How The Latest Saudi-Iran Feud Will Impact The Entire Middle East

An expert interview with Professor Mohamad Bazzi.

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with New York University Professor Mohamad Bazzi about the Saudi-Iran rift.

On the second day of 2016, Saudi Arabia killed 47 prisoners in a series of executions across the kingdom. Prominent Shiite cleric and dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was among those executed, and after news broke of his death, a group of demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran's capital in protest. 

Saudi Arabia responded this week by cutting off diplomatic ties with Iran, worsening already hostile relations between the two powers.

The escalating rift between predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and mostly Shiite Iran now threatens to increase sectarian tensions, as well as make conflicts in the region even more convoluted and intractable. 

The WorldPost spoke with New York University Professor Mohamad Bazzi, who is currently working on a book about Iranian-Saudi relations, about what caused this most recent spat between the two states and what it means for the Middle East. Bazzi has also recently written a blog for Reuters on the latest developments in Iranian-Saudi relations.

Why do you think Saudi Arabia decided to initiate this latest escalation with the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr?

Well there’s several layers to this, beginning with domestic factors and then extending to the Saudi-Iran rivalry.

Many of the people who were executed had been in Saudi prisons for years, and the core group of people were associated with al Qaeda and had been responsible for a series of attacks in 2003 and 2004.

That was 43 of the 47 people?

Yes, the breakdown was 43 Sunnis and 4 Shiites, which interestingly corresponds to the proportion of Shiites in the Saudi population. The message that the Saudis wanted to send was that dissent won’t be tolerated, whether it’s Sunnis or Shiites. 

The Saudi regime, at first, seemed like they were concerned with the domestic ramifications of the execution. They were worried that if they had only executed Sunnis, it might lead to protest and a backlash within the Sunni community in Saudi Arabia, which is their constituency.

The message that the Saudis wanted to send was that dissent won’t be tolerated, whether it’s Sunnis or Shiites.

That seemed to be the initial Saudi calculation, to balance out the execution and to divert tension that they were executing so many al Qaeda prisoners.

It is also a projection of strength from the new king, Salman, because the death sentence against Sheikh Nimr was handed down under former King Abdullah, and the international expectation seemed to be that it wouldn’t be carried out.

Those are the domestic, internal calculations. In terms of international calculations, Saudi Arabia has been worried about Iran for quite a while, but especially since the nuclear deal over summer.

Did the perception that the U.S. is normalizing ties with Iran, or that Iran is going to have a larger influence in the region following the nuclear deal, play into the decision to execute Nimr?

Well the Saudis have just been dismayed since the nuclear deal. The Saudis have been worried that this will open a path towards normalization between Iran and the West, especially the United States.

The Saudi regime seems to believe that if the U.S. opens up to Iran, then somehow that would mean the U.S. abandoning Saudi Arabia and its traditional Sunni-Arab allies in the gulf. That’s because the Saudi-Iran rivalry has become a zero-sum game in so many ways.

The Saudis and the Iranians have begun to think that if one country gains in the region or makes inroads with Western powers, it has to come at the expense of the other.

So the Saudis have been trying to find a way to undermine the nuclear agreement, and to keep Iran from going down this path of normalization with the West.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in Saudi Arabia, demonstrate in front of the Saudi Arabian em
Supporters of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in Saudi Arabia, demonstrate in front of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Yemen on Jan. 7. The cleric's death led to a major breakdown in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In terms of the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, what impact will this recent deterioration between Iran and Saudi Arabia have?

The wars in Syria and Yemen can’t be stopped without an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And now with those two powers refusing to speak to each other, the violence is likely to get worse.

We’ve seen that already with Yemen. As this crisis was unfolding, the Saudis announced that they were abandoning the ceasefire -- which hadn’t entirely taken hold anyway -- and on Tuesday there were reports that there was a much more intense bombardment of areas by the Saudis.

In Syria, it’s a bit more complicated because the Saudis that aren’t involved directly. But we do have the peace talks scheduled for January 25, and the already dim prospects for those are now much dimmer.

What do you think it would take for Saudi-Iran relations to improve?

Some Saudi officials were asked a similar question a few days ago, and their response was that Iran has to stop meddling in the affairs of Arab countries, as they put it.

Of course, they never said that they would stop meddling in the affairs of Arab countries, they seem to see that as their right, seeing themselves as the leader of the Arab world and the Muslim world. 

And [Iranian President] Rouhani made a similar statement about the Saudis not meddling in regional affairs as well.

Right, and that’s not going to happen. Neither Saudi nor Iran are going to stop meddling in the affairs of the region, they’re not going to stop supporting proxies and allies in different countries, whether it’s Yemen, Syria, Lebanon. 

So, that’s not going to happen, and it’s hard to see a way out of this in the short term. Unless there is a significant breakthrough on Syria, that could bring some confidence. That would entail really effective maneuvering by Russia and the United States.

It’s hard to see a way out of this in the short term.

In the short term, we’re also going to see the Saudis try more ways to isolate Iran again following the nuclear deal. 

What’s something that you think gets missed in the media when it comes to Saudi-Iranian relations?

Often overlooked is that this conflict is partly rooted in the historical Sunni-Shiite schism, but for the most part it’s a struggle for political dominance of the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia and Iran both have a lot of experience using sectarianism to instigate people in the region, and to play different factions off one another, but most of the time it’s for political ends.

It’s a classic struggle for influence, and it’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon of ancient hatreds between Sunni and Shiites. The history is there and the hatreds are there, but the sectarian sentiment is often deployed by these states a part of a power game.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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