In recent years, several Middle Eastern countries have undergone unrest and civil conflict. However, these are not merely isolated events, in fact these crises are directly linked to the amplification of an ongoing proxy war between two regional hegemons.
In what has been described as a cold war, the political tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have escalated to a level where neighbouring countries have been left to deal with the relentless consequences.
On 2 January 2016, Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a prominent Shia Sheikh posted at Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province was executed along with 46 others. This led to mass protest, and was the primary motive behind the attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. AFP News Agency reported that after the attack formal diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia were suspended.
These events open new chapter. Iran view this as Saudi Arabia’s way of dragging them both into a full-scale confrontation which could result in various international superpowers backing the Saudis and eventually leading to the demise of Iran.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs for Iran, stated in his article published in the New York Times that ‘Today, some in Riyadh not only continue to impede normalization but are determined to drag the entire region into confrontation.” He went on to say that “Saudi Arabia seems to fear that the removal of the smoke screen of the nuclear issue will expose the real global threat: its active sponsorship of violent extremism’.
However, the Saudis are not convinced; Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud told The Economist that “Because Iranian escalation has already reached very high levels and we try as hard as we can to not escalate anything further, we only deal with the procedures and steps taken against us.”
In terms of foreign policy and intentions regarding the Middle East region, Iran believes that the Saudis are attempting to jeopardise the Iran nuclear deal that was signed on 14th July 2015. Of course, a dissolved nuclear deal puts Saudi Arabia in a powerful position. With Israel equally hostile towards Iran, an Israeli-Saudi alliance is becoming more conceivable.
The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, fired back with an op-ed in the New York Times saying ‘[Iran is trying to] obscure its dangerous sectarian and expansionist policies, as well as its support for terrorism, by levelling unsubstantiated charges against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’
However, Javad Zarif told CNN that ‘We do not have a fight to pick with Saudi Arabia’. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Saudis; their dire support for the Saddam Hussein presidency during the Iran-Iraq war and their responsibility in the killing of 400 pilgrims, most of whom held Iranian citizenship, in the 1987 Hajj incident, led to the decimation of diplomatic ties. After the liberation of Kuwait three years later, diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia were restored, this gave Iran the opportunity to present its mandate for a regional security agreement which was signed in 2001.
As we can see here there have been numerous occasions where the Iran-Saudi relations have been countermanded and this time it is no different. Especially after then-King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia constantly pressured the United States into launching military strikes against Iran in a leaked cable recording from 2008. The 2015 Mecca Stampede, the execution of Nimr Al-Nimr and the raiding of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran were the final straws that broke the camel’s back.
There is a route to a peaceful path, but the endless exchange of blame must end. Government officials on both sides of the table need to be able to prove their will to resolve any unsettled issues that remain before engaging in formal diplomatic talks. This starts with first reviving the aforementioned security pact along with expanding the Gulf Cooperation Council to include other Gulf countries such as Iran and Iraq.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, once the two centre elements of a pre-1980 United States foreign policy, are now contending for a monopoly on the Middle East, one filled with power of Western backers, wealthy investors and the support of a large Muslim community.
The reasons behind this proxy war have become so tangled that different coloured cloaks have been thrown over it, it can be referred to it as a conflict between Wahhabi and Shiite extremist ideologies, or perhaps an Arab-Persian discord.
The bottom line is that it is an unconventional battle, it is about who can hold the most influence in the region without upsetting their western counterparts. This tension existed for a long time and it is improbable that it will ever disappear. Whilst the two opponents share common ground in some aspects, they have never been able to maintain a friendship; this will ultimately lead to another Middle Eastern war.