The protests in Iran, about to enter their second week, have dominated headlines in Saudi Arabia. Broadcast channels are transfixed, airing coverage that would lead you to believe that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s regime in Tehran is about to collapse. After failing to short-circuit the Iran nuclear deal, and with Iran dominating conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia has a new and unexpected ally: the Iranian people.
In any case, Iranians do not speak Arabic, they speak Farsi. And given the history of antipathy between our two countries that predates the House of Saud and the Islamic Republic, our “support” is probably as well-received as the Trump administration’s. Iranians will not be influenced by this rhetoric. As Gary Sick, who negotiated an end to the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, told NPR on Tuesday, “Iran has a very rebellious population. By some counts, Iran has had six revolutions or changes of government in the past century.”
So 80 million Iranians are not going to be influenced by the Saudi media hysteria, and perhaps that’s just as well. The actual target, 30 million Saudis, are likely to be buoyed. Confrontation with Iran has become a popular cause in the kingdom. In recent years, the specter of Iranian expansionism has been loudly touted by senior Saudi officials and echoed by columnists and pundits. To be sure, there are reasons for Riyadh to sound the alarm. Failed policies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen have created a Shiite crescent, an arc stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to Tehran, about the length of the Texas-Mexico border. In mid-2016, Saudi Arabia’s strongman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), addressed a gathering of prominent Saudi writers that I attended. He explained the danger of this crescent — and more. He warned of Iran’s influence in Sudan, Pakistan and Djibouti.
It is still too early to judge how the events in Iran will unfold. If the hard-liners succeed in suppressing the protests, they will continue their expansionist policy, which could mean an escalation of the confrontation with Saudi Arabia. If the regime or Rouhani’s government falls, the chants heard in a number of Iranian cities — “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my life will only be sacrificed for Iran” — could become the country’s foreign policy.
While Saudi media herald Iranian protests, the government has been silent, working instead through proxies. Yet I know that, Iran aside, MBS wants to erase any idea of bottom-up change. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman lauded MBS for orchestrating a top-down “Arab Spring.” The time has come for MBS to be freed from his fear of democracy and the true Arab Spring, as well from his justified concerns of Iranian expansionism. What’s to stop Saudis from wondering why state-approved celebrations of freedom, democracy and justice are reserved for Iranians?
Indeed, many Saudis must find it contradictory for their media to hail Iranians protesting price increases in Iran, while Saudis are banned from protesting the approximately doubled cost of fuel and the introduction of a sales tax for the first time in the country (which took effect Jan.1 ). Just last week, Salih Shehi, a prominent columnist, was arrested for appearing on TV and defending the people’s right to object.
Ironically, these protests may well overlap with the seventh anniversary of the Jan. 25 Egyptian revolution that changed the face of the Arab world. Perhaps Arabs — and Saudis — will dare to say that they also want some of that Iranian freedom.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist and author.