Updated: Aug 8, 2019
Iran's top diplomat has accused Saudi Arabia of killing more than 3,000 U.S. citizens, while at the same time still being allowed a path to obtaining nuclear weapons.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted a clip Wednesday of White House national security adviser John Bolton at the conservative Young America's Foundation, where he touted President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw last year from a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Bolton argued the agreement "failed utterly in preventing the mullahs from obtaining a nuclear weapon", using a term that refers to an educated holy man in Islam, but often used pejoratively among the right-wing in the West and argued that "any country that chants 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel' will not be allowed to have nuclear weapons."
Zarif accused the U.S. of hypocrisy as the Trump administration attempted to support Saudi Arabia in building its nuclear program, tweeting: "Kill 3,000+ Americans but remain a US client and you can have nuclear weapons, even get help in acquiring them." The statement is a likely reference to the fact that 15 of the 19 Al-Qaeda-affiliated hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, the vast majority of which were U.S. citizens, were Saudi citizens, and other alleged links between Riyadh and jihadi groups that target Washington's interests.
"But refuse to bow to #B_Team 's whims," he added, citing a phrase he has coined to describe Bolton and the heads of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, "you can't even possess peaceful nuclear energy. It apparently matters not that 'Iran is killing ISIS' while US' clients arm it."
Trump acknowledged in January that "Iran is killing ISIS," also known as the Islamic State militant group, and back in 2011 called Saudi Arabia "the world's biggest funder of terrorism."
The president argued that the conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom "funnels our petro dollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them." He was also a vocal supporter of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) that would allow those affected by 9/11 to sue Saudi Arabia.
The so-called "28 pages" of the 9/11 Commission report indicated potential, yet unconfirmed links between two of the hijackers and the Saudi government, but some counterterrorism officials have alleged a deeper, joint effort to cover up these ties.
Former President Barack Obama attempted to veto JASTA in 2016, a move Trump called "shameful" the same year he began instead describing revolutionary Shiite Muslim Iran as "the world's top state sponsor of terrorism" and ultimately won the presidency.
Also in 2016, Iran and Saudi Arabia officially cut ties following a spat in which Saudi Arabia executed a popular Shiite Muslim cleric and Iranian protesters burned down Riyadh's embassy in Tehran. The top rivals have been involved in a battle for influence in which both sides have backed opposing political and militant movements across the region, accusing the other of destabilizing the Middle East.
Washington has found itself alternatively siding with and against both sides of this equation over the decades. Though the U.S. and Iran were recently major contributors to the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the Trump administration has also claimed that Iran was behind deaths of "at least 608 American troops" between the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that stirred both Sunni and Shiite Muslim militant activity and the 2011 withdrawal. Last month, the president himself claimed Iran's production of makeshift bombs "killed 2,000 Americans."
While Iranian officials like Zarif have repeatedly rejected these claims, Trump has cited Iran's alleged links to militant groups as one of the major reasons he left the nuclear deal forged by his predecessor alongside Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, as well as China, the European Union, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom. These parties still support the deal, but Europe especially has struggled to keep it alive under threat of mounting U.S. sanctions.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, joined Israel and the UAE as being among the few powers to oppose the nuclear deal in 2015 and to welcome Trump's exit last year. While Iran has insisted it did not seek nuclear weapons, these powers remained skeptical and, while Israel was believed to already possess such weapons of mass destruction, Saudi officials have said they too would build such a bomb if Iran sought it too.
Despite being the top foreign buyer of U.S. weapons, accusations of Riyadh's wrongdoing throughout the ongoing the war against a Zaidi Shiite Muslim group known as the Houthis or Ansar Allah in Yemen and in the killing last year of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey have made the kingdom an unpopular ally at home. While Trump has vetoed congressional attempts to end military assistance to Saudi Arabia, he faces a new battle over his administration's transfer of nuclear technology.
About a week after Republican staff of the House Oversight Committee cleared the Trump administration of breaking federal laws in its quiet, nuclear dealings with Saudi Arabia, House Oversight Committee Democrats issued a new report Tuesday identifying the administration's "willingness to let private parties with close ties to the President wield outsized influence over U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia."
These reports come at a time of particularly heightened tensions in the Middle East as the U.S. sent troops to Saudi Arabia for the first time in 16 years and Iran warned against a heightened presence of foreign military forces in the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. has so far struggled to attain significant backing for a joint maritime mission in the strategic region, while Iran has continued discussions with the remaining nuclear deal parties, as well as regional powers, such as Saudi neighbors Oman, Iraq and even the United Arab Emirates.
"If Saudi Arabia is ready for dialogue, we are always ready for dialogue with our neighbors," Zarif said Wednesday, according to the semi-official Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting news outlet. "We have never closed the door to dialogue with our neighbors and we will never close the door to dialogue with our neighbors."