During two meetings in New York, President Hassan Rouhani covered a range of issues from working with the United States to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, tensions with Saudi Arabia, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and more. On September 25 he met with journalists and on September 27 he met with American think tanks, academics and NGOs. The following are excerpted remarks on Saudi Arabia and Yemen as translated simultaneously by the official Iranian interpreter.
Meeting with journalists
About Iran and Saudi Arabia, unfortunately, today, the relationship between the two countries is not a good one despite the fact that the people of Saudi Arabia, as tourists, as pilgrims, do come to Iran. And our people… go to Saudi Arabia, but principally, of course, for pilgrimage. …[A]s a matter of fact, yesterday, a great many people while performing religious ceremonies related to the hajj pilgrimage… hundreds of people lost their lives. And many, many Iranians lost their lives. The precise number is not as of yet clear…
Now, why did this tragedy happen? Even about two weeks ago, there was another tragedy in the Holy Mosque, the Masjid al Haram in Mecca —the crane incident that caused the death of a number of people, including some Iranians. These incidents, they just do not conform to the normal parameters of such religious ceremonies and pilgrimages. Some people do believe that because Saudi Arabia has transferred the bulk of its various military forces to the border with Yemen and for operations in Yemen. And it’s running short on man power vis-à-vis its security forces, so those who are often put to use are inexperienced. Some may say or may think that there are other reasons. We’re not yet at a point where we can… reach a conclusion as to how the tragedy occurred yesterday... But at the very least, when it concerns public opinion… it may show an ineptitude by the government of Saudi Arabia… [S]ome may think that [the Saudis] are not sufficiently responsible to be the hosts of these many millions… of hajj pilgrims. This is nothing new…
Of course, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has worsened because of Yemen. This is absolutely correct. …[T]hey should not have had the right to interfere in Yemen’s internal problems… We can have diplomatic contacts between the two countries. But in my opinion, if we can resolve our issues with Saudi Arabia, it would not only benefit both countries, it would also benefit the entire region.
Meeting with think tanks, academics and NGOs
More than about 20 years ago when I was speaking with a high ranking Saudi Arabian official. I told him, I reminded him that during the unprovoked war of Iraq against Iran, you have done A, B, C and D. And I gave him multiple examples. And he said these are not the only things that we did in support of Iraq against you. He added a few more things that they have done, which I was unaware of. And he told us, 70 kilometers away from the port in Jeddah, we built a base of operations from which to exclusively ship out weapons and supplies to Baghdad for their war efforts…And they said that Iran is dangerous and Saddam is our refuge, the umbrella under which we can seek refuge from Iran. So, in practice, who was the danger? Who was the threat here? Us? Or Saddam Hussein himself?
In a Farsi proverb we say that some raise snakes in their own sleeve and then at the end of the life cycle, the snake ends up poisoning that same person... The same scenario applies to Saddam Hussein, who attacked Kuwait, and if he had been given the chance, he would have attacked Saudi Arabia, and he would have attacked Qatar and Yemen. This is not something that I’m guessing, this is a letter that Saddam Hussein had openly written to us and in which he had announced this plan…
We never attacked any country, even when the Soviet Union fell apart and a number of small countries were established in the northern part of our borders--countries some of which were previously a part of Iran’s territory, and it would have been perhaps explainable if we would have tried to overtake those countries and bring them back to Iran again. We never even thought about doing anything like that. We were one of the first countries to recognize their legitimacy. I’m speaking of our northern neighbors, so you must ask those who express their fears and preoccupations and concerns about why they exist. Of course, there was a vast campaign of Iranophobia conducted by many, still being carried out by many. It has become a cottage industry.”
We also do not run, by the way, any other countries or any other capitals. If what was meant by that, that we run or manage the government of Iraq, that is laughable and of course far, far from the truth. If they meant that we run Damascus or manage Damascus, that is not what we do. It has its own government, and at the time that it requests our aid and assistance against terrorism, then we will render that aid. Lebanon, the same thing applies to Lebanon. It has its own government. Yemen, the same thing. We don’t control any of those.
Our relationships vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, why are they not good? I am very saddened as well. I am sorry that it is not good. During the very first days following my election to the president’s office, the very first press interview, media interview, I did openly announce that we wish to have a very good relationships with Saudi Arabia. In interpreted that in-depth and the very next day, the Saudi Arabian king sent me a letter of gratitude because of the content of that interview. And I responded to that letter.
We were moving towards better relations with Saudi Arabia. I did try my best by choosing someone with the greatest of qualifications who was the previous ambassador from Iran to Saudi Arabia for many many years and had close-knit relationships with the officials in Saudi Arabia. I chose that person and sent him to Riyadh again as an Iranian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
But after the death of the late king and the new guard taking power, conditions really changed tangibly inside Saudi Arabia…I don’t want to get into a discussion of what aims Saudi Arabia pursues. But when Saudi Arabia started the aerial bombardments and striking, raining missiles upon Yemen, it complicated our equation. Perhaps Saudi Arabia says that “Yemen is our neighbor. That Iranian influence in Yemen was unacceptable, too much, that’s why we felt threatened.” But the truth is that we didn’t do anything special in Yemen…
For a long time, we never thought, quite frankly, that the Houthis would be able to take over Sanaa. They always had influence. But from day one, we always suggested to the Houthis to sit down and talk and carry out a dialogue and negotiate with their political rivals and form a coalition and unity government. The Houthis were never seeking to control the entirety of the Yemeni government, and that is not what they’re seeking today either.
Yemen is a historical country, is a vast country. The Houthis compose part -- a legitimate part – of that country. There are other groups as well. Of course, the Houthis are Zaydis. Here in the media referred to as Yazidis but they’re Zaydis. There are Shiites, Sunnis, and so on in Yemen. You do know that al-Qaeda is very active. Other terrorist groups are very active.
But since the entrance of Saudi Arabia on the Yemeni scene, the start of the aerial bombardments and the attacks, of course that widened the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Given the proper conditions, we can indeed resolve our problems with Saudi Arabia. I do not myself believe that the distance created between Iran and Saudi Arabia benefits either side, or anyone in the region or anyone in the world.
It has come to be known [erroneously] throughout the world that the Saudi government carries the mantle for the Sunnis of the world, while Iran is the protector of the Shiites of the world--therefore there are two poles that were naturally destined to collide. That is not a fact. Sunnis and Shiites must come closer together, because all faiths and religions must come closer together. All tribes and ethnic backgrounds must come closer together. I do not believe that the differences and the gaps between faiths, religions, tribes, or ethnic backgrounds benefit, or ever have benefitted, anyone.
If we can change the dynamics and establish good relations between us and Saudi Arabia it will certainly benefit everyone involved. These days, though, it is important to keep in mind that our conditions have become much tougher, because a number of our pilgrims to Hajj were killed in Mina. Thus far 170 Iranian pilgrims have been killed. Dear lives, precious lives, lost.
This lack of proper management, responsible management, of the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia is extremely sad. We do not know all of the underlying causes, the root causes, so we do not want to pass judgement. But the Saudi Arabian government has made itself quite occupied and concerned elsewhere – Syria, Yemen, the region as whole – and it seems to have forgotten Mecca itself, how to manage it. It seems to have forgotten Mina. It seems to have forgotten the millions of pilgrims that every year go to their country.
Apparently, we Muslims were supposed to have at least a single holy month out of the year in which no fighting would take place. It has taken place. The conditions in Yemen continue. The aerial bombardments continue throughout Ramadan, which is something that is sacrosanct for all of us Muslims. So the conditions have become tougher. But this is absolutely correct that differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia must, at a point in time, be resolved. We must not think about rivalries, competitions which will not end up benefitting anyone.
About Yemen: Yemen, we see the resolution of its problem only to be realized through a Yemeni-to-Yemeni dialogue and negotiation. We say that the Houthis and the opposing groups must sit down around the same table, reach a mutually beneficial conclusion. And all of us are ready to do anything and everything at our disposal to bring this about quicker…
A humanitarian tragedy is taking place on a daily basis in Yemen. A crisis is ever deepening on a daily basis as well in Yemen. They’re living under very tough conditions every day. And it would be everyone’s humanitarian duty to help Yemen through international organizations – the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, or any other organization – that can safely and swiftly render that aid. But ultimately we don’t see the resolution of the Yemeni problem as through war. And, mind you, we do not see a complete government control by the Houthis in Yemen as the best solution either. Everyone must have an inclusive role in managing the affairs of the country and everyone must be equally represented, ultimately only to be obtained through Yemeni to Yemeni dialogue and negotiation.
Photo credit: Robin Wright