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Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war — on Twitter

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Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a proxy war for dominance of the Middle East and the broader Muslim world that is playing out on battlefields from Yemen to Syria.

This past week, though, the hottest front in the Saudi-Iran cold war wasn’t in some war-torn country in the Middle East. It was on Twitter and in the pages of one of the world’s leading newspapers.

Over the past several days, the two countries have engaged in an escalating series of tit-for-tat attacks in the press and on social media, accusing each other of being terrorists, murderers, purveyors of sectarian hatred, and not real Muslims.

On Tuesday, the New York Times published a scathing op-ed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in which Tehran’s top diplomat argues that “the key driver of violence” in the Middle East has been Wahhabism, the “extremist ideology promoted by Saudi Arabia.” Zarif writes, “[T]he worst bloodshed in the region is caused by Wahhabists fighting fellow Arabs and murdering fellow Sunnis.”

In response, the Twitter account of the Saudi Embassy in the US put out a series of tweets with infographics (and one six-second Vine video) documenting the various sins of the Iranian regime over the years:

What the most recent fight is over

At last year’s hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, more than 2,400 people were killed in a stampede, including more than 460 Iranians. Before most of the victims had even been identified, Iranian leaders issued statements blaming the Saudis for the accident.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stated, “The Saudi government is obliged to accept its heavy responsibility in this bitter incident and meet its obligations in compliance with the rule of righteousness and fairness; mismanagement and improper measures that were behind this tragedy should not be undermined,” and declared three days of mourning for the victims of the stampede.

The fight has bled into this year’s hajj. Last Monday, Khamenei issued a blistering statement on his website blaming the “heartless and murderous Saudis” for the stampede last year and suggesting they may even have caused the stampede on purpose:

Saudi rulers were at fault in both cases. This is what all those present, observers and technical analysts agree upon. Some experts maintain that the events were premeditated. The hesitation and failure to rescue the half-dead and injured people, whose enthusiastic souls and enthralled hearts were accompanying their praying tongues on Eid ul-Adha, is also obvious and incontrovertible. The heartless and murderous Saudis locked up the injured with the dead in containers- instead of providing medical treatment and helping them or at least quenching their thirst. They murdered them.

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader struck back, accusing the Iranians of being pagan fire worshipers, not Muslims. From Al Jazeera:

In comments to the Makkah newspaper published on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh was quoted as saying that Khamenei's remarks blaming Riyadh for last year's tragedy were "not surprising" because Iranians are descendants of Magi.

Magi refers to Zoroastrians and those who worship fire. Predating Christianity and Islam, Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion in Persia before the Arab conquest.

"We must understand they are not Muslims, for they are the descendants of Majuws, and their enmity towards Muslims, especially the Sunnis, is very old," Saudi's grand mufti said, according to the AP news agency.

Oh, and the Iranians also decided to bar their citizens from attending the hajj at all this year, claiming the Saudis failed to adequately guarantee the safety of Iranian pilgrims and accusing them of having “blocked the proud and faithful Iranian pilgrims’ path to the Beloved’s House [i.e., the Kaaba].” The Saudis, of course, blame the Iranians, arguing that they refused to sign the agreement both sides had reached over this year’s hajj:

“Saudi Arabia does not prevent anyone from performing the religious duty,” the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said at a news conference with his visiting British counterpart, Philip Hammond.

“Iran refused to sign the memorandum and was practically demanding the right to hold demonstrations and to have other advantages … that would create chaos during hajj, which is not acceptable,” he added.

Unable to let things end there, Zarif then published his New York Times op-ed on the second-to-last day of hajj, kicking off a whole new round of Twitter vitriol from the Saudis.

What the fight is really over

At base, the fight is over who is the true protector and defender of Muslims: Iran, with its Shia theocratic government, or Saudi Arabia, a monarchy backed by ultra-conservative Sunni clerics.

Both countries see themselves as the rightful leaders of the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia’s claim is pretty strong, as it is both the birthplace of Islam and the "custodian" of the two holiest places in Islam, the Prophet Mohammed's mosque in Medina and Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.

But when Iran had its Islamic Revolution in 1979, it offered a competing model of Islamic governance that threatened Saudi Arabia’s dominance in the Muslim world. As Cameron Glenn of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars explains in a January 2016 article:

In Iran, the theocracy strongly rejects monarchies. In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for overthrowing pro-American monarchies in the Gulf, including the Saudi kingdom. Saudi Arabia is home to the two holiest cities in Islam, and the formation of the Islamic Republic – an alternative model of Islamic governance, involving elections – challenged Saudi dominance in the Muslim world.

It wasn't just the existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran that represented a challenge to the Saudi regime; it was also Iran's desire to export its model of Islamic governance around the Muslim world. Despite being a Shia Muslim theocracy in world where the overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunni, Iran tried to portray itself as the only state with a true Islamic government.

To further this goal, Iran has long sought to portray the Saudis as incompetent custodians of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina in an effort to damage their credibility, and has even called for an international body to take over administration of these places. In the aftermath of the deadly stampede at last year’s hajj, Iran jumped at the chance to blame the Saudis, setting off this whole fight.

So while the fight is nominally over Iran’s anger at Saudi Arabia over the hajj stampede, it’s really just another excuse for the two countries to make each other look bad in the eyes of the world’s Muslims.

Why this recent online spat is absurd — and completely misses the point

Zarif’s op-ed and the Saudi response on Twitter basically amounts to a giant diplomatic “I know you are, but what am I?” Both sides are accusing the other of things that they themselves are guilty of. It would be funny if it weren’t so depressing.

For instance, Zarif’s op-ed claims that “the worst bloodshed in the region is caused by Wahhabists fighting fellow Arabs and murdering fellow Sunnis.” But while Wahhabi-influenced terrorist groups like ISIS and others are certainly to blame for thousands of deaths in the region, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria — which is backed by the Iranian government — is responsible for far, far more deaths.

Zarif also ends his op-ed with an appeal to the Saudis: “We invite Saudi rulers to put aside the rhetoric of blame and fear, and join hands with the rest of the community of nations to eliminate the scourge of terrorism and violence that threatens us all.”

While the sentiment is nice, it would perhaps be a tad more convincing if Zarif’s own supreme leader hadn’t just a week before literally called the Saudis murderers, or if the appeal didn’t come at the end of a long article in which Zarif himself blames Saudi Arabia for causing all of the violence in the Middle East.

And the Saudis are no angels, either.

For example, the Saudis accuse Iran of having “supported violent extremist groups all over the world,” yet they neglect to mention that, as the Saudi government itself has recently admitted, wealthy Saudi donors have long funneled money to Sunni extremist groups across the Middle East while the regime looked the other way.

They also assert that “Iran or its proxies have been blamed for terrorist attacks around the world,” conveniently forgetting that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi citizens, as was Osama bin Laden himself. Indeed, the US Congress just passed a controversial bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for its alleged financial support of al-Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia, with American military assistance, is also engaged in a brutal air war against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters inside Yemen that has sparked a massive humanitarian crisis. The United Nations recently estimated that at least 10,000 civilians have died, and acknowledged that was almost certainly lower than the actual toll. “We know the numbers are much higher but we can’t tell you by how much,” Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s top humanitarian official for Yemen, told reporters in late August.

The bottom line is that both Iran and Saudi Arabia support violent extremists and promote sectarian hatred that fuels conflict and chaos across the Middle East. And no number of snappy Twitter infographics or cleverly written op-eds is going to change that fact.