November 23, 2009 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 554

Iran, Saudi Arabia Face Off in the Media

November 23, 2009 | By Yossi Mansharof and R. Green*
Iran, Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 554


Beginning in mid-2009, the Iranian and Saudi media have been regularly exchanging accusations on a number of points of conflict: the escalation between the Yemen army and the Houthi rebels, [1] the intensified attacks in Iraq, Iran's involvement in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and Iran's nuclear program.

The Iranian anti-Saudi campaign is expressed in reports and articles in the media and in statements by senior clerics accusing Saudi Arabia of responsibility for the killing of Shi'ites in Yemen, and of responsibility for the terrorism in Iraq and other places.

It should be noted that after the Iranian presidential election in June 2009, the Saudi press refrained almost completely from dealing with Iran in editorials and op-eds. However, beginning in mid-August 2009, Saudi papers have published articles harshly critical of Iran, some of them in response to Iranian accusations regarding a Saudi connection to terrorism and to Yemen, and others warning against Iran's nuclearization and against its "interference" in Middle East affairs.

Following is a review of reports in the Iranian and Saudi media and excerpts from recently published articles on the subject:

Iranian Media Attacks on Saudi Arabia

Kayhan Editor: Saudi Arabia Is Responsible for All Plots in the Region

The Iranian Arabic-language television channel ?Al-'Alam played a leading role in the attacks on Saudi Arabia. In an interview on the channel, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the Iranian daily Kayhan which is close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, criticized Saudi Arabia and said that its media was waging an anti-Iran campaign in coordination with Israel and the West. He went on to call Saudi Arabia an absolutist dictatorship, saying that it had no status whatsoever in the Islamic world, and accusing it of being behind every plot in the region, such as terror bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the founding of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Shariatmadari even condemned Saudi King Abdallah personally, saying: "At the height of the Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip and the suffering of the Palestinian people there, the Saudi king participated in a meeting of the interfaith dialogue in New York and shook the hand of Israeli president, and exchanged friendly words with him." [2]

Since July 2009, Al-'Alam has regularly interviewed Muhammad Al-Mas'ari, a Saudi oppositionist residing in London, who uses the platform provided by the channel to attack the Saudi royal family.

Saudi Arabia - A Paradise for Terrorism

The Iranian media repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia of involvement in terrorism, particularly against the backdrop of intensified attacks in Iraq. The Tabnak website revealed, citing UAE sources, that the Saudi authorities had recently arrested over 120 Saudi military personnel who collaborated with Al-Qaeda under the guidance of Wahhabi clerics. [3]

Hassan Hanizadeh, editor of the conservative Iranian news agency Mehr, called Saudi Arabia the main factor behind the large-scale attacks in Iraq on August 19, 2009. [4] Also, the Iranian daily Jomhouri-e Eslami hinted at Saudi collaboration in these attacks. [5] The Iranian website Jahan News, which is close to Iranian intelligence circles, stated that Saudi Arabia was planning to give funding to the Sunni Baluchi opposition organization Jundallah, for a school for suicide bombers in Pakistan. [6]

An editorial in the Iranian daily Vatan-e Emrooz, which is identified with the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, called Saudi Arabia a paradise for terrorism, and accused it of massacring Shi'ites as part of its anti-Shi'ite policy. The paper stated: "Due to the absence of a democratic regime in Saudi Arabia, and due to the racist and power-hungry treatment of the people by the princes ruling Saudi Arabia, that country has become a paradise for the growth of terror groups... [This is] because of the influence of the extremist Wahhabis...

"Saudi Arabia remains a center and a source of Salafi terrorists... It is not seriously fighting the terrorism that threatens the security of the region and of the world, and it uses terrorist groups in order to pressure the countries of the region, to demand political ransom, and to perpetrate terrorism against the Shi'ites in Iraq and Pakistan..." [7]

Saudi Arabia is Massacring Shi'ites in Yemen

It is frequently claimed in the Iranian media that Saudi Arabia is behind the Yemeni government's war on the Houthis, who belong to the Zaidi school of the Shi'a, as part of its anti-Shi'ite trend. ?Al-'Alam TV has devoted extensive sympathetic coverage to the Houthis' struggle, interviewing commanders and operatives from the rebel ranks who blame Saudi Arabia for the attack on them. [8]

Iranian websites stated that Saudi Arabia was funding the attack on the Houthis, and that Saudi Arabia had demanded that Yemen wipe them out. [9] The Iran daily, identified with the Ahmadinejad government, stated that Saudi officials had drawn up agreements with senior U.S. officials, at meetings on the periphery of the U.N. General Assembly; under these agreements, Saudi Arabia would step up its military and political support for Yemen President 'Ali 'Abdallah Saleh's war against the Shi'ites in his country. [10]

The anti-Saudi campaign was also reflected in statements by Iranian clerics. Senior Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, who is identified with the Iranian regime, stated that Saudi Arabia "bears the banner of hypocrisy [11] in the battle of the Muslims," and accused it of massacring its own Shi'ite citizens and of being behind the killing of Shi'ites (i.e. the Houthis) in Yemen. [12]

In an editorial titled "The Saudi Aspiration to Divide Yemen," the Kayhan daily denied that Iran was giving military aid to the Houthis. The paper said that it was actually Saudi Arabia that had occupied parts of Yemen and was trying to dismantle it and to take it over, while the Zaidi Shi'ites in northern Yemen were obstructing it from doing so. Kayhan recommended that the Yemen government and the Houthis both stop fighting, in order to eliminate the danger of a schism in the country. [13]

Saudi Papers Respond

Al-Arabiya Director: Al-Qaeda is an Iranian Front Organization

Saudi newspapers responded aggressively to Iranian accusations, with their own reports on the Iran terror connection. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that Al-Qaeda squads in Iran were planning to carry out attacks on Saudi and Jordanian targets. [14] Al-Arabiya TV director 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, formerly the paper's editor, called Al-Qaeda an Iranian front organization, and said that Iranian intelligence officers were pretending to be commanders in the organization and sending young people to carry out attacks in Iraq. He added that Al-Qaeda "is nothing but an organization that the Iranians established; at the very least, they contributed [to its development] afterwards. This explains many unclear aspects [of its activity], particularly the organization's logistical system and its planning and executive capabilities... Al-Qaeda has been sent to carry out operations that serve both it and Iran, particularly the latter." [15]

In the same spirit, columnist Suleiman Al-'Uqaili raised the possibility that Iran was involved in the August 27, 2009 assassination attempt against Muhammad, the son of Saudi Prince Naif. [16] He wrote that such a complex operation could have been carried out only with help from a foreign espionage agency. [17]

Iran Is Turning Yemen into a Base for International Terrorism

Saudi newspapers have attacked Iran also in connection to the war in Yemen. The Al-Jazirah daily stated that Iran is plotting to turn Yemen into an international terror base that will be a bridgehead to the rest of the Arabian Peninsula: "There is an alliance between Al-Qaeda, the Houthis, and the separatists [in southern Yemen]... The Houthis receive material, military, and logistical support from Iran. They aspire to establish their own state, patterned after Hizbullah in South Lebanon. There is coordination between Al-Qaeda in Yemen... and the Houthis. This coordination is via Iran, and carried out primarily by officers of [Iran's] Al-Qods Forces [IRGC special forces], and is aimed at taking over Yemen... on instructions from Iran. The aim is to turn Yemen into an international terror base, and to help the Houthis spread to the other Arabian Peninsula countries [i.e. Saudi Arabia]..." [18]

Yemen took a stand alongside Saudi Arabia in the media battle. Yemen government spokesman Iskandar Al-Asbahi said that the Houthi accusation that Saudi Arabia is involved in a war against them is part of "the misleading statements that the Iranian media, which is guiding [the Houthis], is reiterating over and over." [19]

Saudi columnists were enraged over Al-'Alam TV's attack on their country. 'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan that the channel's support for the Houthis proved that the Houthi rebel movement was an Iranian front organization, much like Hizbullah and Hamas. [20] His colleague Muhammad Sahimi stated, in the same newspaper, that the channel was using Nazi propaganda methods, and that in light of Iran's recent history - that is, the post-election crisis - Al-'Alam was flinging accusations in all directions and inciting peoples against their governments. [21]

Referring to interviews with Saudi oppositionists on Iranian Arabic-language TV channels, Al-Riyadh editor Turki Al-Sudairi said: "The Arab channels, and the Saudi channels in particular, might host hundreds of the millions [of Iranians who have left to] live outside Iran in the past 30 years [for the purpose of slandering Iran]." [22]

We Need an Anti-IranGulf Military Force

The articles in the Saudi papers condemned Iran's striving towards nuclear weapons, and its alleged aspirations to take over the Middle East. An editorial by Yousef Kwaylit in the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh attacked Iran's interference in the affairs of the Arab countries, saying: "Iran has set itself as the guardian and overseer of the Islamic world... [It] is using its money... and its human resources to expand its influence. Therefore, in order to protect themselves, [the Arabs] must act with a force that recognizes the struggle between opposites." [23]

In another editorial, Kwaylit urged the Gulf states to advance the establishment of a joint military force, in order to deal with the Iranian danger: [24] "Believing the force of dialogue [alone] to solve all the complex problems, with Iran or with anyone else, without the backup of an equally powerful [military] force, is mistaken thinking..." [25]

Al-Riyadh Editor: Iranian Nuclear Weapons Will Be Aimed at Saudi Arabia

Al-Riyadh editor Turki Al-Sudairi also wrote that Iran's election crisis had revealed Iran's true intention - that is, to threaten the Gulf states: "Against whom is Iran trying to use nuclear weapons, and why is the world lining up against this trend? Is it not out of a desire to defend the stability and independence of the geographical presence that affects the economies of the world [i.e. Saudi Arabia]?... What is motivating Tehran to go nuclear is [the desire] to terrorize." [26]

In another article, Al-Sudairi attacked Iran's negative interference in Middle East countries, contrasting it with the positive role played by Saudi Arabia: "[Saudi Arabia] is not competing with Iran's famous efforts, verified on the international level, to smuggle arms into quarrelling societies such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. Furthermore, it was [Saudi] King 'Abdallah who strove for understanding and agreements among the Arab countries at the Kuwait and Doha summits...

"Nor does Saudi Arabia strive to be a nuclear state, and it did not sacrifice its annual budget for this purpose. Its economic strategy is productive, not aggressive - particularly when the cost of possessing nuclear weapons is self-destruction..." [27]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat Editor: Iran's Maneuvering Endangers the Middle East

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat editor Tareq Al-Homayed published a series of articles warning of the danger posed to the Middle East by Iran's maneuvering in its negotiations with the West over its nuclear program. He said that Iran was striving to take over Iraq, and that it might use Hamas and Hizbullah to provoke a war. [28] He also said that Iran's evasive response to the West's dialogue proposal was proof of its desire to take over the Middle East: "Iran positions itself as the leader of the entire region; proof of this is that is wants to solve all our problems... When Iran expresses its willingness to solve the unsolved problems [in the Middle East], it means that it has a hand in everything going on in the region. When Iran talks of its willingness to solve the terrorism problems, that explains to us why so many Al-Qaeda operatives have gone to Iran." [29]

In another article, Al-Homayed discusses the Arab countries' concern over Iran's launching what he called "adventuresome operations" in the Middle East: "...The Iranian regime will turn to adventuresome measures, with the aim of escaping the tremendous pressure from within and from without... [and it] will not hesitate to use the regional arena [to do so]." [30] He also reiterated his warning of the possibility of a new war initiated by Iran using Hamas or Hizbullah. [31]

Iran Must Stop its Interference in Arab Affairs

Al-Watan columnist Yousef Maki devoted a series of columns to the consequences for the Arabs of Iran's political crisis. He said that the Arabs wanted good relations with Iran, but that Iran's expansionist aspirations and its interference in Arab affairs were preventing this: "The Arabs do not occupy a single centimeter of Iranian land, and do not interfere in Iran's affairs while threatening its security and its stability. Not one opposition organization in Iran is supported by an Arab regime. Everyone on the Arab side advocates security and peace.

"The Arabs demand nothing from Iran except that it stop interfering in their affairs, and that it respect their political decisions and their historic rights. Although this demand is very simple, it remains almost unattainable in light of [Iran's] aspirations to supremacy and expansion.

"We are talking, and we will continue to talk, about what is happening in Iran - because it directly impacts our security and our stability. We must respect the decisions and the wishes of the peoples of Iran - provided that these decisions are not at the expense of our rights and our security". [32]

*R. Green is a research fellow at MEMRI; Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI


[1] In early August 2009, the year-long ceasefire between the Yemen government and the Houthi rebels ended when the Yemen army launched an all-out attack on the rebels in the Sa'ada region, 200 km northwest of the Yemen capital of San'a, on the Saudi border.

[2] Al-'Alam (Iran), September 23, 2009

[3] Tabnak (Iran), August 24, 2009.

[4] Hanizadeh is referring to the suicide bombings that occurred August 19, 2009 in Baghdad, in which approximately 100 people died and scored of others were injured.

[5] Jomhouri-e Eslami (Iran), August 26, 2009.

[6] Jahan News (Iran), August 20, 2009.

[7] Vatan-e Emrooz (Iran), September 2, 2009.

[8] Al-'Alam (Iran), August 15-20, 2009. It should be noted that the Fars news agency also reported, citing Yahyah Al-Houthi, the brother of Houthi leader in Yemen 'Abd Al-Malik Al-Houthi, that the Saudi army was playing an active part in the battles. Fars, Iran, May 18, 2009.

[9], August 2, 2009; Abna (Iran), August 14, 2009; Shia Online (Iran), August 23, 2009.

[10] Iran (Iran), September 18, 2009

[11] The term "hypocrisy" (nifaq) refers in both Arabic and Farsi to renunciation of Islam.

[12] Fars (Iran), September 7, 2009.

[13] Kayhan (Iran), September 22, 2009.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 3, 2009.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 23, 2009.

[16] Prince Muhammad bin Naif, assistant interior minister for security affairs and son of Interior Minister Prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, is in charge of the Saudi security forces' campaign against Al-Qaeda. On August 27, 2009, he escaped an assassination attempt against him carried out by a suicide bomber who was pretending to be a holiday visitor at the prince's open house.

[17] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 6, 2009

[18] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), September 3, 2009

[19] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 11, 2009

[20] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 17, 2009

[21] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), August 15, 2009

[22] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), August 23, 2009

[23] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), August 21, 2009

[24] In this article, Kwailit repeated a position he expressed in an article two years ago; see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1769: "Saudi Columnists Call on Gulf States to Form Anti-Iran Front," November 20, 2007, Saudi Columnists Call on Gulf States to Form Anti-Iran Front

[25] Al-Riyadh, (Saudi Arabia), August 17, 2009

[26] Al-Riyadh, (Saudi Arabia), August 22, 2009

[27] Al-Riyadh, (Saudi Arabia), August 17, 2009

[28] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 5, 13, 2009

[29] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 12, 2009

[30] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 27, 2009

[31] Al-Homayed repeated his warning that Iran would initiate a militant provocation using Hamas or Hizbullah in an article published in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 13, 2009.

[32] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 16, 2009.

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