By Manish Rai
Relations between Riyadh and Tehran have been tense ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran was founded in the Iranian revolution of 1979.
In recent years, religious competition between the Islamic world’s Shia and Sunni powerhouses has morphed into mounting geopolitical rivalry. But Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr has brought Saudi-Iranian relations to their lowest point.
The two Middle Eastern giants are raising the level of hostilities between them at considerable risk to peace in the region. Due to the recent Iranian and Saudi tussle, the entire Mideast region is becoming divided along sectarian lines.
The most visible manifestation is a chain of severe diplomatic fallout. Saudi Arabia has severed all diplomatic relations with Iran. Saudi allies Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti quickly followed suit. Other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies like Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates opted for the less drastic measure of recalling their ambassadors.
The Shia camp’s reaction has likewise been very sharp. The Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah issued a statement calling al-Nirm’s execution an “assassination” and an “ugly crime.” In Tehran, Iranian hardliners stormed the Saudi embassy. The incident goes against universally agreed-upon rules of foreign relations involving the safeguarding of diplomatic missions. But all these developments are just the start of major conflict that is about to engulf the region.
The struggle between Riyadh and Tehran for political and religious influence has geopolitical implications that extend far beyond the placid waters of the Gulf and encompass nearly every major conflict zone in the Middle East. A diplomatic rupture between the major Sunni and Shia powers in the region will resonate across the Middle East, where they back opposing sides in many destructive wars and simmering conflicts.
The first casualty was the collapse of a ceasefire between the Houthi rebels and the Saudis. The next casualty will probably be the planned UN-led conference in Vienna to negotiate a political settlement between the warring parties in Syria, which is not wholeheartedly supported by Saudi Arabia anyway. Moreover, more unrest can be expected in Iraq, Lebanon and even Bahrain due to the recent Saudi and Iran tussle.
Now, in such a supercharged atmosphere, the moderate middle ground has been sorely weakened and advocates of a hardliner approach to regional affairs now hold sway. Some analysts believes that Saudi Arabia may be deliberately fanning the flames of war in its corner of the region in a bid to sabotage the agreement between the Iranians and the UN Security Council plus Germany.
But the Iranians also haven’t responded to the crisis in a mature way. The embassy attack makes it clear that Iran has failed to protect international diplomats. This is totally unacceptable. Tehran has arrested some people. But the incident could have been averted with prompt action. This is something which the Iranians failed to take. It’s believed that embassy attack in Tehran was executed by the powerful group of hardliners who are trying to derail President Rouhani’s foreign policy initiatives in an effort to weaken his domestic political power and image.
The defiance and anger in both capitals will not fade soon as neither government is eager to step back from the brink. Both know a direct military confrontation would be ruinous, bloody and asymmetrical. Avoiding direct confrontation, both antagonists are likely to escalate instead their role in proxy wars. This will definitely create havoc in an already burning region.
As the bilious rhetoric between Saudi Arabia and Iran sours by the day, it is still the people caught in the cross hairs of proxy conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq and Lebanon who are paying the heaviest price of this bull fight. Some effective and immediate steps should be taken by the international community and the UN to calm down the boiling confrontation between the Saudis and Iranians.
There are several steps that might offset the current situation. The first is that the Jan. 25 international conference in Geneva that seeks a diplomatic solution to Syria’s civil war, should be postponed in order to give Saudi Arabia and Iran a calming period. Secondly, the US should reassure Saudi Arabia that they are not pursuing improved relations with Iran at Saudi expense and that they should not feel insecure. Finally, the UN should send its envoy to both Riyadh and Tehran to convince the Saudis and Iranians to defuse the situation.
The importance of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran must be grasped as they are the two major powers in West Asia who can resolve conflicts in the region. Moreover, this conflict between Saudis and Iranians must be resolved because it is also complicating the fight against ISIS. The terrorist army will seize the opportunity to exploit two regional powers who are going after each other rather than going after ISIS.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.