Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Tensions mount after Saudi execution

The diplomatic crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia will need to be resolved if there is to be any hope of a solution to the Syrian conflict, writes Camellia Entekhabifard

Al-Ahram Weekly

Amid hopes of finding a solution to the Syrian conflict through a new round of talks, a new source of tension has appeared. This tension, between the two hubs of the talks — Iran and Saudi Arabia — could prove extremely dangerous for efforts to end the war.

Just three weeks away from the talks, scheduled for 25 January in Geneva, last Saturday a prominent Saudi Shia cleric, Nimr Al-Nimr, was executed in Saudi Arabia. His execution sparked outrage and protests in parts of the Muslim world, especially in Iran where the regime is led by a Shia theocracy.

Angry Iranian protesters attacked Saudi Arabian diplomatic missions in Mashhad and Tehran, setting parts of the buildings on fire and entering the missions in protest against Al-Nimr’s execution.

The attacks challenge reform efforts by the government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, now emerging from sanctions and preparing to implement the accord on the country’s nuclear programme.

The burning of the diplomatic missions, which under international law and the Vienna Convention are considered the soil of the guest country, have downgraded Iran’s image among the international community.

They are reminiscent of the attacks on the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the taking of American diplomats hostage. The actions ruined Iran’s reputation and, far more than the Islamic Revolution, led to its international isolation.

For decades after the November 1979 attack on the US Embassy, Iran was challenged economically and diplomatically. Iran has never apologised for the attacks, even during the nuclear talks with the United States. Both nations have decided to put the past behind them and open a new page to the future. Iran is now recognised once more as a major regional player.

Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia have long been soured by rivalry over which of the countries is the real hub of the Islamic world. The religious competition started at the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, when Ayatollah Khomeini planned to export it abroad, especially to neighbouring Muslim countries.

The regional competition increased when Iraqi President Saddam Hussain was toppled in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and a Shia government close to Iran replaced the Sunni government in Baghdad. With the outbreak of the Arab Spring and Shia demonstrations in Bahrain, Iran and Saudi Arabia found themselves taking sides and confronting each other more openly.

Syria has been the main victim of this power struggle between countries supporting Iran and those supporting Saudi Arabia. The world powers have seen their interests jeopardised by the emergence of newly formed terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS) group and Iran’s expansion of its military in the region.

It took two years of negotiations before the Western powers were able to wrap up an accord on the controversial Iranian nuclear programme. It was hoped that last July’s agreement would also help to calm the crisis in Syria and Iranian and Saudi regional competition.

Convincing Saudi Arabia to allow Iran to participate in the talks on Syria was a further challenge, but Russia and the United States managed in the autumn to persuade the two Muslim countries to accept each other at the table.

Iran attended two sessions of previous talks on Syria in the hope that negotiations on the transfer of power and fresh elections in Syria would take place in January with the presence of all the major players.

Saudi Arabia has now closed its embassy in Tehran and evacuated its diplomats. On 4 January, the kingdom gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia.

Hopes for peace in Syria are now threatened by the diplomatic crisis between the two regional hubs. The region cannot afford another crisis, and the world will need to do its best to calm tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

add comment

  • follow us on