By: Yigit Topcu
The complex geopolitical situation in the Middle East was made even more difficult to resolve on Sunday as Saudi Arabia cut its diplomatic ties with Iran after their Tehran embassy was stormed and set on fire by a group of Iranian protesters. The protesters’ fury at Saudi Arabia came as a result of the execution of a prominent cleric from Saudi Arabia’s minority community of Shiite Muslims.
The cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, was an outspoken critic of the Saudi government and an advocate for more rights on behalf of the Shiite minority, who for years have complained of discrimination and marginalization within Saudi Arabia’s Sunni-majority population. Nimr was also a leading figure in demonstrations and protests held by Saudi Shias against the Saudi government during the Arab Spring, making him a long-time rival and critic of the Saudi state.
This development comes at a time when Iran and Saudi Arabia have increasingly become important players in the region’s years ahead. The future of the Middle East is greatly influenced by the actions of these two countries, and their now face-to-face rivalry is realistically a major setback for restoring peace and order.
Sectarian animosity plays into their rivalry to an extent, as Iran and Saudi Arabia find themselves representing the two sides of a 1,000 year old Islamic schism between Sunni and Shia. However it would be a mistake to categorize this rivalry as merely a religious dispute – after all Sunni and Shia have, for centuries, lived peacefully in the region. The true roots of this rivalry lies in the competing geopolitical goals of the Saudi state versus those of the Iranian state.
The Shiites are a minority in the Muslim world, with about 10-15% of the Muslims being Shia. Iran is unique in that a majority of its population, close to 90% of it, adheres to that minority belief. As a result, when the 1979 revolution replaced a pro-Western government with a religious state, Iran became the predominant Shia power in the mostly Sunni region. This has had profound influence on their foreign policy, as it meant that Iran’s Shia-led government would naturally be more in solidarity with other Shia governments and movements. In response to this growing authority of Iran beyond its borders, Saudi Arabia began adopting a policy of countering such influence, which typically meant siding with the Sunnis.
This behavior of opposing each others’ influence has continued within the recent conflicts of the region, with regular competing involvement from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad is a Shia dictator with Iran’s backing, while the majority of Syria’s population is Sunni, meaning that the popular protests (now civil war) has had Saudi support. In Iraq, the population is mostly Shia, while the government of Saddam Hussein was Sunni: the 2003 invasion toppled this Sunni government, and a Shia-dominated state came into being, further fueling tensions. Elsewhere this pattern has continued to hold: Saudi Arabia has helped suppress anti-government protests by the majority Shia population of Bahrain. In Yemen, Iran has supported Shia Houthi rebels while Saudi Arabia has supported the Sunni government.
The severing of diplomatic ties is therefore truly a major setback for peaceful efforts in the region. There have been calls appealing for calm from the US, EU, Turkey, China, and Russia, but many of Saudi Arabia’s allies have already denounced or cut ties with Iran. While there is a united interest in annihilating ISIS or ending the civil war in Syria, the exact answers for what happens next are heavily disagreed upon by Iran and Saudi Arabia given their competition for power and influence.
The cycle of violence gripping the Middle East will not break if its rivaling major players make cooperation more difficult, as they have now done, at a time which greatly requires less tension, not more. The key to reducing tension is dialogue, cooperation and diplomacy: severing ties, storming embassies and expelling diplomats are the exact opposite of what needs to be done. Unless the situation between Iran and Saudi Arabia deescalates, we will unfortunately continue to see more perpetual warfare in the Middle East, more proxy wars in their neighbors, more chaos for innocent civilians and, of course, more fuel for radicalization.