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Riyadh-Tehran conflict can negatively affect peace negotiations ongoing in Middle East

11:52 | 15.01.2016 | Analytic

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15 January 2016. PenzaNews. The diplomatic scandal between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, after the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent attacks on Saudi embassy and consulate in two cities, became the main topic of the extraordinary meeting held by the foreign ministers of the Arab League on January 10, 2016.

Riyadh-Tehran conflict can negatively affect peace negotiations ongoing in Middle East

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At the meeting in Cairo called by Riyadh, Arab League foreign ministers condemned Iran for attacks on diplomatic missions and intervention in the Middle Eastern affairs. However, Lebanon, a country with a strong Shia movement, abstained from supporting the final statement due to accusations in terrorist activities against the organization “Hezbollah” in such countries as Syria and Bahrain.

The day before, on January 9, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a similar statement, in which they expressed readiness to take additional measures against Iran in case of new hostile moves.

The relations between Riyadh and Tehran took a sudden turn for the worse on 2 January 2016, when Saudi Arabia announced the execution of 47 persons accused of terrorism, including the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr who was sentenced to death in 2014 for inciting sectarian strife and threatening national unity.

The actions of Saudi Arabia drew strong criticism from the top officials in Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and the German Human Rights Envoy Christoph Straesser.

On January 3, Riyadh severed diplomatic ties with Iran, after a group of protesters who gathered by the Saudi embassy in Tehran stormed the building, thrashed the offices and set it on fire during a nightly riot, while a mob attacked the consulate office in the second-largest Iranian city of Mashhad on the same night.

In a show of solidarity with Riyadh, one of the strongest players in the Arab Sunni world, Bahrain, Sudan, Somali and Djibouti also cut diplomatic ties with Iran, while Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE downgraded their level of diplomatic representation in the Islamic Republic.

The crisis in bilateral relations affected other areas as well. In particular, Riyadh and its allies announced the plans to boycott goods made in Iran. Moreover, on January 5, Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, one of the richest men in the world, canceled his plans to invest in the Islamic Republic. In return, on January 7, the government in Tehran severed commercial relations with Saudi Arabia, restricted imports from the countries that supported the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, and further extended the ban on Iranians traveling to the holy city of Mecca for the umrah pilgrimage.

However, both sides stated their intentions to continue participation in the Syrian settlement talks, the nearest round scheduled for beginning in Geneva on Monday, January 25.

Nevertheless, many politicians, observers and experts worldwide expressed their concern that the severing of diplomatic relations between the two countries may provoke yet another spike in Middle Eastern tensions. From their point of view, the recent incident will complicate dialogue not just over Iraq and Syria, but also over Yemen, where the end of the ceasefire on January 2 coincided with the execution of Nimr al-Nimr.

One of them, Bashdar Ismaeel, London-based journalist, political analyst, expert on Iraq, Turkey, Syria and the Middle East, suggested that the bold move by Riyadh and its allies split the Arab world into two parts and further polarized the longstanding opposition between the Sunni and the Shia.

“The Saudi wanted to send a strong message to Iran, but it also wanted to show that it has friends in the region. It is a big player, that goes without saying, and it holds significant sway,” the expert explained in an interview to PenzaNews agency.

From his point of view, the Saudi authorities decided to make such a bold step to prevent any further aggression aimed at its interests, including those in the hotspots of the Middle East.

“Friction isn’t new between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But in the last 10 years or so, especially since Saddam [Hussein] was denounced, the jockeying for power, especially in Iraq, Syria and the greater region, has been a lot more noticeable between Saudi Arabia and Iran. […] In Syria, there is a direct conflict between Iran and Saudi. Same in Yemen at the moment, with the airstrikes by Saudi Arabia taking place on the support that Iran has given to the Houthi rebels. Iran has shown itself as a big strength in the last few years on the regional stage. Of course, Saudi Arabia has worked hard to preserve its interests. It has a big military mind, and it wants to show Iran that not only will it promise action, it will deliver action,” Bashdar Ismaeel said.

In his opinion, the diplomatic conflict requires urgent resolution, which is a direct concern for Russia, the United States, and other countries.

“I think the allies and Russia also have a very key part to play here. Russia is a key influence in the Middle East at this moment in time, especially over Syria, but also it has good relations with most of these Arab countries,” the observer noted.

Meanwhile, Joseph Kechichian, expert on the Middle East and the Gulf states, Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, suggested that the Saudi-Iran conflict will last for at least several months.

“For the time being, there is a cooling-off period that will probably be useful. Both countries will essentially take a little time to figure out what is going on,” the political analyst explained.

He reminded that Tehran and Riyadh were and will remain neighbors, and therefore they will sooner or later restore bilateral relations with the help by the regional states.

“The two countries are not natural enemies: they have a great deal in common, but they also have a lot of differences of opinion,” the researcher said. Moreover, he stressed that the Saudi initiative to sever diplomatic ties was caused solely by the attacks on its diplomatic missions, a move that Riyadh considers an act of interference in its internal affairs.

“The leadership has concluded that it was in the best interest of the country to do this at this point,” Joseph Kechichian stressed, adding that Riyadh realizes the consequences of the decision for the peaceful negotiations over Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

At the same time, Thierry Coville, expert on Iran, researcher for the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), suggested that the attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate office in Mashhad could have been an internal act of provocation against the government in place.

“This fact has been condemned by nearly all the political spheres in Iran. […] I think the groups who have committed this act are some extremists, and maybe they are not happy with the present political situation in Iran and the want to complicate the task of the present Iranian government looking at the next parliamentary elections in February,” the expert explained.

Discussing the history of relations between the two countries, he reminded that in the 20th century, Iran during the rule of Presidenr Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani managed to achieve better and more constructive relations with Riyadh that lasted several years.

“I think the present tensions start in 2003, when Saddam Hussein in Iraq was overthrown and the Shia government came to power in Iraq. Since this fact, the Saudi authorities were completely obsessed with Iranian threat,” the researcher said.

From his point of view, the current policy in Riyadh to escalate tensions against Iran and the Shia community as a whole is a very risky strategy that gives arguments to such terrorist groups as Islamic State (terrorist organization banned in Russia, also known as IS, or Daesh in Arabic).

“I am not saying that Iran has no strategy concerning the region, but they are not developing a narrative based on religious discourse. […] I think they really should come back to a more classic diplomacy. Shia in Sunni in the Middle East have lived peacefully for a long time,” the expert reminded, adding that some Arab countries such as the UAE still remain economically very close to Tehran in spite of the differences.

In turn, Vasily Kuznetsov, director of the Political Systems and Cultures Transformation Issue Center at the World History faculty of the Moscow State University research fellow at the RAS Institute of Oriental Studies, expert of the Russian Council on International Affairs, expressed his doubts that the severing of diplomatic contacts on its own would be leading to any significant global change.

“I would simply regard this episode as one of the elements in the general movement of states and regions to escalation of Iran-Saudi confrontation. I think it will be increasing in the political field, in economy, in military, in the conflicts where Iran and Saudi Arabia are already present directly and indirectly, in Syria and Iraq. But I do not think this strife will cause a direct military clash,” the expert noted.

The execution of the cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who became a symbol of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, shows that Riyadh switched to a more harsh policy towards the internal opposition.

“I believe there are two factors related to that. First, the economy – the overall worsening of the economic situation in the kingdom which is present. It must not be overestimated, but it is there nevertheless. […] On the other hand, there is an internal struggle for power in the kingdom between various groups of princes, and there is a point of view that stifling the growth of the protest movement requires crushing down any such attempts,” Vasily Kuznetsov stressed.

At the same time, he expressed his belief that the diplomatic relations of Iran and Saudi Arabia will eventually be restored with the aid of Russia, the US, and other countries.

“But the problem lies not in diplomatic relations. There is a fundamental problem of deep distrust between the two countries, the antagonism, the difference in perspectives on the regional situation. […] The understanding of the situation in each of the two countries needs to change, but I see fairly few opportunities for that in the nearest future,” explained the expert of the Russian Council on International Affairs.

Meanwhile, Renad Mansour, Research Fellow for the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut, expert at the Carnegie Middle East Center, pointed out that Iran and Saudi Arabia will not become true allies as they need to antagonize each other to exist.
“From many perspectives, it seems like an overstretch to simply cut diplomatic relations because of protests and the burning of the embassy. But it does exemplify the tensions between the two countries, which have been going on for a long time in the region,” the expert said.

He also suggested that the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr could have been an attempt by the Saudi rulers to distract the public attention from the execution of radical Sunni Islamists that have the sympathies of a segment of the population.

“For Riyadh, sectarianism is a necessary tool for legitimacy, because when it is able to create an external threat of Iran, of the Shia and the Shia expansion, it is able to gain legitimacy among its Sunni population which is the majority,” Renad Mansour explained.

In his opinion, there is no danger that the Sunni-Shia Cold War would transform into a full-fledged sectarian clash, but the peaceful process over Syria, Yemen and Iraq potentially would be delayed.

“Cutting diplomatic ties is cutting communication, and we’ve seen in the past that even if you disagree with another country, you should at the very least have some form of communication just to understand and know the other country,” stressed the Research Fellow for the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies.

In turn, Michael Stephens, Middle East expert, director of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Qatar, suggested that the timing for Riyadh to execute the Shia cleric was not right.

“They were willing to send a message to the West, and they were willing to send a message internally. […] But, of course, politics being what they are, if you execute a Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, it is going to come across very badly,” the expert said, adding that Nimr al-Nimr became an important figure for the Shia over the years of his court process.

Discussing the attacks on the diplomatic missions in Iran, he recalled a similar incident on 29 November 2011, when a group of rioters trashed the UK embassy in Tehran after the introduction of a new set of sanctions, which resulted in Iranian diplomats being forced to leave London at once.

“The reaction of Iranians [at night into 3 January 2016] clearly was a breach of the 1961 diplomatic convention,” Michael Stephens said.

From his point of view, the aggressive reaction by the Iranian population and the harsh measures taken by Riyadh in return are caused by the fact that neither side wants to look weak with the current level of tensions.

According to the analyst, the growing tensions due to cut diplomatic ties may negatively affect not only the Arab world conflicts, but also the European migration crisis.

“I think the people that have to do the most work here are probably Moscow and Washington. Those two countries are probably the only two countries right now that have enough diplomatic influence in the region to actually be able to get these two to start backing down,” he pointed out, adding that the decision by Washington to distance itself from the issues in the Middle East only made the situation more complex.

In addition, Michael Stephens urged the United Nations, as well as politicians of the East and the West to revitalize and flesh out multilateral talks over Yemen and Syria to stop the fighting, and use this opportunity to begin a long-term recovery of Saudi-Iran diplomatic relations.

“Obviously, the decision to break relations is not going to help solve any of the problems in the Arab world. It’s a frustrating time when you’ve got some many conflicts at the moment, and what really need to happen is people coming together, and not dividing,” the expert stressed. 

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