The Saudi-Iran Conflict: A Sectarian Battle at its Peak

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This century has started with a lot of controversial events of international importance, specifically in the Middle Eastern Region, which has a strategic significance of its own. The initial 15 years of this century witnessed some of the most tragic events that the international community has faced so far. Be it the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or the Israel-Palestine issue, all these incidents have attracted the international intervention with several other nations intervening in the region in some or the other way.

Another issue, that had been daunting the past as well, is the tussle between two significant nations in the Middle Eastern Region, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran. The sectarian conflict has risen so much that both these countries are supporting opposite sides in several other conflicts. For example, in an intractable civil conflict in Syrian Arab Republic which has taken the lives of more than 2,50,000 people and forced more than 11 million people to leave their homes, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been supporting the Bashar Al Assad’s regime since a very long time whereas Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is trying to bring the Syrian Arab Republic back to the so called “Arab fold” by supporting the rebel groups in Syria opposing Assad’s government. These two nations illustrate their lethal rivalry by backing opposing groups, mostly along sectarian lines, in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain as well.

Things worsened recently when on January 2, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on the count of terrorism, one of them being Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric who supported and participated in mass protests against the government in Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in 2011, when the Shia community showed their anger towards marginalisation. This provoked the people in Iran, and as a result, in retaliation, protestors in Iran torched and destroyed the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran.

When the Saudis went to arrest Sheikh Nimr, they were well aware of the fact that this action could further spoil the relations between the two nations as this particular person was the voice of all the Shias in Saudi Arabia who felt discriminated and marginalised. He was the person who had been a constant critic of the royal family of Saudi Arabia and he emerged as an eminent leader during the 2011 protests arising out of the Arab Spring. The Islamic Republic of Iran, being a prominent Shia power in the Middle East is always concerned about the well-being of the Shia people in the region and ensures that the Shia people are being heard. This strengthens the fact that this clash was foreseen before the execution of the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

After his execution, the Islamic Republic of Iran threatened Saudi Arabia by saying that it would have to pay a huge price for the Sheikh’s execution. Hossein Jaber Ansari, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson of Iran publicly stated, “The Saudi government supports terrorists and takfiri (radical Sunni) extremists, while executing and suppressing critics inside the country.” The very next day of the execution of the Shiite cleric and the burning of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran, witnessed Saudi Arabia cutting off all diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and giving a notice to all the members on various diplomatic missions in the Iranian embassy in Riyadh to leave within 48 hours. Meanwhile, the protests were still taking place in Saudi Arabia, with protestors shouting slogans like “The people want the fall of the regime” and “Down with the al-Saud family”.

This fact has to be taken into consideration that this is not the first time when the world has witnessed clashes and proxy wars between these two nations. The foreign relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia have been tense since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, with the Iraq-Iran war adding fuel to the fire. Certain ideological differences between Shi’ism and Sunnism, in addition to the question of religious credibility, supremacy and legitimacy, have all contributed massively to the evident disturbances between the two nations. Their already decayed relations went at nadir when in late 1980s, around 450 pilgrims, most of them being Iranians, were killed by the Saudi Arabian Security Forces during the annual hajj, leading to the diplomatic relations getting more severed and the Islamic Republic of Iran boycotting the hajj. But despite of all the clashes and differences, there have been certain instances which brought these two Islamic nations close to rapprochement. In 1990, things between these two nations started going back to normal when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait after Iraq accused Kuwait of stealing petroleum through slant drilling and subsequently, both these Islamic nations came on an agreement on hajj. The reconciliation between the two giant Islamic nations at that time held a strategic importance as it was very essential for the stabilization of the global oil market as well as securing the Middle Eastern region.

Another important instance of the tussle between the two nations emphasizes on the production of oil and selling it in the global market. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was formed by Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Venezuela, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1960. The basic essence behind the creation of OPEC was to moderate and coordinate the efforts of these five oil producing nations. Oil is the most crucial component running the economies of these two nations. Despite the efforts of both these nations in creating OPEC, differences continued to arise. During the mid-1980s, Saudi Arabia flooded the international oil market with abundance of cheap oil, creating a situation of oversupply of oil and eventually leading to a decrease in Islamic Republic of Iran’s revenues in this regard.

Though this had a devastating effect on the economies of both these countries, it still raised a lot of questions in Iranian eyes as to whether Saudi Arabia was trying to undermine Iran’s military efforts, when during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iranian Pasdaran Forces surprisingly attacked the Iraqi Popular Army troops defending the al-Faw peninsula.

The whole oil production crisis led to a massive fall in the oil prices during the late 1990s. This became a huge matter of concern for a lot of countries in the market, even the non-OPEC members as well. But as they say, whatever happens, happens for good. To revive from this financial crisis, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia decided to set aside their past differences and to work together in this regard. It was believed that both these nations cooperated in stabilizing the oil prices, for the benefit of all the countries.

Coming back to the present scenario, as stated earlier also, both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia are supporting opposite factions in different ongoing wars, be it Yemen or Syria.

Talking about Yemen first, it was supposed to be a domestic situation and to be handled internally only. But now, even that is not possible because of it becoming an international issue . According to a famous Yemen analyst, putting an end to the situation in Yemen would at least require consensus within the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Recently after the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran was torched by the protestors and Saudi Arabia cut off the ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia strongly believed that all this won’t hinder the peace process and negotiations, the Syrian peace talks to be more precise.

It is quite evident that Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are one of the major stakeholders in the on-going situations in Yemen and Syria. Even the diplomats at the United Nations are worried because of the effect of this internal disturbance on situations in Syria and Yemen.

Presently, the United Nations Envoy for Syria is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and will go to Tehran, Iran in the coming days. In fact, the United Nations Envoy for Yemen will also be reaching the region soon. It is strongly hoped that this internal disturbance along the sectarian lines ends soon and both these countries join their hands in resolving situations in the Middle East as soon as possible.

Until then, god bless the people, god bless the countries!

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