While it’s only a few days into a new year, already one of the most concerning foreign policy flashpoints we were watching for 2016 has come to the forefront of international news. While the divide has been months, if not years, in its development, the current crisis sprang to life when Saudi Arabian officials ordered the execution of 47 suspected terrorists/political prisoners. Among these prisoners (a group that did include al Qaeda affiliates) was prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Now, remember a few things as we get started on the analysis of what’s been going on in Arab-Persian relations over the last 48-72 hours (and what we can expect to come next). The Saudis (we’ll refer to them also as “The Kingdom” or “The Monarchy”), based in Riyadh, are a dynastic (agnatic seniority within the sons of Ibn Saud) Sunni theocracy. They are the principal Arab nation in the Middle East (here, “Arab” is meant to draw the ethnic distinction that is also at play between Iran [generally Persian ethnicity], Turkey [obviously Turkish], Libyan/North African [a mix of Arab and Berber inter alia], Israel [Jewish/Semitic], as well as other nations/national elements like the Kurds or Palestinians). The Iranians, based in Tehran, are a Shiite Islamic Republic.
If we want to over-simplfy for the purposes of discussion, the Saudis and the Iranians lead opposed coalitions in the Middle East. On the one side, the Saudis are at the head of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, “Yemen,” and Jordan. The Iranians head their coalition that includes Bashar Assad’s Syria and a growing influence over Shiite-majority Iraq.
The geopolitics get more interesting when you look at the international powers that are involved in the conflict. On the one hand, you have the United States. For the past decade, the United States has linked the Iranian regime as one of the major sate sponsors of terrorism and named it part of the Axis of Evil. However, the United States also overthrew anti-Iranian dictator Saddam Hussein and allowed for a pro-Iranian government to take power in Baghdad. Likewise, the United States took little action during successive Egyptian coups. Despite harsh condemnation of the human rights atrocities taking place in Iran (and a brutal crackdown on dissenters), the United States, and other Western powers, inked a multi-stage deal with Iran to remove many of the sanctions that had been in place on Tehran in exchange for curtailing Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The United States has taken a major military interest in combating Sunni zealots in the form of both al Qaeda (as well as al Shabaab) and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL). This has led the United States into conflict with militant “rebels” in Syria who are seeking to oust dictator Bashar Assad while also being critical of the Assad regime and supporting other “moderate” rebels. The United States also has a long-standing alliance with Israel and a strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia.
Another major actor in the growing divide has been Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Kremlin has a distinct interest both in humiliating the United States on an international stage while also protecting its strategic partners in Middle East. Russia has vowed to keep Bashar Assad in power in Syria while also nominally committing to the fight against the Islamic State. However, Russia’s involvement also targets the moderates that the United States seeks to have supplant the Assad government in Damascus. At the same time, Russia has been helping the government in Tehran for years with both avoiding international sanctions and its nuclear “weapons/power” infrastructure.
While its influence is not as dramatic as the warplanes and interventions of the United States or Russia, China is playing a larger role in the financial underpinnings of Middle Eastern states.
With this brief overview, we turn to what took place last year in the Middle East. Certainly at the center of the American mind is the continued rise of the Islamic State as a prominent terrorist group. While it does seem that concentrated military intervention by the United States, Russia, and Iraq have curtailed new territorial gains, we are aware that the Islamic State is now the best-financed, and likely best-equipped, non-state actor force in history.
While the continued battle with the Islamic State is critical to Western security, several other important events in the Saudi-Iranian conflict arose last year. First among these, chronologically, was the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2015. Abdullah had reigned from 2005 until his death during a time of high oil prices and Western interest in a Saudi alliance. He grew and modernized the Saudi military while relying on the backing (or a blind eye) of the United States. At almost the same time as the death of the King, the Yemeni Civil War exploded into a full-blown conflict. While the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, a nation on the southern border of Saudi Arabia, had been fomenting for a decade, the conflict boiled over when President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and other Yemeni leaders were forced from power in January. The Saudi-led military intervention “Operation Decisive Storm” is ongoing.
The important thing to realize about the (still ongoing) Yemeni Civil War is that it serves as an example of the growing problem in the Middle East. The Houthis, largely backed by Iran, attack the established pro-Saudi government while also attacking Sunni zealots (in this case AQAP).
It’s also necessary to understand the impact of the decline in oil prices over the course of 2015 and its impact on the stability of the Middle East. While the Saudis have refrained from cutting production (a gamble that United States producers would hurt worse than the Kingdom from a supply glut), they have also begun to feel the sting from declining revenues.
On July 14, 2015 the United States, the P5+1, the EU, and Iran entered into a framework for the removal of Western sanctions on Iran in exchange for the reduction in Iran’s capability of producing a nuclear weapon. Hailed by proponents as the world stepping back from the brink of another war in the Middle East and bringing about the normalization of relations with Iran, its detractors saw it as merely kicking the can down the road on Iran’s nuclear ambitions while simultaneously freeing up over $150B for Iran’s government. On this site, we were critical of the deal because of its destabilizing impact on Saudi Arabia and the current balance of power in the Middle East.
On September 24, 2015, a massive crowd collapse took place during the annual Hajj. In Mina, Mecca, between 2,236 and 2,431 died (the Saudi government still maintains a number less than 800. The range used here is one taken from AFP and the Associated Press.). The Kingdom is the sole nation with control over the Holy City of Mecca to which hundred of thousands of Islamic faithful flock every year. This death toll was the largest ever recorded in a Hajj-related stampede or panic. The largest number of casualties in the panic hailed from Iran. The Saudi government drew harsh criticism from across the Islamic world for failing to keep the Hajj a safe environment for pilgrims.
It is in this climate of growing divisions between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the Saudi government decided to execute Nimr al-Nimr, a dissident Shiite cleric who had been instrumental in actions against the Kingdom in 2012. Nimr had been on a hunger strike and became a rallying cry for anti-Saudi Shiite voices (especially those within Iran).
Following the January 2, 2016 execution of Nimr, Iranian mobs took to the streets in both Tehran and elsewhere condemning the execution. The Iranian government summoned the Saudi charge d’affaires and the Saudi embassy was torched by the mob.
Following the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, Saudi Arabia has formally broken diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and has given Iran’s diplomats 48 hours to leave the Kingdom. Following the announcement of the expulsion, Bahrain, a close ally of the Kingdom, broke all diplomatic ties with Iran. Sudan, the African nation that was once an Iranian defender, also has broken ties (it should be noted that the Kingdom poured nearly $2B into Sudan in 2015). The United Arab Emirates decreased its embassy in Tehran to a charge d’affaires and Egypt issued a strong condemnation of Tehran.
It is in this situation that 2016 begins: a breakdown of diplomacy, a United States focused on the Islamic State and taking a less-Arab centered approach to Middle East diplomacy, Russia supporting Iran and Assad, oil prices at near-all-time lows, a proxy war in Yemen, and Sunni zealots rampant across Iraq and Syria. We also should be decidedly concerned as to why the Kingdom would take the drastic step of executing a Shiite dissident as well as 46 other prisoners. While “national security” would certainly be at the top of the Kingdom’s list, it also shows a higher degree of instability than many thought was present (basically, public executions to keep the people in line is usually a late-game stability boost).
While it’s unproductive to speculate that “the sky is falling,” we should be aware of the current situation and the pressures on the Kingdom. Given that Riyadh no longer can count on the United States being the arbiter of disputes in the Middle East (at least in the Saudis’ favor), the Kingdom will likely have to exert its control to a larger degree on the Sunni Arab world. Expect a heightened degree of rhetoric and a re-establishment of the Yemeni government backed explicitly by the Saudis.
While a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia would devastating to both nations, it does not appear to be imminent. We have seen that both powers prefer proxy fights and using significant capital to fund terrorism. Given Saudi Arabia’s modern military and its alliance with Egypt, Iran would fare far better financing rebels within Saudi Arabia to destabilize the already teetering monarchy. A significant Saudi collapse would allow almost complete Iranian control in Iraq and over the development of the Middle East.
It is unlikely that the influence of the United States or Russia could force the parties to the negotiating table to walk back increasingly aggressive rhetoric. However, it is imperative that both nations make the attempt. (An interesting development would also be a Chinese assertion as a mediator in the dispute). At the moment, it would appear that a full Saudi-Iranian Cold War has blossomed. This is bad for the people of the Middle East as well as those who fear the terrorists that both nations will likely sponsor in proxy conflicts. It also underscores the concern we have raised here before that a Cold War in the Middle East is far less stable than the one between the United States and the Soviet Union. Especially given the fact that the Iran Deal removed controlling sanctions, we are looking at two well-funded religious governments set in diametric opposition by decision and circumstance. The catastrophe of this situation will be allowing the Cold War to continue until one nation or the other has developed/purchased nuclear devices.
While the best prognostication we can put forward is an unfortunate “wait and see,” the world hopes that cooler heads will eventually prevail and that the two nations can unite in a fight against extremism rather than against one another (obviously, the response to this optimistic sentiment is that both governments have adopted the hardest line of their respective theologies in the administration of their nations). Perhaps this could be the wake-up call for moderation or for an “Islamic reformation.”