Iranian-Saudi relations before the abyss
Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
The execution in Saudi Arabia of Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, one of the top Shiite religious leaders in the kingdom and the one who led the Shiite protest during the Arab Spring, brings the historical tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia to a new peak. In his sermons the sheikh had criticized the Saudi royal house ("Liberate Palestine not Bahrain") and expressed support for Iran. These sermons became the main basis of the death sentence he was given in 2014, leading to his execution together with 46 others (four of them Shiites) who were charged with involvement in terror. The execution sparked riots in the Qatif governorate in the eastern part of the oil-rich kingdom.
Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei lost no time warning that al-Nimr's execution would not go unanswered. Iran had already warned against executing him a number of times. As Khamenei declared: "Undoubtedly, the blood of this innocent martyr which has been shed unjustly will leave its impacts and the Saudi politicians will be punished by ‘divine vengeance.'" The words of Khamenei, who criticized the silence of the West and human rights organizations, were also circulated in the social networks and in several languages.
Khamenei attacked Saudi Arabia's policy and actions against the Shiite populations in Bahrain and Yemen, and linked assassinations ascribed to Israel (Hizbullah's Kuntar, Hamas' Sheikh Yassin) to al-Nimr's execution in Saudi Arabia, asserting that awakening and resistance cannot be suppressed by assassinations. The Iranian media made haste to publish condemnations by Shiite spokesmen and others throughout the world, including voices from Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanese Hizbullah (which certainly will take part in Iran's response to the execution), Yemen (Ansar Allah), as well as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
Hard on the heels of the execution and the harsh denunciations of Saudi Arabia, an Iranian mob inspired by Khamenei burst into the Saudi embassy compound in Tehran, set it on fire, and tore down and desecrated the flag of the kingdom. Saudi Arabia, for its part, rapidly announced that it was cutting diplomatic ties with Iran. Bahrain, Kuwait, UAE and Sudan followed Riyadh move. Iran, no less swiftly, changed the name of the street where the Saudi embassy is located (Boustan Street) to Nimr Baqir al-Nimr Street. In the past Iran also changed the name of the Egyptian embassy's street to Khaled al-Islambouli Street after the assassin of President Sadat and even issued a stamp in his remembrance.
Saudi Arabia severed its relations with Iran in 1988 and renewed them after the 1991 Gulf War. It accused Iran of conducting subversion in its territory and in the Persian Gulf states (or "Arab Gulf" as the Gulf States call it). In July 1987, Saudi security forces clashed with Iranian pilgrims during their special "disavowal of infidels" ceremony as part of the Hajj; since then the ceremony has been a source of tension between the two states. In the 1987 incident, hundreds of pilgrims were killed and a number of Saudi security men; Iran avenged the deaths on its side with a series of attacks on Saudi diplomats abroad. Last September, hundreds of pilgrims from around the world were again killed in Saudi Arabia, this time in a stampede, and Iran accused the kingdom of "poor management" that led to the disaster including the deaths of over 40 Iranian pilgrims.
In the aftermath of Sheikh Namir's execution, then, the tension between these two regional powers, both of which aspire to hegemony in the Islamic world, is at an apex. On one side is Shiite Iran, which has been gaining power since the signing of the nuclear deal with the West; the deal enables it to keep advancing its nuclear program, rehabilitate its economy, and bolster its regional influence (with American consent). On the other side is Sunni Saudi Arabia, which is striving to stabilize the Arab world falling apart since the Arab Spring American "betrayal" and to ensure its own domestic stability and status in the Muslim world as it observes with great trepidation the Shiite revival to its east (Iran, Iraq) and south (Yemen).
The two states are waging a cold war through their proxies along the length and breadth of the Middle East, competing to shape a region that has been in disarray since the Arab Spring. This struggle is being fought mainly in Yemen, Saudi Arabia's backyard (recently the Iranian-backed Houthis fired rockets and missiles into Saudi Arabia from Yemen), Syria (where Iran is acting on the ground to keep Assad in power while Saudi Arabia works to remove him), Bahrain (Iran supports the Shiite majority, which opposes the Sunni government, and Saudi Arabia was already forced in the past to protect Bahrain's ruler), and in Iraq (where Iran-backed Shiite militias are confronting the Islamic State).
The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Muslim world cannot be bridged, at least not in the coming years, and indeed has been mounting as the region undergoes dramatic developments and historic changes. These changes are political, as borders that were established by the colonial powers are being redrawn, demographic (involving refugees and the return to tribal configurations), and geostrategic, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, the increased Russian involvement, and the rise in the mass and activity of nonstate actors, particularly the Islamic State.
Some of these changes are rooted in Sunni-Shiite disputes and divisions going back to the early days of Islam. These have affected relations between the two main Islamic sects throughout Arab and Muslim history. In light of Iran's ideological-religious-national aspirations combined with Arab weakness, the competition is likely to further intensify in the coming years. From time to time Iran and Saudi Arabia try to project an appearance of "business as usual" and to improve their relations (Iran's FM, Zarif hinted during the nuclear negotiations that he will visit Saudi Arabia). Under the surface, however, the historical factors are only rendered more potent by recent Middle Eastern developments, which well reflect the profound religious chasm between Saudi Arabia and Iran and lead them into inevitable conflict. Even if, for the time being, that conflict is being waged in the secondary arenas (Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, etc.), in the future it will turn into a direct confrontation.
A History of Violence
At the beginning of the 19th century, emissaries of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab came from the desert abode of Nejd to proclaim the tidings of Wahhabism and fundamentalist Islam. It was part of the broader phenomenon of the reform movements that arose in the Muslim world to try and check Islam's declining status in the face of rising Western power. Wahhabism called for a return to the roots of Islam as part of the solution, while rejecting the motif of veneration of saints or any other mediation between the individual and his God as practiced in Shiism. In Karbala in 1802, supporters of Wahhabism desecrated the tomb of Imam Hussein, one of the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and the tortured saint of Shiism. That incident left an indelible impression on the Shiites, who view Hussein and his martyrdom in the Battle of Karbala (680) as a paradigm of self-sacrifice to be repeated in contemporary battlegrounds across the Middle East.
During the Wahhabi conquest of the Arabian Peninsula and subsequently, the Shiites in the area became a target of violence and ridicule. In 1913 the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) army headed by Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, the Wahhabi commander and eventual first king of Saudi Arabia, invaded the Shiite-populated al-Ahsa province and tried to impose Wahhabism there. In 1925 Ibn Saud's forces invaded Medina and destroyed the tombs where the daughter of Muhammad and the second, fourth, fifth, and sixth Shiite imams were buried. This event is marked during the Hajj to this day by Shiite pilgrims, who sneak into the tombs in an effort to evade the infamous Saudi morality police (the Mutaween).
After the conquest of al-Ahsa, the Ikhwan called for a jihad against the Shiites and asked that Ibn Saud convert the residents or kill them. Ibn Saud hesitated, and in 1926 the Ikhwan themselves murdered a large number of Shiites. With the establishment of the Saudi kingdom in 1932, the Shiites were pushed to the margins of the Saudi society, economy, and political world and were barred from almost every significant public post or position of power in the kingdom. Demographically speaking, the Shiites are now concentrated in the eastern, oil-rich al-Ahsa governorate along the Iraqi border. The Saudis fear Iran's efforts to provoke the population, damage the oil industry, and ultimately overthrow the Saudi royal house. This fear has recently grown with the deepening of Iran's activity in Yemen and its assistance to the Houthis, who recently, as noted, have launched rockets and missiles at Saudi territory, attempting to hit Aramco's oil facilities in the Jizan area.
An Inevitable Collision Course
In the near and more distant future, Saudi-Iranian relations, in particular, and the Arab world's relations with Shiite Iran, in general, will continue to reflect the Sunni-Shiite deepening religious divide, which has been the dominant factor in those relations for centuries. This factor, now further compounded by Saudi Arabia's execution of an important Shiite leader, will also affect the different Middle Eastern hot spots. Iran will keep trying to exert its influence in Syria and Lebanon via Hizbullah, as well as in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, and everywhere in the Arab world and beyond it where there is a Shiite Muslim population or a Muslim population open to Iranian assistance.
In the short term, Iran will try, through its proxies, to strike Saudi targets within and outside the kingdom as it has done in the past (with Saudi diplomats abroad and Saudi soldiers in Yemen as targets). The Saudi-Iranian struggle, reinforced by the execution, will probably also hamper the efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crises in Yemen and Syria, where the two states are acting behind the scenes, and may even intensify the fighting there.
Saudi Arabia, for its part – its back to the wall after blatant American snubs – will keep trying to maintain a counterweight in Syria and Lebanon, providing money and other assistance to the rebels to ward off the growing Iranian-Shiite threat. It will also have to keep fighting Iran in adjacent Iraq and Yemen while forming an Arab bloc to counter Iran's looming nuclear threat.
Saudi Arabia has abandoned its past passive foreign policy, and since King Salman's crowning he has adopted more assertive domestic (counter-terrorism and counter-subversion) and foreign policy (deployed forces to Yemen, reopened Saudi embassy in Baghdad after 25 years). The Saudi king has more tools to harm Iran's economy that is desperate for a real improvement following the nuclear deal. The kingdom can increase its oil output pushing global oil prices down.
Iran will try to press its advantage over Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab world through its nuclear program, internal stability and geostrategic power, which lately has received Western recognition; more simply, Iran will keep working for a Shiite bomb. In doing so, Iran, from its standpoint, will be rectifying the historical injustice – going back to the inception of Islam – of contemptuous and arrogant treatment of Shiites by Sunnis. It will also present a fitting Shiite Islamic alternative for the Middle Eastern struggle against the West and "its handiwork," Israel, after the repeated failures of Arab nationalism. If Iran completes its nuclear program and arrives at the bomb, Saudi Arabia along with other Arab states will be forced to settle for an American (despite the Saudis' and Gulf states' recently expressed doubts about American commitment to the kingdom) or Pakistani ("the first Sunni Islamic bomb") nuclear umbrella, and may also have to launch their own nuclear program and thus open a Middle Eastern nuclear arms race.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are already in a "cold war" over influence in the Middle East and beyond. The struggle between the Islamic sects continues while taking on different features amid the regional and international developments. The Saudis, more than they fear enriched uranium, fear Shiism enriched to high levels of subversion in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are preparing for a day of reckoning in which the cold war could well become a hot one. Very hot.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.