Saudi Arabia, Iran tensions growing
LONDON - Saudi Arabia and Iran are drawing closer to a direct confrontation after engaging in proxy battles across the Middle East. The torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad by Iranian protesters in reaction to the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr led to a series of diplomatic crises that could escalate.
Tehran initiated a war of words against Saudi Arabia shortly after Nimr’s death and Riyadh quickly severed diplomatic relations and suspended air traffic and trade links with Iran. Saudi Gulf allies and Sudan followed suit.
It is clear that Riyadh, shifting from a policy of containment, rapprochement and reconciliation, is not bowing to Iranian pressure and ambitions. Saudi Arabia appears firm in continuing its support of fighters battling the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who counts Iran a main ally, and its direct engagement in Yemen against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia also called for Iran to halt its meddling in Arab affairs and stop threatening Saudi stability.
“The Iranians and their allies have been pushing and promoting terrorism and recruiting people, inciting and providing weapons and explosives to people and Nimr al- Nimr was one of them,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said. “He is as much of a religious figure as (al-Qaeda leader) Osama bin Laden was.”
Iranian President Hassan Rohani called the violence against Saudi mission in Tehran “totally unjustified” and Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif said the embassy’s ransacking had no official blessing. But Zarif, apparently blaming Riyadh for the increasing pressures, also declared, “This trend of creating tension must stop.”
Saudi Arabia on January 2nd carried out death sentences on 47 people, most of whom were members of al-Qaeda, for terrorism-related offences. Those executed included Nimr, a radical Iran-affiliated Shia cleric.
Iranian protesters stormed and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad. Riyadh and a number of regional countries responded by severing or downscaling diplomatic relations with Tehran. Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in suspending air traffic and trade links with Iran.
“Simply stated, the kingdom will not allow Iran to determine what’s in its national security interests and Iranian interference in Arab affairs will no longer be tolerated, which is exactly what the Saudis have done,” said Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.
“In my reading, the decision was a courageous one. Arabs ought to be proud that someone has stood up for their rights finally,” he said.
Heightened tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia date to the days of the shah but relations have been comparatively cordial recently. Relations worsened after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, which saw Saudi Arabia and the United States warily back Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the conflict.
In 1987, tensions escalated during the haj when Iranians in Mecca staged a political demonstration and clashed with Saudi riot police. More than 400 people died in the incident and mobs attacked the missions of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and France. Diplomatic ties were cut in 1988 but were restored two years later.
The 1990s was a period of relative calm between Riyadh and Tehran, particularly during the presidency of Iranian reformist Mohammad Khatami. However, with the dawn of the 21st century, coupled with the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the revelation of Tehran’s nuclear programme and the election of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, relations nose-dived.
Tensions reached new heights in 2011 when the United States uncovered an assassination plot against Jubeir, who was then the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are also embroiled on opposite sides of a number of regional conflicts. In the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia is backing rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is militarily supported by the Islamic Republic and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition is at war with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in an effort to restore the internationally recognised Yemeni government to power.
Issues related to Nimr date back more than 20 years. In 1993, Saudi Arabia announced a general amnesty for Shia dissidents, which resulted in the return from exile of high-profile Shia Saudi leaders, including Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar, considered the sect’s local leader, and Nimr.
Nimr, who while in exile received religious education in Iran, reaching the rank of ayatollah, soon severed ties with Saffar and continued making political anti-government sermons. It is an illegal practice in Saudi Arabia to make politicised statements from the pulpit. In 2009, Nimr called for the secession of the Eastern Province from Saudi Arabia, comments that led to his arrest.
The radical nature of his sermons appealed to disenfranchised Shia youth, who viewed the elder generation of Saudi Shia clerics as sell-outs. During the 2011 “Arab spring” protests, Nimr’s followers attacked police and government buildings, often with Molotov cocktails.
Nimr and a number of his followers were arrested again in July 2012 after a shoot-out with security forces. Nimr was convicted on a number of charges, including inciting dissent, turning citizens against the state and stirring sectarian trouble.