Iran and Saudi Arabia’s leaders offered harsh criticisms of one another, reflecting competing geopolitical visions in the Middle East and an escalating struggle for regional control.
Iran’s leader Hassan Rouhani urged Saudi Arabia to stop pursing “divisive policies”, while Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Naif urged international cooperation to combat terrorism while citing Iran’s direct or indirect involvement in several regional conflicts.
“If the Saudi government is serious about its vision for development and regional security, it must cease and desist from divisive policies, spread of hate ideology and trampling upon the rights of neighbors,” Mr. Rouhani said.
The main sources of conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia are the ongoing wars in Yemen and Syria. Iran has provided weapons and training to Houthi rebels in Yemen; the Houthi insurgency took the Yemeni capital of Sana’a from the government in 2014, prompting an invasion by a Saudi-lead Arab coalition with US support. In Syria, Iran has backed Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, providing weapons, training, and divisions of proxy soldiers; Saudi Arabia backs the Syrian opposition. Iran has denied its involvement in both conflicts.
In January, Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, further damaging relations between the two countries; in April, Iran’s failure to send a diplomatic envoy to talks to freeze oil prices among OPEC countries after Saudi Arabia demanded its presence brought Iran-Saudi Arabia relations to a new low.
Saudi Arabia accused Iran of backing “terrorist militias” throughout the Middle East Region. The United Arab Emirates joined in the criticism, saying Iran had generated “tension and instability” in the region.
“Regional interference in Arab affairs, mainly perpetrated by Iran, the only country in the world with a constitution that explicitly calls for exporting its revolution, has aggravated conflicts in the region,” said Minister Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan said. He cited what he considers to be Iran’s expansionist reginal policies, violations of other nations’ sovereignty, and meddling in the affairs of its neighbors.
The Iranian presence at the General Assembly stood in stark contrast to previous years in several ways. Last year’s multilateral nuclear agreement between Iran and and what effectively reduced Iran’s importance in international negotiations by (at least temporarily) averting the threat of a nuclear Iranian state.
At the Assembly, Mr. Rouhani claimed that the deal was a boon for Iran and a model of how modern diplomacy should be conducted. The deal, and the end of sanctions, has been criticized within Iran for not providing the economic rebound many Iranians had been eagerly awaiting.
At the same time, Rouhani criticized the U.S. for not remaining faithful to its end of the nuclear deal. He cited a Supreme Court decision earlier this year that allows victims of Iranian terrorism to obtain compensation from Iran’s frozen financial assets.
Iran’s diplomatic convoy was significantly smaller than in previous years. Gone was the bevy of aides and top officials of previous years; according to Iran’s U.N. mission, Mr. Rouhani is only conducting bilateral meetings with other leaders, and he has granted only one televised interview, to NBC.
The main focus for Iran this year was to open the door to western governments and companies doing business with Tehran. Many Iranian-Americans have become hesitant to do business with Tehran after their detainment of four American nationals this year. Still, the Treasury Department confirmed Wednesday that it would allow Boeing and Airbus to pursue their plan to sell aircraft to Iran.