The sudden muscled escalation between the Saudis and the Iranians at the beginning of 2016 is frightening. Not only due to the possible worsening of the conflicts in Syria, in Iraq and in Yemen – where Riyadh and Teheran are already fighting using their respective allies – but due to the possibility of a direct reckoning of accounts between the two regional powers, in a generalized conflict, without any more margins for negotiation or settlement, between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
Let’s summarize the facts: on 2nd January, the government of Riyadh decapitated the imam and historical leader of the domestic Shi’ite opposition, Nimr Al Nimr. Rge broke out all over the Shi’ite world and in Iran, groups of rioters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Teheran and the consulate in Mashad. The Kingdom of the Saud broke off all trade and diplomatic relations with Iran, followed by some of the Gulf countries, which closed their embassies or reduced the personnel. Iran blocked all the importations of Saudi goods and prolonged a recent ban on its citizens from going to pray in Mecca and Medina “for reasons of safety” (on 24th September, during the solemn pilgrimage of the hajj, 770 pilgrims, including at least 460 Iranians, perished in Mina, not far from Mecca, due to the crowds: the government of Teheran was amongst the harshest critics of the Saudis, who were alleged not to have given adequate protection to the pilgrims – Ed.’s note).
In addition, Iran accuses the Saudi forces of having bombed the Iranian embassy in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. International diplomacy is trying to convince the two contenders to lower their tones, but the situation remains tense. “When the Saudis decided to execute the imam Al Nimr, they knew that something would have happened in Iran. Even though they did not know exactly what,” observed the Iranian analyst Reza Marashi.
The time could not be more delicate, Teheran is moving for the end of the international economic embargo and it is getting ready to elect the new Majlis (Parliament) and the Assembly of Experts (the body that appoints the Supreme Guide) scheduled for 26th February; furthermore, the negotiations on Syria have entered a crucial phase, in which Iran and Russia are playing a decisive role which is certainly not appreciated by the Saudis.
The government of Riyadh, by executing a Shi’ite imam accused only of crimes of opinion, “is trying to export at regional level its domestic fears and difficulties,” remarked a spokesman of the Iranian government.
It is no mystery that Saudi Arabia sees the rapprochement between Washington and Teheran as a threat to its regional power. Moreover the costs of the war, which to date has been unsuccessful, against the Houthi (Shi’ite) rebels in Yemen and the drop in the price of oil, on the trade of which the national economy is based, have drained the coffers of the royal family. The budget deficit stands at more than $100 billion and the rulers in Riyadh have had to impose austerity measures and taxes on a population that is little inclined to accept them. What could be better than to recompact souls against the hated Shi’ite enemy?
On the other hand, the attack against the Saudi embassy in Teheran was a violation of the one of the basic principles of international relations, i.e. the respect of foreign diplomatic seats; what’s more, it is not a “first time” as the US embassy in 1979 and the embassy of Great Britain in 2011 were attacked. “Leave some for the future generations to burn as well!” joked the Iranian wisecracks on the social media.
Beyond jokes, this time nobody claimed responsibility for the attack and the Iranian authorities – from the President of the Republic Rouhani to the Guardians of the Revolution – expressed their condemnation of the guilty. “They wanted to derail Iranian foreign policy of the last two years,” commented the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Other “incidents” could put the current moderate Iranian leadership which, after the end of the embargo and the reopening of Iran to the world, is also hoping in winning the elections, into a very difficult position.
It is not only Saudi Arabia that is aiming at exasperating relations, there is also a radical wing in Iran, made up of pasdaran and part of the Shi’ite clergy, siding on the line of “worse is better” and that, during the embargo, managed trade, accumulating huge wealth and consolidating a power base. The coming weeks are full of dangers. The US Congress, with a Republican majority, is also putting itself in the middle, wanting new limitations for Iran, foiling the agreements signed by the Secretary of State, John Kerry. There is also another al Nimr awaiting the executioner in a Saudi prison: Ali, the nephew of the Shi’ite imam, arrested when he was a minor with the accusations of having organized a demonstration in favour of his uncle. If they were to behead and crucify him, as the sentence already decrees, the consequences really could be catastrophic.