new order is created, no one can hope that sustainable development is realized. Therefore, if our policies towards Saudi Arabia could be based on consistency, many positive developments could occur in bilateral relations between Tehran and Riyadh. Suppose that, thanks to such cooperation, the voice of Islam could be heard more clearly, and the two countries could work together and have a louder voice in the Muslim world and the West instead of wasting their energy on harming and removing each other.
Based on Iran’s Constitution, we are obliged to move the Muslim world towards unity, and achieve economic and cultural prosperity thanks to this unity. This is what we all know. We know that we would gain great achievements if we are together in the Muslim world. We know that Israel is the winner of Middle East conflicts as no one cares about the Zionist regime’s occupation anymore and all the attention is focused on Muslims killing each other. Superpowers are just watching Muslims’ atrocities against each other, and the expenses have soured for the Muslim world. Do you really think such a simple equation is not observed and understood? Do you think those who attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran don’t understanding such simple equations? Don’t they understand or do they have special interests in not seeing them?
What you are talking about is definitely true. A group of people are ignoring national interests and just consider the interests of a special group. We can say one of the reasons for our problems in many fields is that we don’t pay attention to national interests. This might even be the root cause of all problems.
The solution is that a group of wise people should convene and decide about this issue. I believe when there is religious democracy in a country and people vote for a particular way of thinking in ballot boxes, the elected ideology should have the power and capacity to implement its ideas.
Normally, some might be opposed to the way of thinking elected by people, but this is not important at all. There should be opposition, but it should be voiced through negotiation, conference, articles, and the like. These opponents should not have executive power. This might be one of the major problems we have. Let me explain it with a simple example.
For instance, a government decides to make serious investment in the field of tourism, and believes that the country’s economy can be developed, the unemployment problem can be resolved, and Iranophobia can be stopped through such a policy. The government aims to earn more income from tourism than it earns from oil and gas industry.
All these policies need mechanisms. Imagine when the government plans to implement its policies, it is faced with serious barriers, and there are people who can create serious obstacles to the implementation process. There is a time when you are ideologically opposed to a policy; for example, you’re opposed with the policy of developing tourism industry; there is no problem with the opposition, but there is also a time when you create obstacles; you don’t allow people to feel the results of developing the country’s tourism.
This is a nation’s right to protest; they even have the right to express their protest in front of a foreign embassy. But attacking an embassy is totally different. It is the host country’s responsibility to provide security of the embassy. Radicals have become so strong in Iran that they managed to break into the embassy. Since we had the same experience before, the attack should have been stopped, or at least they shouldn’t have let them increase the prices so much that Saudi Arabia benefits from the situation.
Imagine how much Saudi Arabia was under the international community’s pressure at that time, and how we helped them through that attack, totally changing everything in favour of the Saudi King and against ourselves.
Is there any interest in ignoring these issues?
I believe there is a short-sighted ideological view in Iran that definitely has supporters among different social strata. In this view, the united Islamic society [Ummah] is ignored. On the other hand, some have special material interests. Why don’t we like to be transparent in different fields? Why doesn’t a particular group in our society want to be transparent? In fact, if such transparency is realized, their interests will be endangered, and they won’t be able to gain immense wealth. Suppose that if such surveillance and transparency is absent from our government, what would happen in the aftermath.
Therefore, besides the ideological view, there is also a material view about your question. Why are some people opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers? During the time of sanctions, some managed to earn astronomical money on the pretext that they can find ways to evade the sanctions. Why did the class gap become so much wide in the Iranian society? I believe a lack of transparency is one of the main reasons for the increased gap in our society compared with pre-Revolution era. It is not clear how some people have earned such wealth.
What can Switzerland, as the protector of Saudi Arabia’s rights in Iran, do to improve Tehran-Riyadh ties?
Switzerland cannot do anything serious for Iran. I believe Iran and Saudi Arabia need no mediator. Two neighbouring countries that claim to be the most powerful in the Muslim world should show their excellence, maturity, and competence. I have repeatedly told the Iranian and Saudi sides that we must start challenging talks, even if they take a very long time. We can have argument and conflict at the negotiating table, but we also can cooperate at the same time.
Switzerland cannot do anything serious for Iran. I believe Iran and Saudi Arabia need no mediator.
We can’t ignore the fact that Saudi Arabia has played a major role in the emergence and formation of extremism; however, the country is now faced with a crisis. Therefore, it is the time for us to sit at a table to negotiating with them. We can work together and tell them that this is our common threat.
It is easy to talk about coming to the negotiating table; our rival [Saudi Arabia] is now weakened in the international community because of numerous cases such as the 9/11 case in the US, the war it has waged in Yemen, and so on. Therefore, it doesn’t have any credit anymore and won’t take part in negotiations with Iran.
The Saudi-led coalition’s war on Yemen and its current atrocities were among the biggest mistakes made by Riyadh. But this is where the aforementioned issue of maturity comes up. Both countries should prepare the grounds for the beginning of such talks.