Saudi Arabia, Iran tensions growing

Friday 08/01/2016
Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to Saudi embassy in Tehran

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.