Saudis stay silent on Rafsanjani's death

This week, global news media outlets have been prolific with announcements of the death of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Sunday, January 8.

Many of these reports focused on the legacy of Rafsanjani as an Iranian politician who proposed moderate solutions to complex political problems, and promoted greater ties with the country’s GCC neighbors.

With that in mind, a Reuters piece Monday showed most GCC Gulf neighbors sending routine condolence calls to the Iranian government, but noted that although heads of state in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the Emirates contacted the Iranian republic, Iran's largest foe in the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia, was notably silent.

Experts cite the proxy war in Yemen and other hostilities between the two nations, including the legacy of the extremely divisive and bloody conflict in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. These conflicts, as well as the ongoing tragic civil war in Syria, add to political turmoil in the region.

For more insight on how this current news reflects the relationship between the two major Middle Eastern powers, Gulf News Journal spoke with Dr. Hossein Varamini January 10. Varamini is a professor of finance and international business director of the International Business Program at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

“I think the lack of a Saudi condolence to the Iranian government was not surprising,” Varamini said. “Both regional powers have been competing on several fronts for the past few decades. The recent disagreements between the two nations about the issues in Syria, Yemen and Iraq have heightened their war of words.”

Varamini spoke about Rafsanjani’s legacy.

“Rafsanjani has been credited as one of the main founders of the current regime in Iran and has been an extremely influential figure in Iranian politics in the past 38 years,” Varamini said, mentioning Rafsanjani’s third-term loss to Ahmadinejad in 2005 and the closeness of that election. “(Rafsanjani) was supporting closer ties with the West, while trying to find a balance to work with the neighboring Arab countries. His pragmatic views about domestic economic issues, privatization of state-owned industries and his desire to avoid conflicts with the West were not very popular among the conservatives in the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Varamini said it's hard to speculate about how gestures like a condolence call affect international politics.

“Clearly, the political, historical, cultural and religious issues in the MENA region are among the most complex ones to understand and to predict,” Varamini said. “In addition to internal forces shaping their relationships, these countries have always been the center of attention and interference by the superpowers. Consequently, the region has suffered from wars, violence, political uncertainty and surprises.”

Varamini said many people and governments are curious about the result of the upcoming presidential election in Iran this summer, looking to find out whether President Hassan Rouhani, now a standard bearer for more moderate views, will be re-elected.

“Iran has a very complex set of relationships with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, other Gulf States, Syria and Israel,” Varamini said. “If we add the result of the recent U.S. election to this mix, it becomes very difficult to predict the future of the Middle East in the next few years.”