By Farid Mirbagheri
Following the execution of a Saudi Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Al-Nimr, by the government in Riyadh on January 2, angry mobs in Iran attacked the Saudi embassy and consulate, damaging the diplomatic compound. In response the Saudis cut all ties with the Iranians and closed down their mission in Iran altogether. The rupture in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran has further stirred a Middle East already embroiled in conflict and tragedy. There are several aspects to consider.
Five countries are the scene of competition and proxy wars between Riyadh and Tehran: Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. In the first three, the rivalries are relatively contained and limited to diplomatic field but the last two have been dragged into a bloody conflict causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees.
In Iraq, under a Shi’a government for the first time since its establishment as a modern state, the sectarian differences between the Shi’as, the Sunnis and the Kurds are seriously challenging the unity and territorial integrity of the country. Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia each support their respective sects in Iraq. The emergence of the ‘Islamic State’ and its war against the Assad government in Syria as well as the Kurds has complicated the situation further by linking the Kurdish issue with the outcome of the war in Syria. As a result Turkey is now also a party, albeit indirectly, to this conflict.
Lebanon, though under control, has been unable to choose a president since May 2014. The Future Movement and Hezbollah, each supported by Riyadh and Tehran respectively, exchange harsh words in a political arena dominated by rhetoric. Lebanon’s factional politics is rife with potential trigger points that could readily spark national violence.
Bahrain also shut down its embassy in Tehran in protest over the attack on the Saudi embassy. The country receives substantial security and military assistance from Saudi Arabia in trying to control its Shi’a opposition that is reportedly linked to radical groups inside Iran and tries to undermine the Sunni-led government in Manama.
In turbulent Yemen, under a negotiated truce, the pro-Saudi President Abed Rabbo had been talking with the pro-Iranian Houthis for a possible breakthrough towards an agreement. But the diplomatic rupture has now led to renewed violence. It remains to be seen if negotiations will continue.
And in Syria, where the savagery and the suffering have surpassed any in the living memory of the region, the political rivalry between the two capitals has fanned the flame of civil war. The Alawite-led government in Damascus, supported by Iran and Russia, is engaged in a fight to the death against several arrangements of forces, each backed by different countries including Saudi Arabia and the US, who are determined to topple the Syrian regime.
Other than Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti have also severed their diplomatic ties with Iran whilst the United Arab Emirates has downgraded its relations to the level of officer-in-charge and Kuwait and Qatar have recalled their ambassadors from Tehran. The government of President Rohani in Tehran, meanwhile, has made determined gestures to identify and put on trial the mobsters who raided the Saudi embassy and violated diplomatic convention.
Iran in its post nuclear-agreement period can do with better relations with its neighbours and the wider world. Saudi Arabia too is cognisant of the fact that cooperation with Tehran will yield better results than confrontation. Both capitals must recognise each other for the power they are and respect each other’s sphere of influence. Attempting to breach this balance will only result in more bloodshed and misery for the two countries and the entire region.
Farid Mirbagheri is professor of International Relations and holds the Dialogue Chair in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Nicosia