Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, never speaks lightly. So his comments, on Thursday, on Iran’s nuclear deal and the crisis in Yemen have, understandably, raised a lot of eyebrows.
His statements on the nuclear deal, however, are more on expected lines.
Khamenei expressed concern whether the talks would yield a deal or not; that he supports the deal but it should not hamper Iran’s national interests and reiterated that all sanctions should be removed after the deal.
These should be seen as a message to the hardliners in Iran who have been opposing the deal all along and have even called it a ‘sell-out’.
Interpretations that it was a sign that he was against the nuclear deal could not have been more off the mark. Iran watchers will agree that its foreign policy is under the purview of the ayatollah and if the discussions on the nuclear deal have reached this stage, it is only because he has given his approval.
The religious leader has a tight grip on foreign policy, especially when it involves the ‘Great Satan’ — a term Tehran occasionally uses to describe Washington.
However, Khamenei’s comments on the crisis in Yemen should be taken note of. He has attacked both Saudi Arabia and Israel in his comments.
The crisis in Yemen has been brewing for some time now, and the big three — Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey — players in the region have used the situation to further their individual ambitions in West Asia.
Saudi Arabia has shown a never-before-seen agility in organising a coalition to ‘invade’ Yemen and contain the Houthis.
With Washington all set to leave West Asia Riyadh has sent a message to other Arab nations that it holds the sceptre in the region. This aggression is also an opportunity for the new leadership in Saudi Arabia to announce its arrival.
Khamenei’s comment about how the previous leadership in Riyadh showed composure and that the ‘inexperienced youngsters’ now in power have replaced ‘composure with barbarism’ should be seen in this light.
It is not clear if he was referring to the new Saudi king or Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the 30-year-old Saudi defence minister.
Iran’s reaction to the crisis in Yemen is mixed. Some argue that with a nuclear deal in its grasp Tehran would have preferred to deal with this crisis at a later, convenient time. Iran cannot, at least not at the moment, involve itself in Yemen the way Saudi Arabia has.
At the same time, it cannot remain a mute spectator as Riyadh attacks the Shia militant group. Iran sending two of its ships to the Yemen coast should be seen in this light.
Turkey, meanwhile, wants to position itself as the Sunni leader and is countering Saudi Arabia on this. It is important to note that Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Khamenei earlier this week and pressed for a political solution to the crisis in Yemen.
All these make the geopolitical chessboard of West Asia more complex than it is at present.
Khamenei’s statements do not upset efforts to seal a nuclear deal. They are pointed at Saudi Arabia and are part of the theatre in Yemen. It’ll be interesting to see how Iran reacts to developments in Yemen and what bearing it will have on the nuclear deal.