The rift between Riyadh and Tehran is taking a toll on the region
BY Dr. Adnan Mansour
The severing of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran came against the backdrop of the tense and bloody events that have plagued the Arab world over the past years. That tension was reinforced by disagreement between Riyadh and Tehran over sensitive regional issues in several countries especially in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
The discord between the two regional giants will have a direct negative impact on the situation in countries marred by turmoil and where terrorist groups are increasingly mushrooming. These terrorists continue to threaten the security, stability and territorial sovereignty of frail regional states already strained by conflicts.
Moreover, such groups have found complete support from regional and international countries, as well as individuals, who have found in extremist thoughts a fertile soil to invest in.
The final nail in the coffin of the already feeble diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran came when Iranian protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and general consulate in Mashhad. The protesters broke into the buildings of both diplomatic missions and ransacked the property, in reaction to Saudi Arabia’s execution of Saudi Shiite Sheikh Nimr Al Nimr on January 2.
Although Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, called for the protection of the Saudi diplomatic missions in fear of any retaliation, the Iranian government did not act swiftly on the matter, just as the international community’s calls for Saudi Arabia not to execute Nimr were disregarded.
Riyadh went a step further in its response and froze economic relations with the Islamic Republic. Trade between Saudi Arabia and Iran did not exceed $172 million in the first eight months of 2015, with Saudi exports to Iran barely touching the $40 million mark.
For its part, Iran banned its nationals from traveling to Saudi Arabia. Some 800,000 Iranian pilgrims visited the Saudi Kingdom in 2014, and a similar number in 2015, for pilgrimage and religious tours.
Several Arab and Gulf countries, such as Bahrain and Kuwait, followed suit severing diplomatic ties with Iran and giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave. The United Arab Emirates downgraded its diplomatic representation with Iran.
Meanwhile, international reactions were more subdued, signaling an unwillingness to get involved in such a polarized conflict.
Germany advised both countries to sit together and solve their differences but threatened to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile the United States, Saudi Arabia’s ally, remained silent on the matter, raising questions on the strength of its agreement with Iran.
Yet, the political step has far stronger and more profound implications than the economic one.
The most pressing question would be: What kind of political and non-political impact will the severing of bilateral relations have on the region?
There is no doubt that the Saudi decision highlights new rules for the already unstable Arab world. It further shows:
* The conflict has polarized the region where Saudi Arabia and Iran have each mobilized allies and friends in opposing camps. Such polarization has an immense impact on regional events and developments.
* Both Saudi Arabia and Iran realize only too well that any military confrontation, should it occur, would yield catastrophic and unimaginable consequences not only for them, but also for the region as a whole. An armed conflict will be even more difficult to resolve, which explains why later statements by Saudi and Iranian officials have called against the escalation of tensions.
Perhaps the most notable statement to that effect was made by Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who warned of a “great catastrophe,” in the case of war erupting between the two Muslim nations. He added that Saudi Arabia would not allow such a direct confrontation to break out.
* Even though such statements mirror an unwillingness to engage in direct military confrontation, it does not mean that either Saudi Arabia or Iran have stopped providing all means of support to their allies in more than one Arab country witnessing bloody conflicts.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has stood by armed opposition factions in Syria since the beginning of that crisis in 2011, providing them with financial, military, logistical and even media support.
Such support was also clear in Arab League’s resolutions on the Syrian crisis, in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar initiated calls for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and hand power over to the opposition, in addition to demands for freezing Syria’s membership in the Arab League.
On the other hand, Iran has been an adamant supporter of the Assad regime and the current Syrian government. It has seen its allies, as well as leading members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard engage, and even die, in battles between the Syrian army, armed opposition groups and radical organizations on the ground.
* Saudi-Iranian relations have now hit rock bottom and such tensions will surely be translated in an escalation of armed confrontations in war-stricken Arab countries. Locked in a power struggle, Tehran and Riyadh will now, more than ever, try to cement their regional strength and presence by boosting support to their proxies in these conflicts.
* The ideological discourse between Saudi Arabia and Iran is deeply rooted and prevalent, making it more difficult for either country to make concessions in favor of the other party regarding pressing regional matters.
As such, it is highly unlikely, in the foreseeable future, that relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be restored to their normal levels, unless comprehensive solutions are reached to the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, as well as in Bahrain. This is in addition to agreeing on a unified stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
* It is difficult to fold the page on decades of antagonism between Riyadh and Tehran or to find a swift resolution to their conflict in light of current regional tension and ongoing wars on a number of fronts; not to forget the deeply rooted mistrust between both countries. As such by regional and international powers mediation is urgently required to bridge the gap and help both parties find a common ground and a mutual understanding. Such good offices would help push both Muslim nations towards sitting down together to forge political solutions to end this inferno that has destroyed the region’s infrastructure, economies and institutions, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions of others.
* Should the Saudi-Iranian conflict persist, the rules of engagement, direct or by proxy, will continue and will turn this whole region into a battlefield to settle their scores. Thus, the two fronts would be as such:
* An Iranian front to be joined by some Muslim nations and regional friends, supported by Russia, which sees in Iran a strategic ally that cements its national security and strategic presence in the region.
* A Saudi front that will mobilize some Islamic and Arab nations and will be supported by the United States, the kingdom’s historic ally.
It seems that the time has not yet come to end this region’s woes. Until political solutions are found, the Arab world will continue to stand on a hot tin and will witness an escalation in clashes and bloody events. Terrorist organizations, whose members have flocked from overseas to take part in regional wars, will continue to threaten not only the Middle East, but also the rest of the world. Such radical groups, with their deviated teachings and rejectionist approach, are rapidly destroying the social and cultural fabric of the region’s most vulnerable communities. As long as there are regional and international parties willing to support terrorist groups such as Daesh, Al Nusra Front (Al Qaeda’s military arm in Syria), among others, the fight will never end, and the region will remain in this long and dark tunnel until further notice.
The writer is the former foreign affairs minister of Lebanon.