Just like the famous US-Russia Cold War, once threatening to end the world by a casual nuclear press button, two top Muslim nations — Saudi Arabia and Iran — also continue their own cold war, threatening to uproot both Iran and Arab nations. They risk a deadly war.
Bilateral relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been strained over different geo-political issues such as the interpretations of Islam, aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, oil export policy, relations with the US and the West. Although Saudi Arabia and Iran are both Muslim-majority nations and follow and rule through Islamic Scripture, their relations are fraught with hostility, tension and confrontation, due to differences in political agendas that are strengthened for their differences in faith.
Both countries are major oil and gas exporters and have clashed over energy policy. Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves and smaller population, has a greater interest in taking a long-term view of the global oil market and incentive to moderate prices. In contrast, Iran is compelled to focus on high prices in the short term due to its low standard of living given recent sanctions after its decade old war with Saddam’s Iraq.
Saudi-Iranian tensions took a new turn after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was ransacked by Iranian protesters; Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on January 4, 2016. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to escalate. In fact, the current row erupted earlier this month after Saudi Arabia executed the Shia religious leader Nimr al-Nimr and the Saudi embassy in Tehran was burnt.
So is the Middle East cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran about to turn hot? And who is to blame for the current tension?
Pakistani diplomatic resources
Having close ties to the extent of being considered as an ally of both, Pakistan is fast emerging as a mediator between Islamic rivals and economically strong Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pakistan thinks it can play proactive role in bring both together for honest talks to save Islamic world and serve Islam purposefully.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met Iranian President Hassan Rohani in Tehran on January 19, a day after meeting Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Riyadh, and offered to host talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia aimed at resolving disputes between the Middle Eastern rivals.
After his meeting with Rohani, Sharif told reporters that Iran had expressed an interest in improving relations with Saudi Arabia and would appoint a focal person for future talks. Sharif said he would speak to Saudi Arabia to encourage the appointment of a focal person, and described reconciling the two major Islamic countries as Pakistan’s prime duty and sacred mission.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry says that Islamabad is deeply concerned at the recent escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Sunni and Shiite powerhouses have been rivals for years but the current tensions worsened after Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric who was an outspoken opposition figure on 2 January.
In his first press conference as Iran’s president-elect in June 2013, Hassan Rohani spoke of his desire to reengage with the Saudis, calling them neighbors and brothers and saying Iran was “fully ready” to end decades of rivalry. But Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has accused Saudi Arabia of refusing Iran’s overtures, and instead openly stoking sectarian Sunni-Shiite tension and opposing Iran’s landmark nuclear deal reached last July with the US and five other world powers. “For the past 2-1/2 years,
Saudi Arabia has opposed Iran’s diplomacy,” Zarif said at a press conference with his Iraqi counterpart. Iran says Saudi Arabia has been recklessly aggressive in the past year, with a 9-month bombing campaign in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthis, and by supporting anti-Assad rebels in Syria, among them jihadists.
A roadmap agreed in Vienna – and codified in a unanimous UN Security Council resolution on Dec. 18 – spells out the establishment of a transitional Syrian government and seeks a cease-fire in six months, and elections within 18 months. But it makes no mention of the fate of President Assad, perhaps the thorniest point of disagreement. However, Iran hasn’t indicated that it would pull out of the Geneva talks.
Saudi assertive diplomacy
Ever since King Salman came to power in early 2015 has been pursuing a more vigorous foreign policy than the one followed by the previous regime of King Abdullah. Protection from fallout of troubles in the region has been one objective and containing Iran’s influence on the regional powers and US led west is another. King Salman has focused on ensuring regional hegemony at any cost.
The war in Yemen that was initiated in March 2015 is an example of the Saudi strategy to block or at least reduce the Iranian influence in that country. The Arab coalition conducting the war against the Houthis blame Iran of supporting the rebel forces in Yemen and believe that a defeat would be a setback for Iran.
Riyadh presents both Iran and Shiites not just an issue in the region not just as a problem for Sunni Arab nations but also as a problem for Islam. The execution of the Shiite cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr on 2 January along with another 46 convicts was to showcase its determination to oppose Shiites which is illogical. Al-Nimr opposed the marginalization of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and suggested an alternative structure for the religious governance of the kingdom. This move was perhaps viewed as a war on Saudi kingdom.
The battle lines between the two regional powers are being drawn.
Many pillars of stability have already collapsed in the Middle-East and the region has for the past few years been a powder keg with a burning fuse.
With the Saudi Arabia-Iran stand-off the fuse has just become that much shorter. The Iranian state’s disrespect for diplomatic protocol was the reason for the recent escalation of tension with Saudi Arabia and its allies…,” states an editorial, the Gulf states may have the right to be irritated saying despite previous tensions, Iran continues to meddle in the affairs of the region and violate established international rules that protect the sovereignty of states.
At times of broader regional instability, in which Iran and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides in Syria and Yemen, it is wise to show restraint and avoid direct conflict that will only further destabilize the region. International leaders are right to call on both sides to repair ties and work together to resolve regional issues.
Saudi Arabia’s execution of a dissident Shiite cleric on Jan. 2 prompted Iranian protesters to ransack and burn the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Angry crowds in Iran stormed the Saudi embassy, and Riyadh severed diplomatic relations with Tehran in protest.
Syrian and Iraqi links
Diplomatic efforts to preserve the staggering Syrian peace process have gone into overdrive amid a surge in fresh Iran-Saudi tensions in the Middle East.
The stakes could not be higher, with a quarter million dead in Syria and more than half of its pre-war population of some 22 million internally displaced or in exile as refugees. Since the war began in 2011, Syria has become, with Iraq, a base of operations for the self-declared Islamic State.
Two rounds of talks in Vienna last fall brought the international players around the same table for the first time. Among them are Iran and Russia, key backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Saudi Arabia, the US, and others are supporting a cast of anti-Assad rebel groups. Analysts point out that Washington had to pressure the Saudis to sit at the table with Iranians at those talks, underscoring the risk of further polarization.
A meeting in Riyadh in December of key anti-Assad political and armed factions – minus the Islamic State, and the Al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra – led to formation of a unified committee to negotiate. Syria’s regime has dismissed the opposition’s effort to form a united front. Meanwhile, opposition groups are insisting on pre-conditions that could scupper a resumption of talks. Opposition leaders in Riyadh told de Mistura that they would not resume talks unless the regime committed to a prisoner release, stopping attacks on civilian areas, and ending the use of barrel bombs dropped from helicopters – perhaps the single most lethal type of attack used in Syria. In Riyadh, de Mistura said he found a “clear determination” not to let current tensions “have any negative impact on the Vienna momentum” toward the upcoming Geneva talks.
The White House has come under fire for its light public condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr – the consequences of which Washington says it warned Saudi officials in advance – and also of the embassy sacking in Tehran. In an end-of-year opinion piece, Kerry said easing the Syria conflict would “remain a foremost challenge to us all.” He cited the diplomatic initiative and “timetable for negotiations” between the “responsible opposition” and Syria’s government. The more progress made toward peace, wrote Kerry, “the easier it will be to mount a truly sustained and united effort against [Islamic State] – the foremost embodiment of evil our generation has known, as a foe we are absolutely determined to defeat.”
President Barack Obama, in defending his anti-IS strategy, has long called for alliance partners in the region to supply the “boots on the ground” necessary to augment American air power. But Saudi Arabia and many of its Arabian Gulf allies such as Qatar and the UAE are bogged down in Yemen, where they are trying to oust Shiite Houthi rebels and reinstate a friendly regime. The priority right now in Saudi Arabia is Yemen US Secretary of State John Kerry has called officials in Riyadh and Tehran to deescalate tensions, noting that on top of risking the Syria talks, such division may hurt the US-led battle against Islamic State, which US officials say today poses a greater threat to the West than Al Qaeda.
Coalition of Muslim nations
Saudi Arabian government is making an attempt to assure Islamic world of security from threats to Islam. Observers say Saudi Arabia’s attempt to form an umbrella coalition of Muslim nations to combat terrorism is reviving its decades-old (but failed) aspirations to lead the Muslim world while also risking wider Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife. Announcing the new 34-member coalition, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said that the alliance would take a two-track approach in battling terrorism – both militarily and ideologically.
The second track – the ideological fight at the pulpit – may be the tallest task. Some observers question whether Saudi Arabia can lead a wider ideological and tactical war against a form of extremism that its own policies have allowed to expand. Since there is a hidden hand in all terrorisms of Washington and its western allies and probably Israel, Saudi also could be doubtful about the success of its wars.
Analysts say more than 2,500 Saudis have joined the self-described Islamic State (IS), making the Saudi led war difficult. Under the umbrella of the new coalition, Saudi Arabia is looking for Muslim states to speak in one voice and counter terrorist narratives on a grand scale. Observers say such measures will likely include gathering influential imams from across the Muslim world to issue joint statements and fatwas (religious orders) condemning groups such as IS; using returning fighters as cautionary tales.
In Saudi Arabia, counter-terrorism has never been just a security operation, it has always been a public awareness campaign where they attempt to discredit terrorist narrative, their ideology. Saudi is looking to replicate its efforts in countries which may not otherwise have the means or funds to do so. However, officials in Riyadh are seizing on the coalition as a chance to turn around what some see as decades of sowing hardline Salafist movements.
Saudi Arabia has attempted to organize Muslim states in the past. In 1969, then-King Faisal bin Abdulaziz founded the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), an over-arching committee of 57 Muslim states dedicated to further Muslim causes and speak as the collective voice of the Muslim world.
The OIC has noticeably failed in the past to rein in sectarian tensions or present a counter-narrative to jihadis such as IS. It is this very lack of an authoritative voice, free of politics that has created the ideological vacuum allowing groups like ISIS to emerge. In practical terms, there remains the question of the members’ appetite for sending the ground troops needed to uproot IS strongholds. Saudi palace officials say their coalition will implicitly provide the option of ground troops – Sunni Muslim ground-troops – to fight IS in its strongholds in Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere.
With a vague mission statement and lack of Shiite members in the new coalition, attention has turned to its potential impact on Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife. In a press conference in Paris, Jubeir stressed that despite excluding Shiite-majority states such as Iran or Iraq, the new coalition is “neither Shiite nor Sunni.” The sectarian overtones of the coalition have already given pause to supposed members, including Lebanon. Lebanon’s pro-Saudi prime minister, Tammam Salam, welcomed the initiative.
Pakistan, itself host to a sizeable Shiite minority, also distanced itself from the alliance: Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry expressed “surprise” at its inclusion in the coalition. “If the Saudis are going to try to make this coalition a Sunni force, an anti-Iran force, this will only cause more instability and violence in the region,” says Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer and director of projects at security firm Soufan Group. “It is just not clear yet what their intentions are.”
The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is visiting Saudi Arabia and Iran this week to try to ease tensions between the two sides. “We cannot afford to lose this momentum, despite what is going on in the region,” he said in Riyadh. He travels next to Tehran. Will de Mistura be able to seek to salvage the diplomatic process which is in jeopardy?
Now there are concerns that the two regional rivals – who support opposing sides in Syria’s civil war and proxy forces elsewhere in the region – could jeopardize UN-sponsored peace talks due to resume in Geneva Jan. 25.
Obviously, Islamabad is best placed to play constructive role to bring these top Muslim nations, claiming leadership of Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam respectively, together to work together for the cause of Islam.