Iran’s most fervent regional foes, Saudi Arabia and Israel, are both eagerly looking for signs of vulnerability and imminent change in their nemesis amid the past week of protests across the country. But they’ve taken vastly different approaches of how to engage with the upheaval.
Saudi officials have not officially made any statements yet about the wave of unrest, perhaps wary of being seen to meddle. Israel, in contrast, has taken a much bolder approach, diving in with an attempt to speak directly to Iranian protesters.
In a video released online Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised what he called the bravery of the Iranian protesters seeking freedom and lambasted Iran’s “cruel regime” for spending billions of dollars “spreading hate.”
“This regime tries desperately to sow hate between us,” he said. “But they won’t succeed.”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Iran’s enemies of stoking the protests that erupted a week ago over a rise in food prices and have spread to dozens of smaller cities and towns around Iran. Those he was apparently referring to —Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia — have long been opposed to Iran’s theocratic, cleric-led rule and are eager to see, even stoke, dramatic change. But the protests appear to have caught Iranians at home, nations in the region, the US and European countries off guard.
President Donald Trump has proclaimed his support for those in the streets, saying it is “time for change,” while the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said Washington wants to amplify the voices of the protesters.
But it’s not clear what influence foreign statements of support have in swaying anyone on the ground in Iran.
Saudi Arabia and Israel view Iran as a threat in the region and are suspicious of its nuclear program and concerned about its long-range missile program. The Saudis have tried with little success to stem Iran’s spreading influence and accuse it of backing Shiite rebels in Yemen, including supplying them with missiles fired at the kingdom. Israel has fought a series of wars against Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, both backed by Iran, and has carried out strikes against suspected Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah.
Officially, Saudi Arabia appears to be playing a wait-and-see game, careful not to issue statements of support for protesters that would give credence to Khameni’s claims. While the US may have appeal to some sectors of Iranian society, there’s little love among Iranians for Saudi Arabia or its dominant ultraconservative Sunni Muslim interpretation that vilifies Shiites. The kingdom may be looking to the Trump administration to take the lead, whether through increasing sanctions or action at the United Nations.
Saudi commentators in pro-government media offer the most telling look into state-sanctioned opinions about the protests. A column in the Al-Riyadh newspaper on Wednesday said Iranians “want the end of a regime… and a new regime that gives them their rights to live a dignified life, which they deserve.” A column in Okaz newspaper said Iran’s attempt to export its revolution abroad after 1979 is now coming back to haunt the Shiite clerics who rule the country.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a prominent Saudi media figure with close ties to the royal court, was more cautious, warning that the region cannot afford more chaos in a column published in English and Arabic on pro-Saudi media websites.
“For countries in the region, especially Arab countries, the ideal scenario would be that the regime does not collapse but that it changes its foreign policy and stops its aggressive approach,” he wrote.
Anti-US, Saudi and Israeli chants are a staple of Iranian protests. “Death to the US,” ″Death to Israel,” and “Death to the Al Saud” in reference to Saudi Arabia’s ruling family are all common chants at demonstrations.
Nevertheless, Israel’s Netanyahu has sought to portray his country and Iran’s people as natural allies, kept apart only by the ruling clerics in the Islamic Republic. He has made a series of videos the past year addressing the Iranian public.
“When this regime finally falls, and one day it will, Iranians and Israelis will be great friends once again. I wish the Iranian people success in their noble quest for freedom,” he said in the latest video. It was broadcast in English with Farsi subtitles and shared on Israeli-government social media channels directed at Iran.
Netanyahu’s spokesman, David Keyes, claimed that “many Iranians” watch the prime minister’s Farsi videos. He said the heavy usage figures on the prime minister’s various social media sites indicate a “much deeper trend.”
But Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born lecturer on Iranian affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center, an Israeli college, said he thought the impact is minimal.
“The majority of the people of Iran won’t care,” he said.