Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif castigated the government of Saudi Arabia over the weekend in a New York Times op-ed, accusing the Saudis of "active sponsorship of violent extremism" at home and abroad. The column also laid bare the schism in the Muslim world between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
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Zarif, who was a central figure in the negotiations that led to an agreement with the world powers over Iran's nuclear agreement, accused the Saudis of seeking to undermine the pact. "Saudi Arabia seems to fear that the removal of the smoke screen of the nuclear issue will expose the real global threat: its active sponsorship of violent extremism," Zarif wrote.
The most recent flashpoint between Saudi Arabia, which is a Sunni Muslim theocracy and Iran, which is a Shi'ite Islamic republic, was a mass execution in Saudi Arabia on January 2 of 47 prisoners, including Shi'ite Saudi sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a critic of the Saudi government. His execution prompted mass demonstrations in Iran as well as an attack on the Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital. The Saudis cut diplomatic relations with Tehran in response.
In his op-ed, Zarif said the Iranian government "at the highest level" had condemned the attack on the Saudi embassy and protected Saudi diplomats. Zarif then went on, however, to cite examples of what he said was the targeting by the Saudis "and their surrogates" of Iranian diplomatic offices in Yemen, Lebanon and Pakistan.
Zarif also accused government-appointed Saudi preachers of engaging in routine hate speech against Shi'ites. "The outrageous beheading recently of Sheikh Nimr was immediately preceded by a sermon of hatred toward Shi'ites by a Grand Mosque preacher in Mecca, who last year said that 'our disagreement with Shi'ites will not be removed, nor our suicide to fight them' as long as Shi'ites remained on the earth."
Saudi-Iranian relations were also severely tested in September when a stampede of Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca resulted in the deaths of many hundreds, including a large number of Iranians, which Zarif said was the result of Saudi negligence. And he went further: "Iranian pilgrims in Saudi Arabia have endured systematic harassment — in one case, Saudi airport officers molested two Iranian boys in Jeddah, fueling public outrage," Zarif wrote. "Moreover, for days, Saudi authorities refused to respond to requests from grieving families [of the stampede] and the Iranian government to access and repatriate the bodies."
Over the course of decades, Iran has regularly been accused in the West of sponsoring extremist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas, and of direct involvement in terrorism, notably the 1994 attack on a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, Argentina that killed 85 people. Yet in his op-ed, Zarif pointed an accusing finger at Saudi nationals for their involvement in terrorism.
"Let us not forget that the perpetrators of many acts of terror, from the horrors of Sept. 11 to the shooting in San Bernardino and other episodes of extremist carnage in between, as well as nearly all members of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Nusra Front, have been either Saudi nationals or brainwashed by petrodollar-financed demagogues who have promoted anti-Islamic messages of hatred and sectarianism for decades," he wrote.
"The Saudi leadership must now make a choice: They can continue supporting extremists and promoting sectarian hatred; or they can opt to play a constructive role in promoting regional stability. We hope that reason will prevail," Zarif concluded.