New worrisome tensions in the Middle East
The international community is justifiably concerned about the risk that the Saudi-Iranian row, with its spiral of retaliatory and counter-retaliatory violence, could spin out of control.
Riyadh, Khartoum and Manama have severed ties with Tehran and the United Arab Emirates has downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran.
The threats by Iranian radicals that Saudi Arabia would suffer “quick consequences” if not “divine retribution” have stoked sectarian hostility towards the kingdom. Following the Saudi execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr (among a group of convicted terrorists), there have been attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad, as well as bombings of Sunni mosques in Iraq’s Hilla province.
There are legitimate fears that the dispute will adversely affect negotiations aimed at finding a peaceful settlement to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, which have caused hundreds of thousands of casualties and countless human tragedies.
The United Nations should push ahead with its plans to resume Syria peace talks in Geneva on January 25th, as well as its mediation efforts in Yemen.
But the problem goes beyond fallout from the current dispute. It is very much linked to the provocative posturing by the Iranian government since the signing of the July 14th nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
In recent weeks Iran has reportedly undertaken two ballistic missile tests in contravention of UN resolutions. Tehran is exploiting unfortunate ambiguities and loopholes in the July 14th deal but UN Security Council resolutions are clear. The latest, passed July 20th, called on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology”.
Tehran, however, has been defiant in the face of international denunciation. Its Defence minister declared: “We don’t ask anyone’s permission to enhance defence power or missile capability and will firmly pursue our defence plans, particularly in the field of missiles.”
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Brigadier-General Hossein Salami even bragged that: “We don’t have enough space to store our missiles. All our depots and underground facilities are full.”
The United States alleges that Tehran has also stirred up tensions in the Strait of Hormuz by launching “unguided rockets” in proximity of US warships there. Although the United States and Iran are nowhere near the hostility they displayed throughout the 1980s, Tehran’s actions have resuscitated the ghosts of past US-Iranian confrontation in the strategic gateway to the Arabian Gulf.
It is ironic that Iran, which stands to gain billions of dollars of released funds it badly needs at a time of dire budget circumstances, does not see any reason to modify its regional behaviour even after the July 14th deal. More recently, it seems to have been emboldened by the shelving of US plans to impose new sanctions on Tehran after the recent missile tests.
Even without the recent sudden escalation, the situation in the Middle East was inflammable enough. New developments could widen the sectarian divide and intensify the region’s proxy wars, especially if major powers do little, if anything, to prod Iran to play a more constructive role.