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Iran is a paper tiger with steel claws represented by its proxy militias from Hezbollah to the Houthis, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki Al Faisal said on Tuesday.
The kingdom’s former ambassador to Washington and London and previous head of intelligence said in an interview with broadcaster CNBC that Tehran’s network of local armed groups across the region had the sole purpose of furthering their influence at the expense of impoverishing the nation.
“The leadership in Iran has developed into a paper tiger with steel claws, the steel claws are the militias that they have established throughout the Middle East,” he said.
The main aim of these groups, he added, “is to further Iran's influence and its domination over the areas in the Middle East.”
Prince Turki is currently chairman of King Faisal Foundation's Centre for Research and Islamic Studies. He is due to speak at the 2019 Milken Institute Mena Summit in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
However, the massive financial commitment these groups require, the long-serving senior diplomat said, was taking its toll at home.
“There are bread lines. There are demonstrations, spontaneous demonstrations in all of the cities in Iran. We've seen huge protests that have taken place with people chanting why are we helping Syria why are we helping Lebanon,” he told CNBC's Hadley Gamble.
Prince Turki said he believed it was far too early to say that the regime would collapse under the weight of US-led international sanctions on Tehran but that it was important to listen to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when he says the country is facing its worst economic situation in 40 years.
“The Iranian people are the first victims of this leadership,” he said. “So I hope that with Mr Trump's sanctions against Iran we're going to see a change of the of the conduct of the leadership of Iran.”
On other issues, Prince Turki said that while he warned against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, he is also against Washington withdrawing troops today as Iran’s “malevolent forces” would seek to take advantage.
He said he sees international criticism of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen as “misinformed and misguided”.
He pointed out that Riyadh was there to support the internationally recognised government of Yemen who had requested help repelling the Houthi takeover. He pointed to UN resolutions that supported the coalition mission to reinstate the government of Yemen in Sanaa as well as the fact that countries from around the world are involved in the coalition, not just Middle Eastern states.
“The war in Yemen was started by the Houthis not by Saudi Arabia and the humanitarian aspects of that war are influenced by what the Houthis are doing,” he said.
“They are denying access for example to the grain silos in Hodeidah port that could be used to help the starving people of Yemen. And the kingdom is providing the largest amount of humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen.”
Responding to a question from CNBC’s Hadley Gamble on whether foreign firms were reluctant to invest in the kingdom given the string of negative stories coming from the country in recent years, Prince Turki said that he believed such investors were mistaken and that data did not support their view.
Following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, last year numerous high profile figures pulled out of the kingdom’s PIF summit in Riyadh, dubbed the Davos in the Desert. The huge corruption purge carried out by the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that saw a string of high profile Saudi political and business figures detained in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton Hotel also initially worried investors.
Prince Turki said that the corruption purge was a good symbol of steps Riyadh is taking to ensure accountability and transparency.
“On the issue of the Ritz Carlton affair, in the kingdom that was a very welcome step because it showed the people that the government was concerned about corruption,” he said.
“It brought in the high and not so high for questioning for accounting for their actions and literally reach accommodations with some of them and some of them I think have been transferred to the courts … so that’s a sign of accountability.”
He said the kingdom has come a long way in “providing the right atmosphere for people to invest in the country not just on issues of accountability but also on issues of transparency, on issues of rule of law, the fact that we are members of the World Trade Organisation.”
All this, he said, contributed to the rise in foreign investment into Saudi Arabia in recent years, despite “the negative media hype.”
He described Turkish regional policy as “a big puzzle”.
He also said Ankara's involvement in Syria had initially focused on helping the people but was now focused on aligning with the pro-Damascus alliance.
“For me, it is not clear what the Turks want and I wish they would be more amenable to clarifying where they stand on these issues,” he said.