Saudi Arabia started the near year with a bang — literally — with the mass execution of 47 prisoners (some were beheaded and others killed by firing squad). Of these 47, four were Shia prisoners, including one cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, who had become a symbol for Shia groups in the Eastern Province and across the region since before the uptick in protests during the so-called “Arab Spring.”
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The announcement of the executions, made on January 2, set into a motion a series of events that has escalated Sunni-Shia tensions across the region and beyond. At its most basic, this led to attacks against Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad, which triggered the severing or downgrading of diplomatic relations with Iran by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the U.A.E., Sudan, Djibouti, Kuwait and Qatar. There have also been related protests in Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, and Lebanon; accusations that Saudi bombed the Iranian Embassy in Sanaa (later proven false); and even threats by Iranian proxies against Riyadh. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif also lambasted Saudi Arabia in his January 10 opinion piece in the New York Times, describing the country’s “active sponsorship of violent extremism” as the “real global threat”.
But the current diplomatic row goes beyond the trading of barbs, back-and-forth accusations, veiled or unveiled threats, and condemnatory demonstrations. Rather, it is rooted in competition for regional power, Saudi efforts to roll-back Iranian influence, particularly in a post-nuclear deal world, and unequivocal differences in Syria. And underlying each of these issues is the sectarian element.
UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura’s visits to Riyadh and Tehran to assess the implications of the diplomatic break underline how deep potential ramifications of this current rift can go. Although Saudi Arabia insisted that efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis will remain unaffected, tensions between Tehran and Riyadh at the October 30 Vienna conference were already high. With Iran one of the key players in Syria, it’s almost impossible to imagine that representatives of the two countries will have an easier time working toward a resolution of the Syrian conflict now.
The threat of proxy conflict also is real. In addition to threats against Saudi Arabia, Iranian-backed militias have, among others and prior to the current spike in tensions, targeted Iranian opposition elements near Baghdad in Camp Liberty, threatened to attack Turkey if it refused to withdraw its forces from northern Iraq, and are believed to be responsible for the September 2015 kidnapping of Turkish workers in Baghdad in an effort to pressure Ankara on its policies in Syria. Saudi Arabia could also extend increased support to Arab separatist groups in western Iran. In this context, when The Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz claimed it attacked oil infrastructure in the Khuzestan Province’s capital on January 2, Saudi outlet Al Mnatiq claimed it was in retaliation for the attack against Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Mashhad. The group’s website, however, cited more localized issues.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government watches on, content that intra-Muslim conflict and tensions have directed attention, for the most part, away from its own policies. What its leaders don’t seem to realize, however, is that this situation is guaranteed not to last forever. Time has a habit of changing attitudes and policy.
But Israel has the opportunity of a lifetime. With no possibility of returning the Golan to Syria at present, with lead Sunni powers more interested in countering Iran than criticizing Israel, with the Sunni-Shia divide greater than the Arab-Israeli or Muslim-Jewish conflict, with the Palestinian Authority standing behind Saudi Arabia and not Iran, with the Egyptian government doing more to destroy Hamas’ smuggling tunnels than Israel, the moment for kickstarting a multilateral peace process really should be seized.
This combined with the 2014 statement - for the first time - in a Belgium-based debate by Saudi Arabia’s former General Intelligence Directorate head, Prince Turki bin Faysal Al Saud, that the Arab Peace Proposal should be accepted in principle with subsequent negotiations, as opposed to a “take it or leave it offer”, offers and atmosphere and framework for a potential and real solution. This was also restated in an opinion piece he wrote for Haaretz in 2014.
The current escalation has helped improve—relatively, of course—Israel’s standing in the region. But if it really wants to ensure its survival, roll back Iran’s influence (and, by extension, that of Hezbollah), and thereby challenging the two most serious threats to the state's security, it needs to realize that it has a lot of willing partners in the Arab Sunni states who are just waiting for Israel to take real steps forward towards a comprehensive peace.