(CNSNews.com) – Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Monday accused Saudi Arabia of sponsoring Iran’s enemies, ranging from the exiled opposition movement to the perpetrators of a terrorist attack targeting parliament in Tehran last month.
The kingdom did so, he said at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, because it hates the fact that Iran enjoys what it does not – democracy.
Zarif characterized Shi’ite Iran as the victim of Sunni-sponsored terrorism. In fact, the U.S. government has long maintained that Iran is the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism.
In conversation with CFR president Richard Haass, Zarif attributed extremism in the region both to a history of foreign intervention and to frustration of people living in countries where they have no ability to vote for their leaders.
He made it clear he was referring in the latter instance to Arab Gulf states. They and other Sunni countries made common cause against Iran with President Trump during last May’s U.S.-Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh.
The Iranian minister said Iran has become the “enemy of choice,” because that appeals both to the Arab states and to the U.S.
Haass then asked Zarif about a comment last May by Mohammed bin Salman – then Saudi deputy crown prince, now crown prince – who said he would work to ensure that the fight for regional influence takes place “inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”
Asked what he made of that, Zarif said the comment amounted to a threat – “and a threat they have been trying to make real for some time, by helping terrorist organizations.”
“You saw them participating in person in the rallies in Paris of terrorist organizations, who are chanting outside this hall too. They were there. They support various terrorist organizations who are operating from Pakistan, and finally they were able to bring some of them to our parliament – the place they hate the most because that reflects something that we have that they don’t and that is a type of democracy.”
“They brought terrorism to Iran,” he said.
The Paris event Zarif referred to was a July 1 “Free Iran” gathering of the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), attended among others by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief and ambassador to the U.S., and by prominent U.S. figures from both sides of the aisle.
Iran contends that the NCRI and associated People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (MEK) is a terrorist organization. The NCRI/MEK was a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) until delisted in 2012.
Zarif’s comment about Pakistan-based terrorists likely refers to Jundallah, a Sunni group claiming to be fighting for the rights of Iran’s Sunni minority, also listed by the U.S. as an FTO.
And the allegation about the Saudis bringing terrorists to Iran’s parliament refers to a June 7 suicide bombing and shooting attack at the Iranian parliament and at Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s mausoleum. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) claimed responsibility for the attack which left at least 17 people dead.
The U.S. government has designated Iran as a state-sponsor of terrorism since 1984. During the summit in Riyadh last May, Trump told the gathered Arab and Islamic leaders that the regime in Tehran gives terrorists “safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment” and is “responsible for so much instability in the region.”
In his speech, Saudi King Salman said Iran’s leaders have “spearheaded” global terrorism since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
He accused the regime of pursuing “expansionist ambitions, criminal practices, interferences in the internal affairs of other countries, flagrant violations of the international law, and violations of the principles of good-neighborliness, coexistence and mutual respect.”
Iran rejects claims of support for terrorism, charging that it is the West and its Sunni Arab allies that are sponsoring terrorists like ISIS, while insisting that it supports only legitimate “resistance” groups – its label for terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Zarif’s claim that Iran’s foes do not enjoy democracy points to the fact that Saudi Arabia, ruled by a royal family, does not hold national elections. Until 2015 it did not even allow women to stand or to vote in municipal elections.
Iran does hold elections, of a sort. In the most recent presidential election, in May, a small body appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei disqualified more than 1,600 aspiring candidates, allowing just six to run. Two dropped out shortly before election day and President Hasan Rouhani won a second term. Khamenei wields overall power.
The Washington-based democracy watchdog Freedom House ranks both countries as “not free,” although its current annual evaluation of political rights and civil liberties gives Iran marginally better scores than Saudi Arabia.