Saudi Feud With Iran Risks Fueling Unrest Across Middle East

  • Proxy wars between two rivals could escalate in Yemen, Syria
  • Al-Nimr's execution expected to bring Saudi Shiites together

Examining Cause and Effect of Saudi-Iranian Tension

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has certainly had more downs than ups, yet seldom have they come at a worse time for the region’s prospects.

The latest standoff, triggered by the execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities over the weekend, risks erasing the scant progress that has been made to resolve the crises in Syria and Yemen, where the majority Sunni kingdom and mainly Shiite Iran support rival players. While analysts don’t see any imminent head-to-head military confrontation, they do expect the proxy war between them to escalate.

"We and the Iranians are like fire and dynamite in one room,” Jamal Khashoggi, a former media adviser to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, said by phone. “It doesn’t matter who’s the dynamite and who’s the fire."

Here’s a look at how the current showdown could influence the region.

Spreading Tension

On the domestic front, al-Nimr’s execution will galvanize Saudi Shiites, even those who did not support the cleric, according to Toby Matthiesen, senior research fellow at Oxford University and author of "The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism."

"It’s such an outrageous attack on the whole Shiite community," he said, adding that it could make them more cohesive in terms of challenging the government in Riyadh.

Elsewhere, peace in Yemen and Syria looks more elusive and people in Lebanon, Iraq -- two countries also with a history of deadly sectarian conflict -- and Afghanistan will also be anxious about potential implications, according to Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at Chatham House in London.

"This is bad news for Saudi Arabia, Iran and the entire region, which looks like it will be plagued by further polarization, fragmentation and sectarianism," Ellie Geranmayeh, Middle East and North Africa policy fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said by e-mail.

Syria Talks

Saudi Arabia and Iran were both invited to talks in Vienna last year that led to an agreement in which both sides of the Syria conflict would meet in Geneva on Jan. 25 to begin talks to end the five-year conflict.

A breakdown in that timetable also has implications for Europe, which is absorbing hundreds of thousands of refugees.

“If Saudi Arabia and Iran have broken diplomatic relations you cannot resolve not any other issues in the region, not Yemen, not Syria, not Iraq, not anything and those proxy wars across the Middle East will intensify,” Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said on Bloomberg Surveillance. “This not only has a knock-on effect in instability across the Middle East, but also of course expands the refugee crisis.”

Decades of Rivalry

The rivalry dates back to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini accused Saudi rulers of corruption and argued that the holy sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be under a single country’s guardianship. Saudi Arabia then backed Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran.

The latest spat is the first break in official ties in almost three decades and follows what the Saudis and their Gulf allies called interference in Arab affairs. The developments were just "the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Khashoggi, the former Saudi adviser. “Relations were already damaged."

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