Saudi Arabia May be Supporting Iranian Regime Change

In an article by Joseph Hammond, August 9, in The National Interest, he says that “Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal is used to being the point man in a difficult situation. In 1979, a group of radical extremists occupied the holy mosque in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site.

Turki al-Faisal, then Saudi Arabia’s chief spy, was one of the first to arrive in the city. He was nearly shot when a bullet slammed into a door he was opening. In the 1980s, Turki al-Faisal led Saudi efforts in support of the Afghan mujahedeen in their war against the Soviet occupiers. As ambassador to the United States from 2005–07, Turki al-Faisal was the Saudi point man in Washington during a difficult period in American-Saudi relations. During this tenure he visited thirty-seven states advocating for a robust Saudi-American relationship.”

It appears that Turki al-Faisal may be Riyadh’s point man once again, as the former head of Saudi intelligence called for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic at a meeting of the Iranian opposition in Paris, in July.  His remarks, along with recent diplomatic moves, signal a new policy toward Iran from Saudi Arabia. No member of the royal family has embraced the Iranian opposition so publicly, nor called for regime change in Tehran.

According to Hammond, “A Sunni Arab kingdom and a Shia Iranian national liberation organization make unusual alliance partners. Though Saudi Arabia has supported some Shia groups in the Iraq, the evolving MEK-Saudi alliance prove again that realpolitik and geopolitical concerns trump sectarian differences across the Middle East. An estimated audience of one hundred thousand made the trek to a massive hallway (often used for the Paris Air show) to hear him and other speakers at an event. “

Turki al-Faisal condemned Iran’s meddling in the Middle East, blaming Iran for much of the region’s troubles. He said that Iran supports terrorist groups, across the world, from religious extremists in the Sudan, to the Japanese Red Army.

“The large crowd interjected during his speech to chant ‘The people demand the removal of the regime’ a slogan once used by protesters during the Arab Spring on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In the most dramatic and unscripted moment of the speech, Faisal acknowledged the crowd and repeated their wish to have the Iranian regime removed from power. His comments about Iran’s illustrious history during his thirty-minute speech left open the possibility that under a new government Iranian-Saudi relations could resume the more amicable relations of the pre-1979 era.” according to Hammond, who added, “The conference’s organizers could not have been more pleased. The People’s Mujhadeen of Iran or Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) was founded in 1965 to oppose the Shah with an ideology that freely mixed socialism, Shia Islam and violence against the Shah’s government and its allies. The group was brushed aside by forces loyal to Grand Ayatollah Khomeini following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Following this setback the MEK spent the better part of two decades waging a low-level insurgency against the Iranian government from abroad. By 1988 many of the group’s members had been forced to leave France for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. That same year Saddam Hussein supported an abortive MEK invasion of Iran that proved to be the last battle of the Iran–Iraq War. In 1997, the Clinton Administration labelled the MEK a terrorist organization in what was seen as a sop to Iran. In responsethe MEK renounced violence in 2001. In 2003, the group gave up its remaining arms during the U.S-led invasion of Iraq. During which a few thousand MEK supporters were eventually relocated by the United States to the awkwardly named Camp Liberty where they remain, hoping to be granted asylum elsewhere. In 2012 the United States reversed MEK’s status as a terrorist organization.” 

To what extent the MEK maintains intelligence operatives within Iran is not clear.  What is clear is that as the region’s politics continue to change, Saudi Arabia is now making new friends.