Relations between Riyadh and Tehran have gone from terrible to non-existent. It is clear to the West that both sides have provoked further escalation in an already fragile region. It will be critical to avoid aligning too closely with either side, even if this complicates relations with traditional regional allies when they behave in problematic ways that damage Western interests. Exercising this balance will be crucial.
Riyadh’s decision to execute 47 people, including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, forms part of the Kingdom’s strategy to demonstrate assertive Sunni leadership both at home and abroad. It has also predictably injected a new layer of geopolitical and sectarian crisis into the region. The unjustified embassy attacks in Tehran further exacerbated this situation resulting in Saudi Arabia severing relations with Iran.
This crisis mode has provided the House of Saud an opportunity to divert attention away from its domestic vulnerabilities and to unify its Sunni core constituencies against a common Shia enemy. It sent a strong message that future local Shia opposition would be dealt with using the harshest penalty. Saudi Arabia has also attempted to sideline domestic problems with its youth unemployment, a budget deficit of almost $100 billion and religious factions opposed to its reformist agendas. King Salman bin Abdulaziz has signalled that he would act forcefully on domestic issues independent of the West – another policy that gains domestic popularity.
Saudi Arabia has also attempted to distract debate on its less than successful foreign policy initiatives, particularly in Yemen, on which there seems to be growing concern that the costs involved outweigh the gains. And despite announcing the formation of the Islamic Coalition against terrorism, there is a sense that Saudi Arabia lacks the leadership necessary to mobilise an effective Sunni military front. The execution of al-Nimr and the escalation with Iran also in part form a response to the ideological challenges laid down by Islamic State that competes with Riyadh as protector of Sunnis against perceived Shia hegemony in the region.
Impact of escalation
The developments so far are unlikely to have substantive impact on Saudi-Iran bilateral relations or the region, given both were already at their worst state. The snowball effect of tit-for-tat provocation is an unsurprising manifestation of the deteriorating stalemate between Riyadh and Tehran. Since it became clear that world powers were on a course to strike a nuclear deal that would benefit Iran’s geopolitical position, Saudi Arabia has doubled down on escalation to strengthen its position in Syria and Yemen. Iran has also ensured it retains its position of relative strength in the region.
Saudi Arabia will try and influence its allies to take a hawkish stance on Iran. But is not going to inspire a coalition of Arab or Sunni nations to follow suit, and certainly not Europeans who are looking to renew relations with Iran once sanctions are lifted. Oman will not abandon its traditionally neutral position. Turkey will do the same given trade ties to Iran. Pakistan’s recent opposition to joining various Saudi coalitions makes it an unlikely contender to cut relations with neighbouring Iran. The UAE is unlikely to go beyond reducing diplomatic ties to levels of charge d’affairs. Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait (which has so far recalled its ambassador) could follow the UAE model. Bahrain has unsurprisingly cut its already fractured diplomatic links to Tehran, as has Sudan. While Morocco, Egypt and other African nations may decide to sever ties to Iran, their relations are already minimal.
But if Riyadh and Tehran continue their escalation, the trajectory could have troublesome implications for the region and the West.
First, such escalation has already contributed towards the region’s polarisation and will continue to do so. This will make diplomacy more difficult and narrow the options for balance in the region. Although Saudi Arabia recently rekindled diplomatic relations with Iraq after 25 years, the execution of al-Nimr forces Baghdad and Najaf to side with Iran as the only viable regional power safeguarding Shia interests. Lebanon is currently resuscitating its power sharing system, but it too could face challenges across sectarian lines if Iran and Saudi Arabia do not isolate their fallout.
Second, the two sides may step up domestic interference by agitating respective minorities in oil rich regions. Fears have been raised that the Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia may turn to violent opposition as the most viable means of showcasing their objection, and that they would do so with assistance from Iran. This type of escalation would set Tehran on a dangerous course given that Saudi Arabia could easily reciprocate unrest amongst Iran’s Sunni minority close to the Pakistani border. So far, Iran and Saudi Arabia have prudently minimised the extent to which they would engage in such direct interference, preferring toimpose costs on one-another’s interests on third party shores.
Third, Iran and Saudi Arabia may use their recent fallout as an excuse to scuttle the Syrian negotiations by sticking to maximalist demands that make constructive movement impossible. The Syrian talks had a major hurdle to overcome in getting Riyadh and Tehran around the same negotiating table. But this was not sufficient in itself for progress so long as both sides refuse to compromise. Escalation between the regional powers make it even more difficult to broach the pragmatic middle way that is needed to resolve the Syrian crisis.
Going forward it will be crucial for the West to safeguard the Syrian talks. This is the battleground where any further escalation for Saudi Arabia and Iran will have greatest ripple effects across the region and into Europe. The Syrian negotiations are also important to preserve as the only existing political track accompanying the military dimension of the conflict.
At this stage, Iran and Saudi Arabia are likely to base their strategy on short-term reactionary measures. Iran and Saudi Arabia must be reminded that any one party should not be able to spoil this multilateral process and that diplomatic space must be maintained with all parties. If either side does become the spoiler, it will be seen as doing so on a post-facto justification for a position they had already decided and would have taken as soon as an apt pretext arose.
The West should focus on cooling the fallout as soon as possible and to avoid exacerbating the conflict by taking unbalanced positions. For example, Iran received condemnation from the UN Security Councilregarding the embassy attacks. In turn, Western powers must also outline to Saudi Arabia, at least in private, that measures provoking sectarian tensions will bear costs. The greatest asset Europeans could offer is to maintain the direct access to, and political space with both Riyadh and Tehran and to avoid aligning too closely with either side in a conflict in which they cannot determine the outcome.