The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia severed ties with Iran on Sunday, 3rdof January, in relation with the incidents that took place in the Saudi embassy in Tehran, putting strain on an already volatile regional environment. The step represents the worst diplomatic crisis between the two countries since 1987, when diplomatic ties were broken, following violent incidents at the pilgrimage (hajj) in Mecca.
Saudi foreign minister, Adel AL-JUBEIR, announced during a news conference (Sunday, the 3rd of January) that Iran’s diplomatic mission and related entities in Saudi Arabia had been given 48 hours to leave the territory[i]. He accused Iran of meddling into Saudi internal affairs, posing security threats by creating terrorist cells inside the kingdom.
Cumulatively, the minister downplayed Iran‘s rhetoric regarding Saudi Arabia’s involvement in international terrorism, arguing that it has no real basis and in fact, Iran is guilty of blatant breach of international norms, since it did not protect the Saudi diplomatic mission.[ii]
Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran was stormed early on Sunday, when protesters broke into the building, smashed furniture and set the place on fire. Demonstrators also set fire to the Saudi consulate in Mashhad, which is Iran’s second-largest city.[iii]
“The embassy attack was condemned by fellow GCC members Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, as well as Egypt, Al Azhar, the leading Sunni institution based in Cairo, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.”[iv]
The Iranian president, Hassan ROUHANI, denounced the attack on the embassy and the consulate and portrayed it as an unnecessary act of violence. In the same time, he condemned the execution of the cleric, Nimr Al NIMR, who received his theological instruction in Iran and had been a leader for the Shiite movement in the Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province. He was among the 47 persons executed on the 2ndof January and his execution was the reason for the uproar. The majority (43) of those executed were al-Qaeda members, since the times when Osama BIN LADEN ruled the organization. Their activity was revealed in 2003, when they were orchestrating attacks against the Saudi monarchy. Before the executions, the Saudi Interior minister promoted the executions as a battle with al-Qaeda. “The group included many Al Qaeda-linked militants involved in deadly bombings in the kingdom since 2003”.[v]
Iranian response to the execution came, as following: “the Saudi government supports terrorist movements and extremists, but confronts domestic critics with oppression and execution” and warned it against the consequences of this attitude.[vi] President ROUHANI disapproved of the execution, labeling it un-Islamic: “I have no doubt that the Saudi government has damaged its image, more than before, among the countries in the world, in particular [among] Islamic countries, by this un-Islamic act,” according to ROUHANI. [vii]
The executions of the 47 persons accused of terrorism in Saudi Arabia on the 2nd of January and subsequent abridgement of relations with Iran carries an underlying message. The Saudi royal family is highly concerned about the stableness of the kingdom and increasingly suspicious about Iran’s intentions. The mass executions address any form of dissent, especially if it comes through an Iranian ramification.
The kingdom has been going through rough times in the last year, after the decease of the late king ABDULLAH, facing an oil market with plummeting prices, open-ended war in Yemen, terrorist threats, simultaneously with accusations for financing terrorism and an antithetic position with Iran, embedded since the nuclear agreement in July 2015. The Saudi welfare state and the heavy subsidies it provides for its citizens rely on the oil revenues. “With Iranian oil returning to the market, Saudi revenues could be depleted even faster than anticipated in the 2016 budget.”[viii] Saudi Arabia faces an intricate system of challenges at a time of economic uncertainty. Analysts have laid down assumptions that insist on precaution: “With oil prices unlikely to rise in the next couple of years, King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al SAUD will have to balance carefully his foreign policy priorities.”[ix]
Notwithstanding, the execution took place despite pleas for preventing it, including those coming from the UN secretary general, Ban KI-MOON. “Sheikh NIMR and a number of the other prisoners executed had been convicted following trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process”.[x]
Clemency for Sheikh NIMR was also sought on behalf of officials from Tehran. However, the Saudi ruling monarch, King SALMAN, refused to intervene and pardon him. Saudi officials had been convinced that Sheikh NIMR play a pivotal role in subversive actions, on behalf of Iranian regional agenda, meant to stir controversy and break Saudi’s Arabia cohesion as a State.
The Eastern Province, home to the majority of Shias in Saudi Arabia, is in the same time home to the kingdom's vast oil reserves and has been an integral part of Saudi Arabia, since the creation of the modern Saudi state in the early 20th century. A secession is unthinkable for the Saudi regime and sees it of utmost danger for Bahrain too, where Saudi troops consolidated the reign of AL KHALIFA family (a Sunni ruling family in a Shia-majority country), following the protests of the Arab Spring in 2011.[xi]
Beyond the internal implications, both Saudi Arabia and Iran share regional and hegemonic ambitions. Saudi Arabia and Iran are directly involved in several conflict zones across the region, declaring support for opposite sides. As an example, “The two rivals are already backing opposite sides in civil wars in Syria and Yemen.”[xii] The execution of a Shiite leader in Saudi Arabia and the diplomatic crisis adds up to the hostility level in the region and might escalate. In brief, regrettably, the execution of the popular Shiite Sheikh, Nimr al-NIMR and 46 other prisoners at the beginning of the 2016 sets the premises for a grim and perilous year all across the Middle East.[xiii]
Syrian insurgent group Jaysh al Islam (Islamic Army) welcomed on Monday, the 4th January, Saudi Arabia's decision to curtail diplomatic relations with Iran, saying Tehran's support for Shia militias was embroiling Syria in sectarian tensions.[xiv]Jaysh al-Islam is a Sunni Muslim group, Saudi-backed, opposing the regime of Bashar AL-ASSAD and was meant to establish the ground for peace talks between rebel groups and the government led by President Bashar AL-ASSAD, who has Iran’s support. The glimpse of hope for inclusive peace talks in Syria has faded for the moment.
In what Yemen is concerned, Saudi Arabia leads a regional coalition, in opposition with the advance of Houthi rebels in Yemen (backed by Iran), aiming to restore a Sunni-majority governmental control. The Yemeni president Abdrabu Mansur HADI voiced support for the Saudi decision in the matter of the 47 convicted terrorists, appreciating it as deterring terrorism.[xv]
U.N. Secretary-General Ban KI-MOON expressed towards the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel AL-JUBEIR, on Monday, the 4thof January his concern for the decision of breaking diplomatic relations with Iran. The secretary general holds talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad ZARIF the previous day.[xvi]
The Iranian side sustains that the decision taken by Saudi Arabia regarding the execution is heinous. Hossein Amir-ABDOLLAHIAN, Iran’s deputy foreign minister “said that by cutting diplomatic ties Riyadh could not cover up its major mistake of executing Sheikh NIMR”.[xvii]
The USA, a traditional friend and ally of Saudi Arabia, responded to the events with an appeal to calm and to diplomatic engagement, so that tensions can be eased.
The tensions are present; Shia clerics around the Muslim world vocally decried the execution of NIMR on the 2nd of January. Anger was present on the streets of Baghdad, Bahrain and of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, given that these places host large numbers of Shia, using harsh rhetoric against the Saudi regime. Small protests also spread to Pakistan and Indian Kashmir.[xviii]
On the other hand, the GCC bloc prompted supportive responses for Saudi Arabia. Following Saudi Arabia’s announcement, Bahrain broke diplomatic ties with Iran, while the UAE announced a limited diplomatic engagement with Iran. Kuwait became the latest Gulf Arab state to recall its ambassador from Iran on Tuesday, the 5th of January, in protest for the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, invoking a breach of international norms.
Many analysts point out that the movement is connected with the pressure mounting on Saudi Arabia: oil prices, Saudi Arabia being a rentier economy depending on oil revenue; the bothering rapprochement between Iran and America; not gaining a prevalent advantage either in Syria or Yemen.
In this context, some assume Saudi Arabia needed an opportune moment to create discord with Iran, its regional arch foe. The Saudi royal family needs to prevent internal dissent and discredit those who take this path, hoping to rally Sunni support and tempt regional allies to their side[xix] envisaging Egypt and Turkey, in particular. The future events have to confirm the audacity of this move or the opposite.
[i]The National, 4th January 2016, Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran over embassy attack, http://www.thenational.ae/world/middle-east/saudi-arabia-severs-ties-with-iran-over-embassy-attack
[vi] The Telegraph, 3rd January 2016, Louisa Loveluck, Iran supreme leader says Saudi faces 'divine revenge', http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/saudiarabia/12077919/Saudi-Arabia-beheadings-highest-in-two-decades.html
[vii]The Guardian, 4th January 2016, Martin Chulov, Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties with Iran after execution of cleric, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/03/saudi-arabia-cuts-diplomatic-ties-with-iran-after-nimr-execution
[viii]Al Monitor, 4th January 2016, Bruce Riedel, Saudi executions signal royal worries, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/saudi-arabia-iran-execution-nimr-al-nimr-concerns-stability.html#ixzz3wIl6QlLZ
[ix] Al Monitor, 28th December 2015, Bruce Riedel, Saudi Arabia's mounting security challenges, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/12/saudi-yemen-security-salman-houthi-gulf.html#ixzz3wIGzfcFX
[x] The Guardian, 4th January 2016, Martin Chulov, Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties with Iran after execution of cleric, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/03/saudi-arabia-cuts-diplomatic-ties-with-iran-after-nimr-execution
[xi] Al Monitor, 4th January 2016, Bruce Riedel, Saudi executions signal royal worries,http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/saudi-arabia-iran-execution-nimr-al-nimr-concerns-stability.html#ixzz3wIl6QlLZ
[xiii] The New York Times, The Editorial Board, 4th January 2016, Saudi Arabia’s Barbaric Executions,
[xiv] Reuters, 4th January 2016, Syrian rebel group backs Saudi move to cut ties with Iran, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-iran-syria-rebel-idUSKBN0UI0KD20160104
[xv] Emirates News Agency, 3rd January 2016, Yemeni President reiterates full support for Saudi Arabia's anti/terror measures, https://www.wam.ae/en/news/arab/1395289900447.html
[xvi] Reuters, 4th January 2016, U.N. pushes Syria, Yemen peace amid 'worrying' Saudi break with Iran,
[xvii]The Guardian, 4th January 2016, Martin Chulov, Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties with Iran after execution of cleric,http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/03/saudi-arabia-cuts-diplomatic-ties-with-iran-after-nimr-execution
[xix] The New York Times, 4th January 2016, Toby Craig Jones, Saudi Arabia’s Dangerous Sectarian Game, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/05/opinion/saudi-arabias-dangerous-sectarian-game.html