January 7, 2016 | Commentary on International Conflicts, Saudi Arabia, Iran

Saudi Execution Fuels Regional Rift

Well, it looks like the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have decided to kick off the New Year by throwing another log on the already-roaring fire that is burning much of the Middle East.

A bigger blaze that engulfs even more of the region isn’t out of the question.

The latest crisis revolves around Riyadh’s mass execution of 47 people last weekend, including a Saudi Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al Nimr, a key figure in the 2011 Arab Spring protests in the kingdom’s Eastern provinces.

Al Nimr’s demise in (Sunni) Saudi Arabia struck a nerve in (Shiite) Iran — where the Saudi embassy and a consulate were attacked, ransacked and burned.

The Iranian security services failed to protect (perhaps, intentionally) the Saudi diplomatic facilities, which is a duty required of a host nation under the Vienna Convention.

Following this, Saudi Arabia withdrew its (now embassy-less) diplomats, while booting Iran’s envoys from Riyadh; Saudi-friendly Bahrain, Kuwait, Sudan, and United Arab Emirates cut or downgraded ties with Iran — so far.

According to press reports, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for “divine revenge” against Saudi Arabia, while the vicious Revolutionary Guard Corps predicted the monarchy’s “downfall.”

Despite calls for restraint from big powers, the responses could go well beyond what we’ve seen so far.

For example, as the rivalrous leaders of the Sunni (that is, Saudi Arabia) and Shiite (that is Iran) communities, sectarian violence, which is already nightmarish in the region, could get worse — as in Iraq, where Sunni mosques were bombed after the executions.

Along these same lines, Iran can yank Saudi Arabia’s chain in places like neighboring Bahrain, where Riyadh sent troops in 2011 to help the (minority) Sunni government quash (majority) Shiite-led Arab Spring protests likely instigated by Tehran.

The tensions between Tehran and Riyadh won’t help in Syria, either, where the bloody conflict certainly has a sectarian angle to it, pitting Sunni ISIS, al-Qaeda, etc. against the Syrian Shiite-associated government and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Riyadh is also at odds with Tehran over the current Damascus regime. As such, Saudi Arabia may adjust its (already limited) efforts against Iran’s enemies in that conflict to make Tehran pay a higher price.

Syrian peace talks? Even tougher.

Yemen likely won’t find relief from its civil war, either, as Tehran and Riyadh will likely continue waging — even ratchet up — a pseudo-proxy war there involving the Sunni, Saudi-allied government and Shiite, Iran-supported Houthi rebels.

Iran and Saudi Arabia aren’t in sync on Iraq or Lebanon, either.

Of course, outright conflict between the two states is also a possibility, as they’re only separated (at the most) by the limited expanse of the Persian Gulf; both have weapons (for example, aircraft, ships and missiles) that could close that gap easily.

Indeed, the scenarios for hostilities are almost endless.

De-escalation of tensions is also possible as both sides have their hands full with current conflicts — not to mention challenges both face from rock-bottom, global energy prices that are critical to their economies.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to be optimistic about containing — much less not fanning — the flames that are already torching the Middle East.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy
assistant secretary of defense. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter.

This piece originally appeared in the Boston Herald.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy