The severance of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran appears to be just a formal step that sums up the already-destroyed relations between the two countries. The climax was the execution on Saturday of Nimr Al-Nimr, the radical Shi’ite cleric, along with 46 others, some of them Al-Qaida members, convicted of terrorism and damaging state security.
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By going ahead with the execution, Saudi Arabia resisted international pressure from the United Nations, the American government and others who were rightfully concerned about a flare-up in the Middle East. The response was, indeed, immediate. Protesters set alight the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Embassy workers fled for their lives. Even though Iranian President Hassan Rohani issued a condemnation and call to arrest the guilty parties, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic relations.
The question is if Saudi Arabia anticipated the scope of the reaction and intentionally created a pretext for severing ties. Arab sources say the answer to that question is yes. They recall that Saudi Arabia did not hesitate to cut off relations with Qatar when it believed that the emirate was trying to undermine its leadership in the Middle East; nor did the Saudis need a dramatic event at the time to drag Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates along with it. This time too Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia in cutting its ties with Iran, while the nations of the UAE cut back on their diplomatic representation in Tehran and Sudan expelled the Iranian ambassador from Khartoum. Egypt has still yet to clarify its position.
Executions in Saudi Arabia and Iran are not rare. Tehran executed at least 700 people in the first seven months of 2015, among them Sunni activists, while Saudi Arabia executed 150 people through the end of the year. However, as long as the executions were perceived as punishment for criminal offenses, global interest merely took the form of condemnations and pointless reports by human rights organizations.
Human rights in Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked up behind fortress walls, partly built “voluntarily” by Western powers to prevent damage to strategic interests, as in the case of the nuclear deal with Iran and the Saudi-American alliance. But this time the situation has far-reaching repercussions – and not only vis-a-vis Saudi-Iranian relations.
For over three years, since his arrest in Saudi Arabia, Iran has treated Nimr as an iconic hero who must be rescued from prison. The Iranian press, especially the Arabic language media, strengthened his iconic image and demanded that Riyadh release him. In secret talks and public speeches alike, Tehran demanded that Saudi Arabia not harm the cleric and warned of possible responses. It's likely that it was precisely that strong support for the man that showed the Saudis that they held a strategic asset against Iran that could be exploited in several ways.
Last year, in the midst of the nuclear talks with the world powers, Iran disseminated public hints that it was interested in rehabilitating relations with the Saudis. Tehran spoke of a possible visit by Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif to Saudi Arabia. It stated it wanted to discuss Nimr’s fate. Saudi Arabia did not rush to respond, although the United States ascribed importance to the possibility of the Saudis and Iranians growing closer.
However, Saudi Arabia spearheaded the drive against the nuclear deal and told the U.S. administration in secret talks that it saw this deal as a betrayal of the two countries’ joint anti-Iranian policy. The fear in Riyadh was and remains that the United States is liable to give preference to Iran over Saudi Arabia, and that the nuclear accord will have disastrous consequences for Saudi Arabia’s standing in the Middle East and for its economy once sanctions are lifted from Iran.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry failed to calm these fears in talks with the Saudi king and Saudi leadership, especially after they realized that the United States was also prepared to give up on the war in Syria: After four years of a staunch American position against the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, this policy was abandoned for the sake of the Russian-Iranian and American deal, and Riyadh was forced to bow its head and not try to thwart it.
And so, for the first time senior representatives of Saudi Arabia and Iran sat together at the table in Vienna with the United States as part of a group of countries that were invited to discuss a plan for a political solution in Syria. But this gathering of "brothers" did not last long. Saudi Arabian leaders invited to Riyadh dozens of representatives of Syrian militias and the opposition, in order to reach agreement on a plan for a diplomatic dialogue that would be held with the Syrian regime and to agree on who would represent the opposition.
Iran was enraged. It saw here a ploy meant to pull the rug out from under Tehran’s legs, and to transfer influence to Syria over determining the nature of the dialogue, and especially its participants.
The Sunni coalition as well, whose founding King Salman had declared last month as a means “to fight terror,” is rightfully seen by Tehran as being more a part of the struggle to wield influence and to try to halt Iran’s power, than as part of a battle against terror.
An additional strong signal of Saudi Arabia’s intentions to pursue Iran everywhere in the Middle East can be seen in the reopening of the Saudi embassy in Baghdad last week, after 25 years in which there were no diplomatic relations. Iraq, which has a Shi’ite majority and is considered to be under Iran’s patronage, has also turned into a battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in addition to the war Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen against the Houthis, who are also deemed to be loyal to or at least are clients of Iran.
The rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia is therefore liable to delay, if not completely undermine, diplomatic efforts to end the wars in Syria and Yemen. Because now – beyond the disagreements that characterized the positions in Riyadh and Tehran, and which influenced the positions of the United States and Russia – there are additional national, religious and emotional factors that are liable to torpedo the rational and political considerations that must constitute the basis of diplomatic efforts.
Even if it seems that Saudi Arabia was not deterred, and even rushed to exploit the attack on its embassy in Tehran in order to sever its diplomatic relations with Iran; it is actually Iran that could be harmed the most from its rupture with Saudi Arabia.
Despite the harsh condemnations Iran has voiced against Nimr's execution, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's "promise" that Saudi Arabia would be punished "by the heavens," Iran hoped that the Saudis would accept their request to reduce the amount of oil it produces in order to raise world oil prices and allow Iran to find new markets for its oil.
Saudi Arabia, which a year ago led the decision of OPEC nations not to reduce oil production, despite the plunge in oil prices, has so far not shown any signs that it is planning on changing this policy, even it too needs higher oil prices. It is possible that now that the Saudis actually want to increase their oil production in order to cause even greater economic harm to Iran before the lifting of sanctions. If Saudi Arabia acts in such a way, the Russian economy too will feel the effects of the conflict between the Saudis and Iran, and so will Iraq. This is just one example of the dramatic turning point in Saudi strategy that started in particular after the crowning of King Salman.
As opposed to previous decades, in which Saudi Arabia had a passive strategy, one in which it either supported or opposed diplomatic efforts behind the scenes; King Salman, and in particular his son Mohammad, has adopted a more active and proactive strategy starting from his very first day on the throne.
The quick changes Salman made in the royal court after taking power, the war in Yemen, the coercing of Egypt, establishment of the Sunni coalition, rehabilitation of relations with Turkey and critical public statements against United States policy have all made it clear that a new era has begun in Saudi Arabia.