(first in a brief series)
Hey, Happy New Year! Isn’t the first part of a new year kind of exciting? All the dregs of the past year are gone and replaced with the promise of something new. It’s a time of optimism and hope. You haven’t had time to break any of your resolutions yet. Also Iran and Saudi Arabia are probably going to war with each other now, so that’s nice:
Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday and gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom, marking a swift escalation in a strategic and sectarian rivalry that underpins conflicts across the Middle East.
The surprise move, announced in a news conference by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, followed harsh criticism by Iranian leaders of the Saudis’ execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran by protesters in response.
Haha, I kid, of course. Iran and Saudi Arabia aren’t going to war with each other! They’ll just keep getting other people to fight proxy wars for them! 2016: it’s just a little violent, it’s still good!
What the hell happened, Iran and Saudi Arabia? It was just a couple of weeks ago that we were all talking about getting you two kids together to talk out your problems, and now?
Well, something like that, anyway. Seriously, what could have caused thi–
Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry says it has executed 47 “terrorists”, including Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr and a convicted al-Qaeda leader Faris al-Zahrani.
In a press statement read out on state TV on Saturday, the Saudi ministry listed the names of all those it said were already convicted on charges of terrorism.
Oh, I see. But how bad could the reaction to that have be–
Iranian protesters ransacked and set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Saturday after Saudi Arabia executed an outspoken Shiite cleric who had criticized the kingdom’s treatment of its Shiite minority.
The cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was among 47 men executed in Saudi Arabia on terrorism-related charges, drawing condemnation from Iran and its allies in the region, and sparking fears that sectarian tensions could rise across the Middle East.
Yikes. Rough weekend.
OK, enough snarking, this is actually pretty serious business. It was certainly serious for Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed for the offense of being an outspoken Shiʿi preacher in a country governed by a religio-political ideology that doesn’t recognize Shiʿas as fully human, let alone fully Muslim. Nimr was arrested in 2012 for leading an Arab Spring-related protest movement among young Saudi Shiʿa in the eastern part of the country. There is no evidence that anybody has shown to suggest that Nimr or his movement were violent, but he was prone to calling for the overthrow of the Saud family and suggesting that Saudi Shiʿas should consider secession if Riyadh was unwilling to stop oppressing them. That’s seditionist speech, but it’s still just speech, and executing somebody for speaking out against the government is pretty unjustifiable.
Little is being said of the other 46 people the Saudis executed on Saturday, and almost nothing of any apart from Zahrani, who genuinely seems to have been an awful dude (your opinion as to whether or not he deserved execution probably tracks pretty closely to your overall view of capitol punishment) and had been imprisoned by the Saudis since 2004. Those other 45 people could have been guilty (or “guilty”) of, well, lots of things, given how expansively Riyadh likes to define the word “terrorism.” Nimr’s execution was the real attention-grabber, and there are two ways to view Riyadh’s somewhat surprising decision to execute him now: either his was the main event, and the other 47 were window dressing, killed to give Riyadh cover from the accusation that they’d targeted this one guy, or Nimr was the window dressing, a high-profile Shiʿa executed to appease the kingdom’s Wahhabi religious elite, some of whom may have been irked at the execution of 47 kindred spirits like Zahrani. If it was the latter, then it could be that the Saudis didn’t foresee the backlash that would ensue, but if it was the former, then Nimr’s execution seems to have been calculated to do exactly what it’s done, which is to wreck any hope of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and to force the US to come down firmly on the Saudi side of things.
The news of Nimr’s execution caused outrage in Iran–although Nimr wasn’t Iranian, he had been educated in Tehran, and the plight of Saudi Shiʿa is well-known inside Iran (in large part because the Iranian government makes sure that it is). Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the only Iranian voice that carries any real weight on matters like this, declared that the Saudis will face “divine revenge” for Nimr’s execution, a provocative enough statement without the violence that followed. But violence did follow: a “crowd of protesters” attacked and vandalized the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Saturday, as “crowds of protesters” in Tehran have done in the past to, for example, the US embassy (maybe you’ve heard about that), the British embassy, and, ah, the Saudi embassy (in 1987). I put “crowds of protesters” in quotes because attacking foreign embassies in Tehran is basically Iranian state policy when they feel they’ve been offended, and the attackers are usually semi-official Basij paramilitaries who are very good at making their attacks look like the work of spontaneous mobs. Attacking an embassy is an act of war if it’s done intentionally, though obviously it only rises to that level if the country whose embassy was attacked chooses to escalate to that degree. And, look, even if this was a spontaneous act by protesters and not something arranged by hardline elements in the Iranian political system, it’s still Iran’s responsibility to safeguard foreign embassies on its territory, so this was unacceptable pretty much any way you slice it.
One person who seems to agree that it was unacceptable is Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who called the embassy attack “totally unjustifiable” and has been pushing his government to respond–so far, 40 Iranians have reportedly been arrested in connection with the attack. Because of the way Iran’s political system is set up, though, Rouhani’s ability to control the Basij (which gets its orders from the Revolutionary Guard, which gets its orders from the Supreme Leader), or to punish the people behind the attack, is drastically limited, and that’s assuming that he’s acting in good faith himself. One of the ancillary benefits of this embassy attack from the perspective of Iranian conservatives is that it leaves egg on Rouhani’s face leading into this year’s crucial parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections.
The embassy attack drew a quick and dramatic response from Riyadh, which declared yesterday that it was cutting all diplomatic ties with Iran (escalating things just shy of war, in other words). Indeed, the response was so quick and so dramatic that a cynic might think the Saudis executed Nimr with precisely this result in mind. They might not have known what form Iran’s response would take (although, given the precarious history of embassies in Tehran, they actually may have predicted what would happen), but they were ready to roll with their own response. And look at what cutting off ties now gets Riyadh: they’re no longer going to be expected to participate in international talks over Syria, which means there won’t be any more international talks over Syria, and they may well have forced the United States to stop trying to engage Iran. Indeed, the Saudis are basically saying this, in so many words:
A person familiar with the Saudi government’s thinking in Washington says the kingdom severed relations with Iran because “enough was enough,” adding that Riyadh was less concerned with how its decision affects diplomatic efforts led by the United States, including the Syrian peace talks or the Iran nuclear deal.
The person, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomacy, said Sunday that the Saudi government is tired of what it sees as Tehran “thumbing its nose at the West,” including the recent launch of ballistic missiles, while no one does anything about it.
“Every time Iran does something, the United States backs off,” the person said.
The US has expressed its concerns over Nimr’s execution and the Saudi decision to close its diplomatic missions in Iran, but you can be sure that if push really comes to shove, Washington will come down on Riyadh’s side of things. As a bonus, the Saudi royals get to look tough on Shiʿism for the Wahhabi religious elite, and now they’ve got a full-blown foreign crisis that they can use to distract any of their subjects who might happen to notice that the kingdom’s economy is coming apart at the seams.
Other Arab countries have now followed suit: Bahrain, which accuses Iran of fomenting resistance among its oppressed majority Shiʿa population, and Sudan, which needs Saudi money, also cut all ties with Iran, and the UAE announced that it was reducing its diplomatic involvement with Iran to the minimum level necessary to protect the vital mutual business interests that Iran and the UAE share. So far, the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council–Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, who all have at least cordial relations with Tehran–have not followed the Saudi lead, and if anybody is looking for a mediator to try to solve this situation quickly, it will likely be one or more of these three states.
In the optimistic spirit of the new year, here’s my best attempt at finding a silver lining in this whole situation: maybe, maybe, bringing the low-level, simmering Iran-Saudi conflict (ostensibly over sectarian animosity but really over far more mundane issues of oil markets and political rivalries) to an acute state of crisis will actually force saner heads in Tehran and Riyadh to try to de-escalate things, and that could lead to deeper engagement between the two regional powers. And maybe I’ll win the Powerball, while we’re at it.
But barring that, this thing is bad news all the way around. If you were one of the dwindling number of pure optimists who still thought there might be a way to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war, it might be time to rethink your optimism. Similarly in Yemen, where Iran might be emboldened to boost its aid to the Houthi-Saleh faction, though it may have a hard time getting any material aid to them at this point. Other potential proxy fights loom in Lebanon and Iraq, although Riyadh’s ability to manipulate Sunnis in Iraq is hampered by ISIS, which is currently sucking all the proverbial oxygen out of that proverbial room. The Saudis could even, if they really want to go all-out, start backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, which would be bad for the Afghan government but also bad for Iran. One fight in which this probably isn’t going to make much of a difference is in the fight against ISIS, but that’s mostly because Saudi Arabia and Iran weren’t really involved in that fight to begin with.
The last time something like this happened (see that 1987 incident, above), it took three years for Riyadh and Tehran to start talking again. Given all the crises going on in the Middle East right now, and the degree to which both Iran and Saudi Arabia are fueling those crises out of opposition to one another, for those countries to go the next three years without talking could be really disastrous.
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