Saudi Prince’s Elevation Triggers Alarm in Tehran

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Jun 21, 2017
Saudi Prince’s Elevation Triggers Alarm in Tehran

Saudi King Salman’s appointment of his son Mohammed bin Salman to be first in line to the throne has sent shockwaves in Tehran. While the Iranian government has not officially reacted to the announcement yet, the country’s state media warn that the 31-year-old prince will pursue a more aggressive policy vis-à-vis Iran – pointing out that Prince Mohammed has made explicit threats against the Islamic Republic, has cultivated close ties with the Trump administration, and has not shied away from confronting Iran’s proxies in Yemen, Syria and the broader region. These outlets predict that tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran will further increase and express the worry that Riyadh will work more closely with Washington and regional states to counter the Islamic Republic and its allies.

“Political earthquake in Riyadh”

On Wednesday, King Salman designated his son as his successor, giving the ambitious prince more powers as the kingdom seeks to diversify its economy and faces security challenges from its regional rival Iran. Mohammed bin Salman, who is also the kingdom’s defense minister, replaced Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as the crown prince. Earlier today, President Donald Trump called the kingdom’s new crown prince and the two leaders pledged to work together to tackle issues of mutual concern.

The promotion of Prince Mohammed has raised alarm in Tehran. The most alarmist reports and opinion pieces were published in outlets affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.). Tasnim News Agency, for example, called the succession announcement in Riyadh a “soft coup” and claimed it was approved by Washington, adding that the Trump administration is pleased with Prince Mohammed’s anti-Iran stance. Fars News Agency, also an I.R.G.C. mouthpiece, called it a “political earthquake in Riyadh.” Another Fars article said President Donald Trump and Prince Mohammed have developed a close rapport – citing the latest arms deal between Riyadh and Washington and the creation of a U.S.-backed “Arab NATO” to counter Iran’s regional ambitions. “Trump’s footprint is apparent in these decisions,” it alleged.

Implications for Iran

Iranian media also examined potential ramifications of the leadership change in Riyadh to Iran’s internal security and geopolitical interests in the Middle East.

Tabnak News Agency, which is affiliated with former I.R.G.C. chief commander Mohsen Rezaei, wrote that the “housecleaning at the top of Saudi Arabia’s power structure” would have significant repercussions for Iran – opining that Prince Mohammed will soon become king because his father’s health is deteriorating. “Of course, the influence of Muhammad Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies was already evident; but his official designation as the crown prince to succeed his father in fact means legitimizing everything that has happened and will most likely continue. This development has many implications for Iran,” it argued.

The paper cautioned that the soon-to-be king, unlike previous Saudi rulers, does not hesitate to engage in regional conflicts. It claimed Prince Mohammed started the war in Yemen without prior consultation with other Saudi authorities or the United States. It also alleged that Prince Mohammed supported Syrian militant groups to fight pro-regime forces in Syria. “This means that Saudi Arabia’s hostile policy against Iran will perhaps continue with more vigor and for a long time in the future. Wars and clashes in the Middle Eastern region will probably intensify and there will be no political and peaceful solution to the crisis in Yemen and Syria for a long time,” it emphasized. “His designation as the crown prince is an important signal to Iran.”

An article in state-run Islamic Republic News Agency called on the government to remain vigilant and take “intelligent” measures to potential actions by Saudi Arabia and the United States. 

The conservative Mashregh newspaper also warned that Prince Mohammed will now have more “freedom of action” in pursuing his regional policies – particularly relating to hostile actions against Iran, support for Sunni militant groups in the region, Saudi role in the Yemeni war and “normalization of relations with the Zionist regime.” It cautioned that Prince Mohammed’s aspirations go beyond just domestic affairs and the new crown prince will “confront Iran at any cost to become the king of the Arab world.”

Heightening tension

Prince Mohammed’s designation as the kingdom’s crown prince comes at a time when relations between Riyadh and Tehran are arguably at their nadir in three decades. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies – as well as the United States and Israel – are increasingly troubled by Iran’s support for Shiite militant groups from Afghanistan to Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and beyond. The I.R.G.C.’s support to Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, the kingdom’s backyard, has particularly upset Saudi leaders.

Last month, Prince Mohammed said in an interview that Riyadh would not wait for Iran to take over Yemen and threaten Saudi security and would instead “work so that the battle is for them inside Iran.” He also ruled out the prospect of seeking dialogue with Tehran to resolve regional issues, arguing that the regime in Iran aimed to take over the Muslim world.

His remarks triggered angry reactions and threats in Tehran. The Iranian defense minister said that his country would hit back and destroy all of Saudi Arabia, except the Muslim holy sites, if Riyadh showed any aggression toward the Islamic Republic. “I advise them against committing any ignorant move. But if they commit such a mistake, it is unlikely that anywhere in Saudi Arabia would remain intact with the exception of Mecca and Medina,” Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan warned in an exclusive interview with the Lebanese Al-Manar TV channel.

Moreover, Iranian leaders blamed Saudi Arabia and the United States for the terrorist attacks in Tehran earlier this month and vowed revenge, although the Islamic State claimed credit for the twin assaults. In the latest sign of escalating tension, Saudi Arabia said on Monday that its naval forces had captured three I.R.G.C. members who were navigating a boat laden with explosives toward the Saudi-owned Marjan oilfield. Iranian officials confirmed the incident had happened but claimed those detained were “simple fishermen” not I.R.G.C. personnel.


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