by Ashok K Singh
It’s fire and dynamite in a room with Saudi Arabia and Iran sitting there. That’s the way Jamal Khasogi, veteran Saudi journalist, described the situation in the Middle East on Wednesday. The two regional rivals are already on a short fuse, could the situation become worse? "It’s going to be worse" he told Christian Amanpour of CNN.
That doesn’t mean Saudi Arabia and Iran are going to war directly; they have never fought one. But that certainly means proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen escalating. It portends the 25 January peace talks over Syria going up in flames, no respite to war in Yemen, and the possibility of gains over Ramadi in Iraq against the Islamic State being reversed. The worsening of the Saudi-Iranian row also poses threats of sectarian conflagrations in the larger Islamic world including Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Yemen has already become a casualty of the escalation as a result of the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr by Saudi Arabia. A ceasefire that had come into effect after weeks of UN efforts was broken on 2 January within hours of the Saudis announcing the execution of Nimr and 46 others. It wasn’t, perhaps, too much of a coincidence that the Saudis executed the cleric a few days after Ramadi was captured from the Islamic State.
The simmering tension between the two traditional rivals which has escalated into a full-fledged political and diplomatic face-off has dragged the entire region to the precipice of a wider conflict with unpredictable consequences. After the Shia cleric’s execution, enraged Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran following which the Saudis retaliated by snapping all diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran. Saudi’s allies and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait have — rallied behind either by cutting diplomatic relations or downgrading ties. Outside the GCC region, Sudan too has severed diplomatic ties with Iran. The GCC has called an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers on 9 January where they are expected to announce further measures against Iran.
Saudi Arabia had made no secret of its intention to execute Al Nimr, who had been convicted on charges of sedition and was in prison since 2012. The cleric was a champion of Shias in Saudi’s restive Shia-majority eastern province. Shias have been raising voices against persecution in the eastern province for long. But the sectarian divide has become wider since the Arab Spring.
First, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in Bahrain to suppress protests by the Shia majority who had taken to the streets inspired by the Arab Spring. Later the Saudis sent troops to Yemen against the Houthis, a Shiite subsect, who adhere to a branch of Islam known as Zaidism. They are one-third of the population and control North Yemen against the South under Sunni’s control. In Syria, Saudi Arabia supports Sunni militants who are engaged in a war to dethrone President Bassar Al Assad, who belongs to the Alawi sect of Islam, treated as heretic by die-hard Sunnis. Iranian forces are fighting to save Assad. And in Iraq, the Saudis were incensed by the persecution of the Sunnis by the erstwhile Shia-dominated government of Nuri Al Maliki that exacerbated the sectarian conflicts to the extent that Sunni tribes joined hands with the Islamic State. Iraq too has condemned Nimr’s execution.
Anticipating tough Iranian reaction and the sectarian Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East to widen further after Nimr’s execution, Saudi Arabia had been rallying for the support of Sunnis-dominated nations. Saudi’s announcement to form a coalition of 34-Muslim nations in Riyadh on 17 December ostensibly to fight the menace of global terrorism could be seen as a move to rally support against Iranian reactions besides being a part of its larger strategy to contain the arch Shia rival.
India’s neighbour Pakistan who is Sunni-majority but with a substantial Shia minority has been under Saudi Arabia pressure to commit militarily to the war in Yemen and other hot spots which have strategic interests for Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has been finding it tough to fend off Saudi’s pressure to avoid any ripple effect of its choice in the Saudi-Iranian face-off. In terms of size of population, Shias in Pakistan constitute the second largest number in the world after Iran which makes the country vulnerable to frequent sectarian violence.
World powers are scrambling to contain the Saudi-Iranian tensions to ensure that the Vienna process moves on, the crucial Syria talks don’t get scuppered and the fight against the Islamic State doesn’t get further derailed in Syria as well as Iraq. Though Riyadh has assured Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, that the Saudi-Iranian row would not impact the schedule Syria talks on 25 January, few believe the process will go ahead unhindered.
The United States and Turkey are working hard to salvage the Syria plan.
The UN Security Council has passed a resolution condemning the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran that has put Iran in a tight corner with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promising to protect diplomats.
But on the execution of the Shia cleric, Rouhani sounds non-compromising. Saudi Arabia has severed ties with Iran to “cover its crime” of Nimr’s execution, he said. Saudi Arabia is not backing down either. The conflict was not started by execution. It always existed. “We are already in conflicts. We have to choose between accepting Iranian hegemony or push them out. We have no option.” said Jamal Khasogi echoing the feeling of the Saudis. “It’s about the future of Middle East,” he said. Turkey has described the Saudi-Iranian tension as a “tinderbox”.
The future of the Middle East hangs in balance.