Saudi-Iran Tensions: Where All the Players Stand and Why

The execution in Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shi'ite cleric and Iran's reaction to it began a downward spiral in Middle East diplomacy, but there are many other pieces to the regional puzzle that may make the difference between a peaceful resolution and continued tensions.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016.
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016. Credit: AFP

Diplomatic tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which began with the kingdom's execution of a Shi'ite cleric and later saw attacks on Saudi diplomatic posts in the Islamic Republic, have seen countries around the world respond.

Some nations have followed the Saudis' lead in severing or downgrading ties with Iran, while others have offered words of caution aimed at cooling the war of words before it escalates further.

Here's a look at where countries and other regional actors stand at this point:

The main actors:

Saudi Arabia — The kingdom severed ties to Iran after attacks on two of its diplomatic posts following its execution of a Shi'ite cleric last weekend; it also later cancelled all flights between the two nations.

Iran — Since the attack on the diplomatic posts, Iran says it has made arrests and has criticized the violent protesters. However on Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani took a slightly harder line, saying Saudi Arabia's move to sever ties with his country couldn't "cover its crime" of executing Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Countries backing Saudi Arabia:

Bahrain — The tiny, Shi'ite-majority island kingdom off the Saudi coast, which long has relied on Saudi Arabia for support of its Sunni rulers, was the first to cut ties with Iran. Bahraini officials repeatedly have accused Iran of training militants and attempting to smuggle arms into the country, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Sudan — The African nation cut its diplomatic ties to Iran and gave Iranian diplomats two weeks to leave the country. Sudan once tilted toward Iran, but has been looking to Saudi Arabia for aid since the secession of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011.

United Arab Emirates — The oil-rich country of seven emirates says it will reduce the number of diplomats in Iran, recall its ambassador and focus only on business relations. While backing Saudi Arabia, it may have chosen to reduce — rather than completely sever ties — because of a long trading history with Iran.

Kuwait — The oil-rich country is recalling its ambassador from Tehran, but it isn't immediately clear how Kuwaiti-Iranian diplomatic ties will be affected. Tiny Kuwait is home to both Shi'ites and Sunnis living in peace and has the most free-wheeling political system among all Gulf nations.

Jordan: Overwhelmingly Sunni Jordan is a close ally of Saudi Arabia in the region and a beneficiary of Gulf aid. Jordan's government spokesman, Mohammed Momani, has condemned the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Iran.

The mediator:

Oman — The sultanate has long historical ties to Iran and served as the base for secret talks between Iranian and U.S. officials that jump-started the deal reached between Iran and world powers over the Islamic Republic's contested nuclear program.

Those backing Iran:

Lebanese Hezbollah movement — Hezbollah was founded in 1982 with the help of Iran's Revolutionary Guards after Israel invaded Lebanon. The group is one the main Iran-backed factions in the region.

Syria's embattled President Bashar Assad — Iran has been one of the biggest supporters of Syria since the 1980s and has stood by Assad's government in his country's grinding civil war. Saudi Arabia has been one of the biggest benefactors of those trying to overthrow him.

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad — Even as Iraq is embroiled in a major war against the militant Islamic State group, al-Nimr's execution sparked outrage among the country's majority Shi'ites who have taken to the streets in Baghdad and the south, calling for an end to ties with Saudi Arabia. The Shi'ite-led government has warned Riyadh that such executions "would lead to nothing but more destruction."

Other regional actors:

Israel — Israel considers Iran to be its greatest regional threat because of its nuclear program, its arsenal of long-range missiles, its support of anti-Israel militant groups and its repeated threats to destroy it. While Israel has no direct ties to Saudi Arabia either, the countries have come closer because of a shared concern over Iran's growing influence.

The Palestinians — The Palestinian Authority issued a statement after the execution of al-Nimr saying that it stands alongside the Saudis in their fight against "terrorism." The Saudis are the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority in the Arab world, providing them some $200 million annually. The PA, and the Fatah faction that leads it, has had a strained relationship with Iran because of its support of its rival, Hamas.

Yemen — The Arab world's poorest country is torn by a civil war pitting its internationally recognized government, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, against Shi'ite rebels known as Houthis, who are supported by Iran.

Those urging caution:

The United Nations — UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to support peace efforts in Syria and Yemen and avoid escalating tensions.

European Union: The 28-nation bloc, which opposes the death penalty, criticized Saudi Arabia's mass executions and said al-Nimr's case undermined freedom of expression and basic political rights in the kingdom. Since tensions flared between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the EU foreign policy chief has had phone contact with both sides, fearing an escalation would further destabilize the whole region.

The United States — The White House has urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to not let their dispute derail efforts to end the Syrian civil war, while President Barack Obama's administration also hopes to see the Iranian nuclear deal through.

United Kingdom — Britain and Iran reopened their respective embassies in 2015, four years after hardline protesters stormed the British embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia is a key diplomatic and economic ally of Britain, though Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood said Britain told the kingdom about its "disappointment at the mass executions."

Turkey — Turkey has urged both Saudi Arabia and Iran to ease tensions, saying the Middle East region is "already like a powder keg" and cannot withstand a new crisis.

Germany — Berlin has called on Saudi Arabia and Iran to work to mend their diplomatic ties, while condemning both the mass executions in the kingdom and the storming of the Saudi missions in Iran.

Russia — State news agency RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed senior diplomat as saying Moscow is ready to act as a mediator between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It's unclear whether Russian officials have made a formal offer to work with the two nations.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, this month.

Lapid to Haaretz: ‘I Have Learned to Respect the Left’

“Dubi,” whose full name is secret in keeping with instructions from the Mossad.

The Mossad’s Fateful 48 Hours Before the Yom Kippur War

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer