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Gulf Boating Incident Highlights Strained Iran, Saudi Relations

By Reza Ghorbani June 20, 2017

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A soldier of the Iranian naval forces near a warship. / Getty Images

An Iranian senior official has pushed back on reports coming out of Saudi Arabia that the Gulf kingdom had detained three Iranian servicemen aboard an explosives-laden boat headed towards a Saudi oil platform in the Gulf, emphasizing that they were fishermen.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia’s Arab News website cited the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information as saying that “the Saudi Royal Navy arrested three members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards [IRGC] who were on board a boat loaded with explosives heading toward an oil platform in the field of Marjan in the Arabian Gulf.” In another statement, the Saudi Press Agency reported that Saudi authorities are currently questioning the Iranian detainees.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Interior Ministry’s Director General for Border Affairs, Majid Aqa-Babaei, told the Young Journalists Club, which is affiliated with Iran's state broadcaster and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), that,

“Saudi Arabia’s claim about the arrest of Iranian military forces is not true.”

In an interview with the Iranian Labour News Agency on Monday, Aqa-Babaei said that the three Iranian fishermen from the southern Iranian city of Bushehr “did not carry any military equipment” and had been taken into custody by the Saudi Arabian coastguard.

The official linked the Saudi claim to another incident in the Gulf that took place Friday evening, when Saudi coastguard officers opened fire on Iranian fishing boats, killing one fisherman.  According to Aqa-Babaei, the incident happened after two Iranian boats fishing in the Gulf strayed from their course due to big sea waves.

Two long-time regional rivals – Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shia-ruled Iran – not only compete for the leadership of Islam, but also regional political leadership in the Middle East. 

Strained bilateral relations have been quickly deteriorating since last month, when Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman ratcheted up emotions when he stated, “We will not wait until the battle comes to Saudi Arabia but we will work to have the battle in Iran, rather than in Saudi Arabia.” Early this month Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir threatened Iran for “its interference in the region.”

For its part, Iran has pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia after twin attacks in Tehran carried out by the Islamic State terrorist group on June 7. The IRGC and several high-ranking Iranian officials accuse Saudi Arabia of supporting the Islamic State, whose attacks on Iran’s parliament and a mausoleum dedicated to the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, left 17 people dead and over 40 wounded.

“Riyadh is the prime suspect in the Tehran terrorist incidents,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a special adviser on international affairs to the Iranian Parliament speaker, wrote on his Twitter account on June 14.

On June 18, Iran launched six medium-range ground-to-ground ballistic missiles into the Syrian town of Dayr al-Zawr, targeting positions of Islamic State. The operation was described as retaliation for the terror attacks in Tehran.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia hit a low in September 2015 when 4,700 people were killed, including 465 Iranian nationals, during the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Iranian authorities blamed Saudi officials of incompetence.

Just four months later relations took another hit when Riyadh severed diplomatic relations with Tehran, after Saudi Arabia hanged 47 Shia Muslims, including prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, after being convicted of terrorism. Following al-Nimr’s execution, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, as Iranian media depicted Nimr as a peaceful dissident.

Riyadh accuses Tehran of interfering in the domestic affairs of Arab countries, including financing the Shiite rebel Houthis in Yemen, and the Shiite opposition in Sunni-ruled Bahrain. Meanwhile, Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of killing civilians in Yemen through air strikes, and financing terror groups like Islamic State.