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Saudi Arabia and Iran: University of Toronto experts explain the situation

Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran, Iran. Photo: yeowatzup (CC BY 2.0)

Behesht-e Zahra, Tehran, Iran. Photo: yeowatzup (CC BY 2.0)

With the execution of prominent critic and Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2, Saudi Arabia has triggered a renewed escalation of the Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict in the Middle East.

The execution has sparked marches, the pullback of diplomatic missions and heightened tensions and fears that the Syrian peace talks will be affected.

As the U.S. works behind the scenes to calm ruffled egos, and Iraq and Russia offer to mediate between the two regional powers, U of T News spoke with Stephen Toope, director of U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs, and Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi, professor of Near and Middle East Civilizations, about the history of the conflict and why Canadians need to pay attention.


Why did the Saudis choose to execute the cleric? 

Tavakoli-Targhi: The Iranian government views Nimr al-Nimr as an independent Saudi religious dissident and considers his execution to be part of the larger persecution of Shiites in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since the reactive attack on the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Tehran, Iranian President Rouhani has called for the immediate arrest of those who were involved, which I believe means that a direct military entanglement of Iran and Saudi Arabia seems unlikely. With the improvement of its relations with Iran, the United States could play a constructive role in containing Iran from any such further provocation.


Toope: 
The death may have been a shot across the bow to Iran to say we will not defer to you. We will stand up and defend what we think to be our interest. Even more worrisomely, it could also be a statement to the United States that its influence in the Saudi regime is less powerful than it once was.

It was quite clear that the U.S. had given very significant warnings to the Saudis that they should not kill the cleric, but they went ahead and did it anyway. This is coming on the heels of the nuclear agreement where the Saudis, although they did accept the agreement, were not happy with the Americans for brokering it.

This may be a signal to the U.S. as well that they may not always get their way. But I would think the U.S. is doing everything it can behind the scenes. They’ll be talking to Saudis of course, but John Kerry’s relationship with the Iranian foreign minister, which was developed over the period of the nuclear negotiations, may be an important relationship at this point. I suspect there are phone calls taking place, and I suspect the European Union and a number of countries with influence and historic connections will be trying to play a role here.


What’s behind the Iran-Saudi standoff?

Tavakoli-Targhi:  Saudi Arabia has been the primary financial and political beneficiary of the increased economic sanctions on Iran. Thus the long negotiation process that led to the initial signing of the Nuclear Agreement with Iran in July has intensified Saudi Arabia’s internal political crisis, which is seen by many as existential.

During the Arab Spring of 2010, the Saudis viewed Iran as the instigator of the uprisings and invested heavily in the re-manufacturing of a Shia-Sunni religious divide. The Saudi military support for the Sunni opposition in Syria, its invasion of Yemen in March 2015, and the execution of the Saudi Arabian Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr must be understood within this zero-sum-game of the Saudi political calculus. It views the normalization of relations with Iran through things such as the Iran Deal as hazardous to the financial and political survival of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


Toope:
 The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia has obviously some religious dimensions, strong historical dimensions, and regional power dimensions.

The religious piece goes back more than a thousand years; there was really quite a fundamental split right after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who would be his rightful heir. Since then, Sunnis and Shiites have co-existed relatively peacefully with periodic flare-ups. But with the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeini coming back from Paris, it unleashed Shia militancy in the wider Middle East region.

In the early ‘80s, there was an abortive coup attempt in Bahrain and an attempt to assassinate the emir of Kuwait − both failed but were Shia-inspired. Iran’s government began supporting organizations that were destabilizing other parts of the Middle East − Hezbollah in Lebanon and elsewhere, and recently the Houthis in Yemen. That prompted more aggressive responses from Saudi leadership and the Sunnis more broadly. There was also the Iran-Iraq war with Saddam Hussein against Ayatollah Khomeini. It was very bloody and damaging.

Recently in Saudi Arabia, there’s been a transition to a new generation of leadership. Even though the king is of the old generation, he’s allowed the crown prince and his own son, who is the minister of defence, to take a much more active role in leadership within the kingdom, and they have been much more aggressive − willing to use force − in their international engagement in the Middle East such as the Saudi-led coalition to push back the Houthis in Yemen.

Finally, this is also part of a regional fight for power and for influence. For a long, long time, Saudi Arabia was winning that battle very handily because of its alliances with the United States and with other Sunni powers in the Middle East. But when the Arab Spring took place, you started to see the collapse of some of the regimes that had looked relatively stable. All of a sudden, Saudi Arabia’s position started to deteriorate and Iran’s position was becoming more assertive.

The recent nuclear deal also allowed Iran to end its isolation and re-engage the U.S. and the Europeans. Yes, there is religious background to this, but there’s also this really negative history around the 1980s particularly and a sense of fragility concerning Saudi influence and an emboldened Iran. It is potentially a dangerous moment.


Why should the world or Canada care?

Toope: It lends a further air of instability to the Middle East. We’ve already got the crisis in Syria. You’ve got Iraq, which remains fragile. You’ve got the growing influence of ISIS in North Africa, and now you have a very open conflict between Iran and Saudi, the two most important powers in the area.

Because of the engagement of Russia in Syria, and because you have an attempt by Iran to uphold the Assad government, you then have a de facto relationship between Iran and Russia, which could be complicating for all of the NATO and US allies seeking to accomplish some kind of settlement to the Syrian crisis. What happened here between Saudi and Iran makes it even more difficult because the stakes have been raised even higher − it’s no longer only about Syria and its neighbours. It’s now about the relative power of Iran and Saudi to influence political outcomes, and they’re both going to want to show they have the upper hand.

This draws in the Russians with the Russians being on the same side as the Iranians, and the U.S., which historically was on the same side as the Saudis but just reached the nuclear agreement with Iran.

You also have a reduced chance of reaching any kind of settlement in Yemen. There had been a ceasefire, but once the cleric was killed, the Houthis declared the ceasefire would be over. In the larger geo-political context, we seem to have entered a period where this quite longstanding split between Sunni and Shia Islam could continue to play out in quite worrisome ways with proxy wars being fought with support of non-governmental organizations that are either terrorist groups or supposed freedom fighters being backed by Iran or by Saudi Arabia, seeking to destabilize other regimes in the area.

I suspect this is a very controversial statement, but I think the regime in Saudi Arabia may be more fragile than the regime in Iran. The Saudi king and royal family have been able to maintain power because of economic success. With the fall of oil prices, it’s going to be harder to sustain the kind of expenditures to support the population and especially if they take more aggressive stances from a military perspective. So we’re going to see more financial pressures for Saudi Arabia, and the regime may not be as stable as one might have imagined.


Tavakoli-Targhi
: While there could be a brief setback, the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia will not have a considerable effect on the Syrian peace talks. With their military engagement in Yemen and instability at home, the Saudi government could be compelled to engage more actively in the Syrian peace talks. Against the showing of its military ineptitude in Yemen, the Syrian peace talks will give the Saudis the opportunity of trying their hands at an alternative venture. This will be welcomed by the international community, and particularly by Iran.