As protests continue to rage across Iran, the Iranian security and intelligence establishment seems intent on lashing out and pointing the finger of blame at external actors, most recently at Saudi Arabia. In an interview published on the supreme leader’s website, Esmail Khatib, the Iranian minister of intelligence, threatened Riyadh and blamed it for fomenting the unrest in the country. Khatib said Iran’s “strategic patience” is running out and alleged that Saudi Arabia was funding and supporting anti-Iranian media channels. He blamed Iran International, a London-based, Persian satellite news channel, for stirring protests across the country, and last month Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Chief Hossein Salami warned Saudi Arabia to control the media outlets which are allegedly under its influence. According to Iranian state media, Salami said, “I am warning the Saudi ruling family…. Watch your behaviour and control these media…. otherwise you will pay the price. This is our last warning because you are interfering in our state matters through these media. We told you, be careful.” Given these threats, which are nothing new, but considering their timing, it is important to explore the motives, messages and implications that stem from them.
First, Iran has a history of creating false narratives and conspiracy theories when faced with domestic troubles. It has consistently blamed the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia in the past when it has faced protests, such as during the Green Movement protests in 2009. Iran likes to deflect Iranian public attention away from the government’s failures and shift the focus to external adversaries, as is the case now, given the intense protests it continues to face, which have entered their 10th week. However, unlike in the past, the Iranian public is much more aware of the government’s games, and is unlikely to fall into this trap and point the finger of blame at Saudi Arabia. Second, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has consistently called for rapprochement with Iran’s neighbouring countries and has visited Qatar and Oman. In addition, the UAE and Kuwait have reinstated their ambassadors to Tehran, and senior UAE officials have visited Tehran. It is also important to remember the numerous rounds of talks held between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Baghdad. These Iranian moves seem to contradict the threats that have been made, why? It is apparent that the Iranian intelligence and security establishment has a different perspective on Iran-Gulf relations to the Iranian government, and the former, given its powerful role in shaping Iranian foreign policy, will ensure that the government submits to its directives, and follows a path of escalation and collision with Saudi Arabia as long as the leadership continues to face domestic challenges to its existence. Third, the Iranian threats came in the context of the stalled nuclear talks in Vienna and the recent US midterm elections. With US analysts predicting a sweeping Republican victory in the election, there was panic in Tehran, as any movement on the nuclear track would be completed paralyzed by the Republicans who have been critical of the Biden administration’s appeasement of the Iranian government. As a result, this panic and fear provoked the Iranian leadership to employ a routine tactic – threatening Saudi Arabia in the hope of pressuring the Republicans to submit to the Biden diplomatic nuclear approach rather than force the Biden administration to adopt a maximum pressure approach as seen under the Trump administration. With the US midterm elections not witnessing the “red wave” as predicted, Iranian officials will be happy with the Republicans winning a slight majority in the House of Representatives and the Democrats retaining their majority in the Senate. We might perhaps see a slight change in Iranian behavior toward Saudi Arabia, with the Iranian government instead focusing on another false narrative or conspiracy theory. Fourth, ever since the protests flared up in Iran after the killing of Mahsa Amini, the Iranian ruling elite has been overcome with fear and paranoia, with it fearing for its existence. It has realized that using violence has failed to work as Iranians have overcome the fear barrier, as a result, it has lashed out at everyone, including Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups in northern Iraq, foreign-based Persian media channels, the United States, and Israel. However, the Iranian government’s twisting of the truth and scapegoating have failed to influence Iranian public opinion, with its populace hellbent on continuing with their protests to seek justice for the killing of Amini, however, the ideal goal of regime change seems somewhat elusive given the lack of external support and the absence of political leadership.
To conclude, the Iranian ruling elite needs to self-reflect and consider that its own policies, apparatuses, institutions, and behavior are to blame for the recent wave of protests. Deflecting blame and attention will not magically end the protests and make the Iranian people forget about the injustices they face daily. By promoting false narratives, and lashing out at others, this only isolates the government further, and creates more public anger, as the Iranian people know who is to blame for their crises and worries, it is no external actor, but the Iranian government and the political-religious elite that have squandered their resources on failed regional projects at the expense of domestic socioeconomic development. Knowing the mindset of the Iranian government, this self-reflection will not occur, even if it is on its last legs, in keeping with the expression, “a leopard never changes its spots.”