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Strange Bedfellows: Iran’s Ex-President Woos Saudi Crown Prince As Pen Pal Press "Enter" to skip to content

Strange Bedfellows: Iran’s Ex-President Woos Saudi Crown Prince as Pen Pal

A former president of Iran, known in the West for speeches that assert the Holocaust was invented and that Israel should be erased from the map, has written a chummy letter to his country’s most ardent Arab foe: the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

So far, at least, it appears to be a one-way exchange.

Nonetheless, the letter by the former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is striking in that Mr. Ahmadinejad wrote it at all. Other members of Iran’s hierarchy, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have described the 34-year-old crown prince, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, as adventurous, brutal and immature. And for his part, the crown prince has compared Ayatollah Khamenei to Hitler and called any engagement with Iran useless.

Flouting Iran’s stated policy toward Saudi Arabia, Mr. Ahmadinejad sent the letter, filled with flattery and praise, to the crown prince this month, inviting him to join hands to end the Yemen war, according to a copy that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s office provided to The New York Times.

Portraying the crown prince as a man of peace, the letter asserted that he would take steps to bring peace to the region and thus secure his legacy and please Islam’s prophet Mohammad.

The letter made no mention of the crown prince’s prosecution of the 5-year-old war in Yemen, which the United Nations calls the world’s biggest man-made humanitarian disaster.

“I know that your excellency is not happy about the current situation of innocent people dying and getting injured every day and infrastructure being damaged,” the letter said. “You are upset that regional resources belonging to the people are used for destruction instead of developing peace and prosperity. For these reasons you will welcome a just peace.”

It was signed, “your brother Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”

The Saudis have portrayed the Yemen conflict as essentially a battle with Iran, which supports the Houthi rebels who routed the Saudi-backed Yemen government from vast swaths of the country in 2015.

Saudi Arabia has not yet responded to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s letter, which was delivered to the Saudi interest office in Tehran, according to his office. The Saudi mission to the United Nations did not respond to an inquiry about whether the crown prince had received the letter.

The Yemen war reflects a far deeper rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which have been locked in a rivalry over which nation should take a leadership role in the global Islamic community.

In recent years tensions have escalated and diplomatic relations have broken down between the two countries.

“The Saudi government is despotic, dictatorial, corrupt, tyrannical and dependent,” Mr. Khamenei inveighed in a speech in 2019, expressing confidence that the ruling Al Saud dynasty would collapse in the near future at the hands of Islamic revolutionaries.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also wrote to the leader of the Houthis, Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi, and to the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres. The three letters represent a proposal by Mr. Ahmadinejad to mediate an end to Yemen’s war by creating a committee of international dignitaries.

Mr. Guterres’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, said he had no knowledge of the letter.

A spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, Alireza Miryusefi, sought to play down Mr. Ahmadinejad’s attempts at independent diplomacy.

“His views, as long as he remains a private citizen like many other Iranians, have no relation to the government and administration policies at this moment,” Mr. Miryusefi said.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is not without influence in Iran. He holds a seat on the Expediency Council, an appointed body that is supposed to supervise all branches of the government. He routinely travels around Iran giving campaign-style speeches and appears to have a sizable segment of followers.

Unlike many of his counterparts who faced jail and house arrest for criticizing the regime, he has so far been unconstrained.

Diplomats and analysts said it was highly unlikely that Mr. Ahmadinejad’s outreach to the Saudi crown prince would lead to any further engagement. Some saw it as a bid for relevance by Mr. Ahmadinejad as Iran faces many challenges, most notably from American sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.

Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, an independent Iran analyst based in New York, said the crown prince would “not take him seriously because all the people who are dealing with Iran, either regionally or internationally, they know who holds the rein and it’s Khamenei.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009 sparked national unrest and brutal crackdowns resulting in the killing of protesters and jailing of activists and journalists. Internationally he has generated outrage with provocative remarks about eliminating Israel and challenging the validity of the Holocaust. He also has asserted the debunked conspiracy theory that the United States staged the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

In recent years his relationship with Iran’s leadership deteriorated, and Mr. Ahmadinejad tried to separate himself from many of the Islamic Republic’s policies.

He has recently been an outspoken critic of a proposed 25-year economic and military partnership between Iran and China and said Iranians would never accept such a deal.

But the letter to the crown prince is perhaps Mr. Ahmadinejad’s boldest act of defiance. The letter, according to one of his advisers, also signals an opening to normalizing relations with the United States, despite Mr. Trump’s so-called maximum pressure policy against Iran.

“Mr. Ahmadinejad believes in good strategic relations with everyone, including Saudi Arabia and the U.S.,” said the adviser, Abdul Reza Davari. “He believes Iran’s problems will not go away until the animosity with the U.S. is resolved and the road to Washington goes through Riyadh and we must pave the way.”

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