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Iran's Silence On Khashoggi Killing Loosens, But Tehran Keeping Its Cards Close To Its Vest

Golnaz Esfandiari October 23, 2018

Tehran spent weeks watching quietly as the international crisis unfolded over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, reportedly in brutal fashion in the Istanbul consulate of regional foe Saudi Arabia.

Iranian officials largely refrained from commenting publicly on the death and purported dismemberment at the hands of Saudi agents of Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and conspicuous critic of the Saudi government.

Reaction was even muted among hard-line elements that have been accused in the past of provoking tensions between Shi'a-dominated Iran and the mostly Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But that hush was finally broken on October 22 in a speech by the powerful head of Iran's hard-line Judiciary, Sadegh Amoli Larijani, who appears to have become the first senior Iranian to publicly condemn Saudi officials' suspected role in the killing.

In his remarks, 20 days after Khashoggi was last seen alive entering the Saudi Consulate, Larijani accused Saudi Arabia of "first set[ting] out to cover up this crime with the help of the West and recently, when it was forced to acknowledge it to whitewash its corrupt system, [claiming] that some rogue elements committed this crime."

The brazenness of the Khashoggi incident has focused international attention on Saudi Arabia's perceived human rights abuses, including the jailing and harassment of dissidents, and on Riyadh's prosecution of a war in Yemen that has pushed that country to the brink of a massive humanitarian disaster.

It has also shaken relations between Riyadh and even its closest allies and prompted boycotts and other calls to punish the Saudis, making the silence out of Tehran particularly puzzling.

But analysts cite a number of reasons why it might be in the Iranian leadership's interest to leave the spotlight firmly on its neighbor across the Persian Gulf.

"At a time when Saudi Arabia already faces increased regional and international pressure, even from [U.S. President Donald] Trump, [Iran] doesn't see any reason to interfere in this issue," Hossein Alizadeh, a former Iranian diplomat and a researcher at the Peace Research Institute of the University of Tampare, in Finland, told RFE/RL.

"The Islamic republic [of Iran] and Saudi Arabia are already at the peak of tensions in their [mutual] relations, and Tehran probably feels that if it focuses on this case, when and if Saudi Arabia manages to weather the very serious situation it faces, it could retaliate."

Alizadeh compared the relative restraint to "quick and strong" Iranian condemnation after the execution by Saudi authorities of leading Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in late 2015 or early 2016, after more than three years in Saudi custody.

If, on the other hand, mounting evidence ends up implicating the crown prince or other senior Saudi officials, the stakes could rise for both sides, and even outside the region.

Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group (ICG), speculated that Tehran might sense an opportunity in the Khashoggi affair.

"If [the killing] brings down Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, it could open the door for reconciliation with Riyadh; if it doesn't, then Iran's restraint could potentially help deescalate tensions with Saudi Arabia," Vaez said. "But overall, Iran seems to be happy getting out of the way of an adversary that is shooting itself in the foot."

Tehran-based analyst Ahmad Fateminejad suggested to the semiofficial news agency ISNA recently that Iran had already benefited from the Saudi crisis by doing and saying nothing.

"Just the fact that international public opinion has in the past 20 days focused on the [Khashoggi case] is positive [for Tehran], as it decreases the psychological [pressure] on Iran," Fateminejad was quoted as saying.

Fateminejad added that Iran's silence could be interpreted by Saudi Arabia as a "friendly" gesture "at a time when the country is under attack by everyone."

Iran-based foreign policy analyst Sadeq Maleki, who has contributed to The Iran Project and Mehr News Agency, cautioned Tehran against ratcheting up tensions and urged Iranian officials to use the crisis to rebuild ties with Saudi Arabia.

"Khashoggi's [case] will sooner or later leave political and media circles," Maleki wrote, adding that the rocky relationship between Tehran and Riyadh will be "the everlasting issue" on the agenda of the region and the world.

"Tehran and Riyadh don't have any other option than peace with each other by acknowledging and respecting mutual interests," Maleki wrote in a piece for irdiplomacy.ir. "They will have to give in sooner or later. Let's not leave it until it's too late."

An Iranian political scientist and former reformist lawmaker, Elahe Koulaee, had another suggestion for Tehran. Iranian officials could leverage the fallout against Riyadh from the Khashoggi case by scaling down tensions with the United States -- a traditional Saudi ally -- in an effort to alter influence in the region, she said.

"By focusing on 'scientific and cultural' diplomacy, Iran should rebuild relations with the United States and change the balance of power in the region to its advantage," she said on Twitter, without elaborating.

But others have suggested a further reason for Iran's muted response to the Khashoggi case: Tehran's own human rights record regarding dissidents and journalists.

"If Iran entered the stage, the West's campaign would be guided from Riyadh toward Tehran," former nuclear negotiator Hossein Musavian told Khabaronline.ir, praising Iran's public stance as "mature."

"The Western media would revive all the cases they have in past decades attributed to Iran."

Musavian appeared to be referring to killings of Iranian dissidents abroad during the 1980s that have been widely blamed on Iranian intelligence operatives.

A series of extrajudicial killings of Iranian dissidents and intellectuals in the late 1990s was blamed on "rogue intelligence agents" amid reports that the operations had been authorized by senior officials.

A tweet by former Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdolahian in which he condemned Khashoggi's murder and expressed condolences to Khashoggi's family went on to suggest that those responsible for his death were a "new terrorist and #neowahabbist," a reference to an Islamist movement with long ties to the House of Saud.

His comment prompted dozens of replies from Iranians and others who tweeted at Abdolahian the names and pictures of victims of Iran's state repression and executions. They included Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi, who died in 2003 from injuries sustained during interrogations following her arrest outside of Tehran's Evin prison.

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-s-silence- loosens-on-khashoggi-killing-but-tehran-keeps-its-cards- close-to-its-vest/29559744.html

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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