Conflict in West Asia: Saudi Arabia cuts ties with Iran!

Conflict in West Asia: Saudi Arabia cuts ties with Iran!

Dr. Abdul Ruff







Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter rivals; and they are back at it and fiercer than ever this weekend.  On December 02, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiia cleric named Nimr al-Nimr, who led anti-government protests in 2011, along with 46 others (mostly Sunnis) labeled as “terrorists” within the kingdom. The move appears to be designed to stoke Sunni-Shiia tensions and shows that Sunni Saudi Arabia is taking a more provocative stance toward Shiia Iran than it has in the past.


The four Shi’ites had been convicted of involvement in shootings and petrol bomb attacks that killed several police during anti-government protests from 2011-13. More than 20 Shi’ites were shot dead by the authorities in those protests. Family members of the executed Shi’ites have denied they were involved in attacks and said they were only peaceful protesters against sectarian discrimination.


Saudi Arabia and Iran are major oil & gas exporters and have clashed over energy policy. Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves and smaller population, has a greater interest in taking a long-term view of the global oil market and incentive to moderate prices. In contrast, Iran is compelled to focus on high prices in the short term due to its low standard of living given recent sanctions after its decade old war with Saddam’s Iraq.  After the Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked by Iranian protesters, Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on January 4, 2016.


Relations between the  the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia representing Sunni branch of Islam and Islamic Republic of Iran standing for Shiite Islam have been strained over many issues such as the interpretations of Islam, aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, oil export policy, relations with the USA and the West. Although Saudi Arabia and Iran are both Muslim-majority nations and follow and rule through Islamic Scripture, their relations, for unknown and invalid reasons,  are fraught with perpetual hostility, tension and confrontation, especially after oil was discovered in West Asia. Differences in geopolitical issues and political agendas are strengthened by their illusionary differences in faith.


While the split between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the early days of Islam and disagreements over the successor to Prophet Muhammad, those divisions have only grown as they intertwine with regional politics, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia vying to be the Mideast’s top power.  Both Saudi Arabia and Iran in perpetually in a collision course are seen to have aspirations for leadership of Islam, and have different visions of stability and regional order. After the Islamic Revolution, relations deteriorated considerably after Iran accused Saudi Arabia of being an agent of the US in the Persian Gulf region, representing US interests rather than Islam. Saudi Arabia is concerned by Iran’s consistent desire to export its revolution across the board to expand its influence within the Persian Gulf region — notably in post-Saddam Iraq, the Levant and within further south in addition to Iran’s controversial, much debated nuclear program.


The difference of political ideologies and governance has also divided both countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the principle of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, which holds that a faqīh (Islamic jurist) should have custodianship over all Muslim followers, including their governance and regardless of nationality. Iran’s Supreme Leader is a Shiia faqīh. The founder of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini, was ideologically opposed to monarchy, which he believed to be unIslamic. Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, on the other hand, remains consistently conservative, not revolutionary, and politically married to age-old religious leaders of the tribes who support the monarchy and the king (namely the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques) is given absolute obedience as long as he does not violate Islamic Sharia law. Saudi Arabia has, however, a Shiia minority which has recently made bitter complaints of institutional discrimination against it.




In further complicating the Middle Eastern tensions, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Shiite powerhouse Iran on December 03 amid escalating tensions over the Sunni kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. Saudi kingdom was responding to the storming of its embassy in Tehran the previous day in an escalating row between the rival Middle East powers over Riyadh’s execution of a Shi’ite Muslim cleric.


Ambassador Al-Jubeir said that the Iranian regime has a long record of violations of foreign diplomatic missions, dating back to the occupation of the US Embassy in 1979, and such incidents constitute a flagrant violation of all international agreements. Iran’s “hostile policy” was aimed at destabilizing the region’s security, accusing Tehran of smuggling weapons and explosives and planting terrorist cells in the kingdom and other countries in the region. The history of Iran is full of negative and hostile interference in Arab countries, always accompanied with subversion, demolition and killing of innocent souls. He vowed that Saudi Arabia will not allow Iran to undermine “our security.”


Speaking on Iranian state television, Deputy Foreign Minister Iran of Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in Tehran’s first response that by cutting diplomatic ties, Riyadh could not cover up “its major mistake of executing Sheikh Nimr”. A prominent cleric with close links to Iran’s ruling establishment and a member of the Assembly of Experts and a Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami denounced the execution on Saturday of a Saudi Shi’ite cleric and predicted the repercussions would bring down the Saudi ruling family. “The crime of executing Sheikh Nimr is part of a criminal pattern by this treacherous family … the Islamic world is expected to cry out and denounce this infamous regime as much as it can,” he added.



Shi’ite Iran’s top spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, predicted “divine vengeance” for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken opponent of the ruling Al Saudi family.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani condemned the execution as “inhuman”, but also urged the prosecution of “extremist individuals” for attacking the embassy and the Saudi consulate in the northeastern city of Mashhad. Tehran’s police chief said an unspecified number of “unruly elements” were arrested for attacking the embassy with petrol bombs and rocks.



Human rights groups say the kingdom’s judicial process is unfair, pointing to accusations that confessions have been secured under torture and that defendants in court have been denied access to lawyers. Riyadh denies torture and says its judiciary is independent.


Iran also wants to punish Saudi Arabia. In Iran, the last word belongs to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Revolutionary Guards said “harsh revenge” would topple “this pro-terrorist, anti-Islamic regime”.



Complicated protest



Saudi kingdom executed 47 Muslims, mostly Sunnis and a few Shiia including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the most vocal critic of the dynasty among the Shi’ite minority, had come to be seen as a leader of the sect’s younger activists, who had tired of the failure of older, more measured, leaders to achieve equality with Sunnis.  His execution, along with three other Shi’ites and 43 members of Al Qaeda, sparked angry protests in the Qatif region in eastern Saudi Arabia, where demonstrators denounced the ruling Al Saud dynasty, and in the nearby Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. Relatives of Nimr, reached by telephone, said authorities had informed them that the body had been buried “in a cemetery of Muslims” and would not be handed over to the family.


Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran early on 03 December and Saudi wanted to punish Iran. The protest grew violent as protesters threw stones and gasoline bombs at the embassy, setting part of the building ablaze. Hundreds of protesters later demonstrated in front of the embassy and in a central Tehran square, where street signs near the embassy were replaced with ones bearing the slain sheikh’s name. Earlier, the Iranian government had summoned the Saudi ambassador to condemn al-Nimr’s execution. Saudi Arabia returned the slap, summoning the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh to vehemently object to Iran’s condemnation.



Annoyed by Iran’s storming of Saudi embassy in Tehran, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh that the envoy of Shi’ite Iran had been asked to quit Saudi Arabia within 48 hours. The kingdom, he said, would not allow the Islamic republic to undermine its security. Jubeir said the attack in Tehran was in line with earlier Iranian assaults on foreign embassies there and with Iranian policies of destabilising the region by creating “terrorist cells” in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, in light of these realities, announces the cutting of diplomatic relations with Iran and requests the departure of delegates of diplomatic missions of the embassy and consulate and offices related to it within 48 hours. The ambassador has been summoned to notify them.



Saudi Arabia summoned the Iranian ambassador to protest what it described as hostile remarks emerging from Tehran. On Sunday, Riyadh’s Gulf allies the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain also summoned Tehran’s envoys to their countries to lodge complaints.



Al-Nimr was a fervent dissident against the Sunni Muslim Saudi royal family who called for their deposal during the Arab spring uprisings in 2011. Al-Nimr was a central figure in Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority until his arrest in 2012. He was convicted of terrorism charges but he denied advocating violence.


Al-Nimr’s execution spurred sectarian protests and violence in the Middle East. Now, it has sparked a serious diplomatic rift. The two countries have long been at odds, but Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr kicked off a new round of sparring between them that analysts say could mark a dangerous shift in an already volatile region. Severing ties was a last resort, a source familiar with Saudi Arabia’s decision said, because Saudi Arabia views Iran’s behavior as unacceptable and feels no country is doing anything to counter it. “This was the Saudis saying, ‘Enough. We’ve had it,’ the source said.




Sectarian tensions


Although most of the 47 men killed in the kingdom’s biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago, it was Nimr and three other Shi’ites, all accused of involvement in shooting police, who attracted most attention in the region and beyond. The simultaneous execution of 47 people – 45 Saudis, one Egyptian and a man from Chad – was the biggest mass execution for security offences in Saudi Arabia since the 1980 killing of 63 jihadist rebels who seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque in 1979.



Tensions between revolutionary, mainly Shi’ite Iran and Saudi Arabia’s conservative Sunni monarchy have run high for years as they backed opposing forces in wars and political conflicts across the Middle East, usually along sectarian lines. However, Saturday’s execution of a cleric whose death Iran had warned would “cost Saudi Arabia dearly”, and the storming of the kingdom’s Tehran embassy, raised the pitch of the rivalry.


Strong rhetoric from Tehran was matched by Iran’s Shi’ite allies across the region, with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanese militia Hezbollah, describing the execution as “a message of blood”. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, called for angry protests.

Demonstrators protesting against the execution of the cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, broke into the embassy building, smashed furniture and started fires before being ejected by police. Across the region, demonstrators took to the streets in protest over the execution of al-Nimr. In Bahrain, police fired tear gas and birdshot at demonstrators on Sitra Island, south of the capital, Manama, wounding some. In al-Daih, west of the capital, Shiite protesters chanted against Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family, as well as against Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family. In Beirut, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called al-Nimr “the martyr, the holy warrior,” while protests erupted from Turkey to India to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, al-Nimr’s family prepared for three days of mourning at a mosque in al-Awamiya in the kingdom’s al-Qatif region in predominantly Shiite eastern Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials informed his family that the cleric had been buried in an undisclosed cemetery, a development that could lead to further protests.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had promised “harsh revenge” against the Saudi Sunni royal dynasty for Saturday’s execution of Nimr, considered a terrorist by Riyadh but hailed in Iran as a champion of the rights of Saudi Arabia’s marginalized Shi’ite minority.



International response

Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism in part because it backs Syrian rebel groups fighting to oust its embattled ally, President Bashar Assad. Riyadh points to Iran’s backing of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups in the region as a sign of its support for terrorism. Iran also has backed Shiite rebels in Yemen known as Houthis. Tehran warned in 2015 that executing Nimr would “cost Saudi Arabia dearly”.


Although most of the 47 men killed in the kingdom’s biggest mass execution for decades were Sunnis convicted of al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia a decade ago, it was Nimr and three other Shi’ites, all accused of involvement in shooting police, who attracted most attention in the region and beyond.


The ruling Al Saud family has grown increasingly worried as Middle East turmoil, especially in Syria and Iraq, has given room to Iran to spread its influence. A nuclear deal with Iran backed by Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally and protector, the United States, has done little to calm nerves in Riyadh. But Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, many of whom supply it with arms, are growing concerned about its new assertiveness in the region and at home.

Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, many of whom supply it with arms, are growing concerned about its new assertiveness. The US State Department urged Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights. France said it deeply deplored the mass execution and said it reiterated its opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances.


In Iraq, whose Shi’ite-led government is close to Iran, religious and political figures demanded that ties with Riyadh be severed, calling into question Saudi attempts to forge a regional alliance against Islamic State, which controls swaths of Iraq and Syria.


In  Istanbul of Turkey, where  an Islamist government rules, hundreds of protesters, some carrying pictures of Nimr and chanting “Saudi Arabia will pay the price”, gathered outside its consulate on Sunday as riot police stood guard.


The US State Department said Nimr’s execution “risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced”. The sentiment was echoed almost verbatim by EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and an official at the German Foreign Ministry. The State Department also urged the Saudi government to “respect and protect human rights.


Western powers sought to calm the tensions. The United States, Saudi Arabia’s biggest backer in the West, responded by encouraging diplomatic engagement and calling for leaders in the region to take “affirmative steps” to reduce tensions. “We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in working through differences and we will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions,” an official of President Barack Obama’s White House said.


In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the Obama administration was aware of the Saudis’ severing of ties with Tehran. “We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in working through differences and we will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions,” Kirby said. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini spoke to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif by phone and urged Tehran to defuse the tensions and protect the Saudi diplomats in Tehran.



UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said it was not clear those killed were granted effective legal defence, while the scale of the executions was very disturbing “particularly as some of those sentenced to death were accused of non-violent crimes”.



Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani described the executions as an “unjust aggression”. The opinion of Sistani, based in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad, carries weight with millions of Shi’ites in Iraq and across the region, including in Saudi Arabia.



Confusion as observation


It appears Saudi-Iranian relations can never be normal, even if not strategically friendly. The latest antagonism reveals that well. The Saudi move appears to end any hopes that the appearance of a common enemy in the form of the Islamic State militant force would produce some rapprochement between the region’s leading Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim powers, allied to opposing sides in wars currently raging in Syria and Yemen.


Yes, Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations have been badly affected newly speculated chances for Sunni-Shi’a unity is once again in jeopardy.  Saudi Arabia accused Iran of distributing weapons to the region to destabilize the region. This is a very serious allegation.

The mass execution of al-Nimr and 46 others — the largest carried out by Saudi Arabia in three and a half decades — laid bare the sectarian divisions gripping the region as demonstrators took to the streets from Bahrain to Pakistan in protest.


It also illustrated the kingdom’s new aggressiveness under King Salman. During his reign, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen and staunchly opposed regional Shiite power Iran, even as Tehran struck a nuclear deal with world powers.

The USA and the European Union sought to calm the region.

The cleric’s execution has also threatened to complicate Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Shiite-led government in Iraq, where the Saudi Embassy is preparing to formally reopen for the first time in nearly 25 years. On Saturday there were calls for the embassy to be shut down again.

The Sept-11 hoax had provided the opportunity for all section of Muslims to come together to promote the genuine interests of Islamic faith, but  they refused to understand the message of Holy Quran and Holy Prophet’s life concerns.

True, there have also been numerous attempts to improve the relationship. After the 1991 Gulf war there was a noticeable thaw in relations. In March 2007 President Ahmadinejad of Iran visited Riyadh and was greeted at the airport by King Abdullah, and the two countries were referred to in the press as “brotherly nations”. After March 2011, Iran’s financial and military support for Syria during the Syrian Civil War has been a severe blow to the improvement of relations.

Tensions between the two countries have waxed and waned. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran soured particularly after the Iranian Revolution, the nuclear program, the 2011 alleged Iran assassination plot and more recently the execution of Nimr al-Nimr.


There is likelihood for the Saudi-Iran tensions to escalate further, though such possibility is not in the interest of either Saudi Arabia or Iran or for the already troubled Middle East, still reeling under the impact of so-called Arab Spring.


Analysts have speculated that the execution of the four Shi’ites was partly to demonstrate to Saudi Arabia’s majority Sunni Muslims that the government did not differentiate between political violence committed by members of the two sects.


The disruption in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran may have implications for peace efforts in Syria. The US Secretary of State John Kerry and others spent significant time trying to bring the countries to the negotiating table and they both sat together at talks aimed at finding a diplomatic solution to the civil war. Last month, Saudi Arabia convened a meeting of Syrian opposition figures that was designed to create a delegation to attend peace talks with the Syrian government that are supposed to begin in mid-January.




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