By Barbara Slavin
Iran and Saudi Arabia are experts at infuriating each other, with dismal consequences for the region they co-inhabit.
Facing off in proxy conflicts from Yemen to Syria, they are also practitioners in a propaganda war that now extends to open Saudi support for an Iranian exile group that seeks the overthrow of the Iranian regime.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a respected former Saudi ambassador to Britain and the United States, startled many observers when he turned up Saturday at a conference in Paris of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq or MEK.
Turki, who also served as Saudi director of intelligence and who presumably got prior government approval for his Paris speech, responded to cries from the crowd to overthrow the Iranian government, “I, too, want the downfall of the regime.”
If that is indeed the case, the Saudi ex-official has picked an unlikely vehicle for regime change, but one that is sure to deepen the chasm between two of the most important countries in the Muslim world.
The MEK, a cultish Marxist-Islamist group responsible for the death of six Americans in Iran before the 1979 revolution, lost out in the post-revolution power struggle and fled to Iraq, siding with Saddam Hussein against Iran in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Maryam Rajavi, the widow of MEK leader Massoud Rajavi, lives in a compound outside Paris from which she directed a successful campaign to get the group off the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations in 2012.
In the course of that campaign, the MEK and its “diplomatic” arm, the so-called National Council of Resistance in Iran, paid millions of dollars to ex-U.S. officials of both major political parties. Saturday’s confab featured many of these individuals including Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and a contender to be Donald Trump’s vice presidential pick, as well as Bill Richardson, a former New Mexico governor and U.N. ambassador under Bill Clinton, and former Vermont governor Howard Dean.
Observers have long been puzzled about how the group managed to shell out $25,000 speaker fees to the likes of Gingrich, Richardson, Dean, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and others given its small basis of support within the Iranian diaspora. It’s entirely possible that the Saudis have funded the MEK for years. Perhaps Turki on Saturday was simply making overt a covert record of collaboration.
The prince knows well how much the Iranian government and the Iranian people detest the MEK, which until 2000 also carried out bombings on the streets of Tehran. Speaking in Paris – where he also said Iran was infected by a “Khomeini cancer” in a reference to its revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – could be a warning to Tehran to scale back its involvement in what the Saudis see as purely Arab conflicts or risk new internal security threats.
Iran sees its regional activities in a different light and is particularly adamant in its backing for Syria’s brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Iranian-Syrian alliance dates back 36 years to Assad’s father’s support for Iran – alone among Arab leaders – during the Iran-Iraq war. Iran now backs Assad to protect its conduit to Lebanon and the crown jewel of Iranian Arab allies, the Shi’ite Muslim militant group Hezbollah.
What really got Saudi attention, however, was Iran’s more recent support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, a perpetually unstable southern neighbor of Saudi Arabia. Although Iran’s involvement in the Yemen conflict is believed to be minimal, it crossed the bounds of acceptability for Riyadh, which intervened militarily in Yemen last year in a so far unsuccessful effort to restore a pro-Saudi regime in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
Turki’s endorsement of regime change in Tehran could be payback in this escalating proxy war between the world’s pre-eminent Sunni Muslim power and top Shi’ite Muslim power.
His comments compound the dilemma of the lame duck Barack Obama administration, which is in the awkward position of trying to tamp down the conflict while reassuring Riyadh that the long U.S.-Saudi partnership is not in jeopardy. Too close an embrace of Saudi Arabia, however, may only embolden Saudi adventurism and deepen Iranian hostility toward the United States.
In the Middle East, it is often said, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Saudis – and the United States — have a habit of supporting reprehensible groups in an effort to undermine even more frightening foes.
But mixing with the MEK is a recipe for disaster and a distraction from the region’s and the world’s real enemy – the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
Contrary to the MEK’s claims, there is nothing democratic about this cultist organization, which requires its members to divorce their spouses or remain celibate and engage in Maoist-style struggle sessions of self-humiliation. Those that manage to escape often require long periods of de-programming.
By associating himself so closely with the MEK and publicly calling for regime change in Tehran, Turki is discrediting those in the Iranian government who have sought to reach out to Riyadh and strengthening those who advocate even more Iranian involvement in regional quarrels. What if the Iranians retaliate by giving more overt backing to Shi’ite dissidents in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s eastern province?
Given that both Iran and Saudi Arabia face severe economic problems tied to the low price of oil and structural deficiencies, pouring gasoline on their regional differences is irresponsible to say the least. Turki, who has been known to participate in so-called Track II meetings with Saudi adversaries in the past, would do better to take part in such talks with Iranians now and try to find a way out of the mess both nations have created instead of doubling down on mutual threats.
Barbara Slavin is Acting Director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington.