execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia at the weekend has triggered a predictable diplomatic crisis.
Iran immediately condemned the move, the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked by angry demonstrators, and Saudi Arabia then severed diplomatic ties with the country. On Monday, Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates followed suit. Yet despite the war of words, it is important to remember that this crisis is merely a microcosm of a wider geopolitical chess game between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it might also need some outside help to prevent it escalating further.
Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia must have known that the execution of a senior Shia cleric would exacerbate existing grievances within the region, especially with Shia-dominated Iran. After all, both countries claim leadership within the region and beyond. And both use sectarianism as a tool to buttress their goals.
But the reality is that these new developments are more about power politics than some kind of primordial battle between Sunni and Shia.
Remember, historically, Iran and Saudi Arabia have generally had cordial relations, precisely because both recognize and act in accordance with their national interests — the two countries are not ideologically blinded, and have tended to be driven by their own interests rather than emotion. For example, Saudi Arabia vehemently opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, ostensibly one of the biggest “Sunni” political organizations in the Arab world. Iranian leaders, meanwhile, rarely talk about Shia supremacy because as a minority in the Muslim world, such a strategy would limit the country’s foreign policy options.
Still, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 fundamentally changed the view from Saudi Arabia, because for the first time in modern history, Iran began to cultivate friendly relations with Baghdad. Iran already had good relations with Syria and access to Lebanon via its strong alliance with Hezbollah. So the idea of an axis connecting Tehran and Baghdad in the Persian Gulf to Damascus and Beirut in the Levant would likely have been seen as unacceptable to Saudi Arabia.
Compounding Saudi frustrations is the fact that its military intervention in Yemen against Houthi rebels has failed to bring about any serious, long-term gains, while its recent announcement of an Islamic Alliance against Terror — clearly another effort to marginalize Iran — has fallen flat.
There is also the nuclear deal between Iran and Western powers, which is viewed with skepticism in Riyadh. Until that recent opening, Iran had been a convenient bogeyman for regional crises. But with diplomatic channels now starting to open up between Tehran and Washington, Saudi Arabia is likely to lose its almost-exclusive role as regional interlocutor. Moreover, Iran will be in a better position to implement its foreign policies in international institutions. Plus, with more resources at its disposal as a result of the nuclear agreement, Iran is likely to play an even more prominent role in the region and beyond. (Tehran has already said it wants to re-enter negotiations about WTO membership).
All this suggests that the Persian Gulf may well come to resemble what former U.S. President Richard Nixon termed the “twin pillar” policy of the 1970s, which relied upon Saudi Arabia and the Shah’s Iran to safeguard regional security.
Of course times have changed, and both Iran and Saudi Arabia will want to avoid being dependent on Washington. But the reality is that this current diplomatic crisis will not be resolved by Tehran and Riyadh alone — it will likely need the involvement in some way of The United States and Europe. In practical terms that could mean help in creating an Organization for Peace and Cooperation in West Asia, along the lines of the OSCE, which helped to pacify a Europe that had seen two world wars.
Ultimately, it is clear as countries in the region take sides that a creative diplomatic solution is needed to take the heat out of an increasingly combustible situation. If those involved are serious about ensuring regional stability, that solution will most likely require the involvement of the U.S. and Europe.