After the ransacking of its embassy in Tehran over the weekend, Saudi Arabia has wasted little time in severing diplomatic ties with Iran. Less than a day later, a number of Saudi allies are hopping aboard the bandwagon against Iran. Sudan and Bahrain have severed ties with Iran outright, while the UAE has recalled its ambassador in Tehran. The Emirates will maintain its trade links with Iran for the time being. The diplomatic maneuvering is happening amid a backdrop of rising tension and increasing sectarian strife in the region. As Iran’s regional power and influence rises, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia view this as an increasingly serious threat.
When announcing the severing of diplomatic relations with Iran, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Iran of having “distributed weapons and planted terrorist cells in the region”. The Gulf States, like their Saudi ally, blame Iran for attempting to spread instability across the region. Following the execution of Sheik Nimr, Iran fired a volley of thinly-veiled threats at the Saudis, hinting that the execution will lead to imminent sectarian violence in the region. In the last twenty-four hours or so, Saudi police have come under heavy gunfire in the hometown of Nimr, while bombs have exploded in two Sunni mosques and a Sunni mosque was killed by gunmen in Iraq.
The timing of the attacks is quite suspect to say the least. Are these examples of spontaneous sectarian strife or is it happening on orders from Tehran?
Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 people for terrorism offenses has set off a wave of protests in the region and added more tension to a region that is already a powder keg. Specifically, it was the execution of Shia cleric Sheik Nimr al-Nimr that stoked the fires. The cleric was a vocal opponent of the Saudi royal family, calling for the overthrow of the Saudi government and inciting sectarian strife in the kingdom, which is what led to his arrest and death sentence. Protests have erupted in Shia communities across the Middle East, following his execution. The most violent examples were in Tehran, where rioting crowds stormed and ransacked the Saudi embassy this evening. Iran, the region’s leading Shia power and rival to Saudi Arabia, denounced the execution and warned that the Saudis would pay a heavy price for their policies. The Saudis responded by summoning the Iranian ambassador in Riyadh and warned Iran about its strongly worded protest.
The Saudi-Iran showdown has not attracted the same level of attention that other flashpoints in the Middle East have. While Syria burns and tensions in Israel are on the rise, the two regional powerhouses have been squaring off in a duel for regional supremacy for some time now. The reaction to Sheik Nimr’s execution underscores the fact that religious sectarianism can lead to catastrophic destabilization in the Middle East if allowed to go unchecked.
In Tehran, some protesters appear to have made it into the Saudi embassy and caused damage. The situation appears to be under control for the moment. It is unlikely that the al-Nimr’s execution will lead to an overt conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, the situation does give Iran an opening to encourage the Shia communities in the kingdom to openly defy Riyadh. That is, if Iran choses to exploit the current situation to its benefit. And why wouldn’t Tehran want to? The more attention Saudi Arabia has to devote to its internal issues, the less attention it will be able to focus on Iran.