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Saudi Arabia vs Iran in a standoff with global ramifications

14 January 20161 comment

Analysis

The tensions that have erupted between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the execution by Saudi Arabia of Shia cleric Nimr-al-Nimr threaten to plunge the Middle East into deeper conflict and chaos with potential ramifications for Europe and Australia.

After the execution, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was stormed by an angry mob and allies of Saudi Arabia – Sudan and Bahrain – have threatened to sever ties with Iran.

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are threatening to cause greater conflict in the Middle East

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia are threatening to cause greater conflict in the Middle East

The tit-for-tat violence threatens to derail the precarious diplomatic effort to bring about a cease fire in war-torn Syria and begin to arrange a peace deal that must involve Iraq, Iran and Russia – a long-time supporter of Syrian despot Bashar-al-Assad.

The US, Britain and Russia have appealed to the Saudis and Iran – the respective standard bearers and power brokers for the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam – to show restraint.

Shia Muslims comprise 15 per cent of all followers of Islam – or 1.6 billion people. Their dispute with the much larger Sunni sect dates back 1400 years.

This schism is ostensibly behind much of the turbulence in the Middle East in the post-colonial era.

Extremist Islamic groups such as ISIS and al-Qaida follow the puritanical teaching of the anti-pluralist Wahabist interpretation of Islam that has been promoted by powerful Saudi clerics through rhetoric and hard cash.

The split between Shia and Sunni branches of Islam is obvious in the Syrian conflict but it is also behind the nasty proxy war in Yemen with the rebels backed by Iran and the Sunni government supported by Saudi Arabia.

Iran is also a supporter of al-Assad, whose forces are battling ISIS and armed rebels groups.

So, this complex web of alliances and interests little needs the fuel of another spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia to ignite further bitter conflict and chaos.

Added to this dangerous mix are plunging oil prices which will put internal pressures on the leaderships of both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

And many observers say the heightened tensions are likely to benefit ISIS and exacerbate the refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq.

Professor of Global Islamic Politics at Deakin University Greg Barton says the Saudi move to execute al-Nimr was carried out in response to concerns about threats to the ruling Saud family’s power base.

He says that unlike other Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has not successfully transitioned away from an oil-based economy and, with falling oil prices, now has a budget deficit of $100 million dollars.

“An increasingly restive population… is manifested in part in the rise of, first al-Qaeda and now ISIS, groups that owe their ideological origins to offshoots of the particular kind of Islamic fundamentalism  that has underpinned the authority of the House of Saud but which now threatens to destroy it,” Professor Barton wrote recently.

After the collapse of diplomatic relations between the two countries, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi-Ansari said: “Saudi Arabia, gripped by crises inside and outside its territories, follows the policy of increasing regional tensions.”

The same could be said of Iran, which has backed its own proxy forces in Syria and Yemen against the Saudi’s proxies.

So, what do we divine out of all of this?

As Professor Barton says, Sunni and Shia communities have coexisted over many centuries without conflict.

What’s really happened is that the Iranians and the Saudis have used sectarian sentiment and proxy forces to counter each other and prop up their own precarious regimes.

 

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist