Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, has declared that all Iranian diplomats must leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours and that the kingdom was cutting all diplomatic ties with Iran. Mr al-Jubeir made the announcement shortly after the storming of the Saudi embassy in Iran.
Mr al-Jubeir also confirmed that Saudi Arabia was recalling its diplomats from Tehran. On Saturday, Saudi Arabia went ahead with the executions of 47 prisoners. Most of the people killed were Sunni Arabs accused of supporting or being part of Al Qaeda, a terrorist organisation with strong roots in Saudi Wahhabism.
Among the prisoners, however, was Sheikh Ali al-Nimr, a Shi’ite cleric seen by many as a strong voice for oppressed Shia minorities throughout the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, however, saw the sheikh as an agent of Iran, and cited him for “subversive activities.” According to the BBC, the sheikh had a long history of protest against the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, and was said to have a strong following among Shia minority Saudi youth.
In the leadup to the executions, there were strong protests from all over the world, including some western governments and humanitarian organisations. The most strident protests, however, came from the governments of Shia majority nations like Iran. The Ayatollah and Iranian PM Rouhani both weighed in on the issue, calling for clemency for Sheikh al-Nimr and denouncing his conviction as a perversion of justice for political interests.
This support was probably more harmful than otherwise for the sheikh, as it enabled the Saudi government to repeat the claim that he was a Shia agitator and agent provocateur in the pay of the Iranian regime. Storms of protest have followed the execution, with demonstrations and violence breaking out in Bahrain, Lebanon, Pakistan and Iran. The Ayatollah Khameini publicly denounced the conviction of Sheikh Ali al-Nimr, and Khameini was reported in the Guardian as calling him an “oppressed cleric” and denying that he had taken part in sedition of any kind.
In the wake of the embassy storming, however, Prime Minister Rouhani has had to take a more balanced approach, denouncing the execution on the one hand whilst seeking to distance his government from the embassy attack on the other.
The arc of escalation in the conflict between the two countries is seen as deeply worrying by some analysts. While many have pointed out that the relationship between Iran in its current form and Saudi Arabia has never been particularly good, and that they have effectively been engaged in a war of rhetoric since the 1979 Iranian revolution, others point to the Iran deal as a potentially explosive new dynamic.
It has been understood by most analysts that countries like Saudi Arabia rely on US backing to keep their positions as local or regional hegemons. In past years, when there was no real hope for Iran of normalizing its relations with the west, Saudi Arabia could afford to limit itself to merely denouncing Iranian rhetoric, secure in the knowledge that they had no serious rivals for US support.
Now that Iran looks set to emerge from its long diplomatic banishment, there has been a sharp uptick in hostility between the two nations. This was noted during the deadly Hajj stampedes of 2015, when Iran suddenly and unexpectedly launched into one of its harshest attacks on the Saudi regime and the legitimacy of its claim to stewardship of the key shrines of Islam. Previous Hajj tragedies have not drawn any kind of comparable response from Iran.
Historically, Saudi Arabia has viewed Iran in a negative light. When the Shah fell in 1979, Iran pursued a pan-Islamic vision, seeking to unite all Muslims in a kind of prototype Arab spring, overthrowing their leaders and uniting the Muslim world into a bloc. There were two problems with this for Saudi Arabia at the time. The first was that the government Iran was encouraging the faithful to overthrow was their own. The other, and arguably bigger problem, was the deep unacceptability of Iranian Shia Islam to Saudi Sunnis. This fundamental conflict of interests between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been simmering ever since.
The outlook for Saudi/Iranian relations is bleak and unlikely to improve. As long as Saudi Arabia remains uncertain of its ability to hold on to US backing, and to hold Iran away from the US run “top table” of the Middle East, it is unlikely that any move to normalize relations with Iran will even be attempted. This is bad news for the region, as the various proxy wars that Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting against each other in the Middle East and North Africa now look less likely than ever to come to a peaceful end.
[Photo by John Moore/Getty Images]