Saudi-Iran Standoff Exposes Diplomatic Fault Lines

The Arab League, sans Lebanon, condemns Iran's support for "terrorism, sectarianism and policy of interference" in other Muslims countries. Even the regimes like Iraq and Algeria opposed the policies of the Persians. Earlier, the GCC nation took a unanimous stance against Iran in mutual solidarity. Oman, which has cordial relations with Iran since Tehran's backing of the regime in 1974, too made an exception. While Turkey unequivocally supported Saudi position after attacks on its diplomatic missions in Iran, Pakistan too has shunned its efforts for staying neutral.

Iran, on the other side, has watched Arab ambassadors leave and its envoys being served démarches. It has opted for a serious media campaign portraying Saudi Arabia as a "supporter of terrorism, backer of ISIS, al-Qaeda and instigator of sectarianism." Except for Afghanistan's chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, there has not been a high profile foreign dignitary landing in Tehran since January 2. Iran's best bet is to stay on top in Syria talks.

The standoff has brought Iran even closer to Putin's Russia with whom it has been deeply engaged in quelling uprising in Syria. India is Hormuz. Prime Minister of India is expected to visit Iran this week to manipulate against Pakistani support for Saudi Arabia. Prima facie, officials in New Delhi hope that Modi will try out his mediatory skills between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which he wishes to visit after Tehran sojourn.

Another likely low-key but high profile effort is in the works in Ankara. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has reportedly been weighing the prospects of thaw through the offices of Mehmet Gormez, head of Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate. On the sidelines of an international conference, Gormez had a closed door meeting Ayatollah Khamenei and both struck a reconciliatory tone but that was on December 30, a few days prior to Saudi citizen Nimr's hanging by Riyadh.

The prospects for lessening of rhetoric and tension are low amid multiple mediation bids in the offing. After Arab League, GCC, Turkey and Pakistan siding with Saudi Arabia and 34 of them joining the KSA-led anti-terror coalition, Iran will flex its diplomatic muscle. Amongst its best options for retaliation is to convene a meeting of Non-Aligned Movement, which it currently chairs. It's fairly unlikely any of NAM member severing diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia in solidarity with Iran. The Persian will carefully weight all options such as level of participation from other members etc.

The second option propagated by certain hardline elements in Tehran is form an anti-terror coalition in reaction the one led by the Arab kingdom. The likelihood is relatively low. The better option would be to cement Putin's coalition against terrorism to exploit its more global and non-religious orientation. The bloc has neither become formal yet nor has clear objective except attacking every anti-Assad militia in the name of eliminating ISIS, which has been largely facilitated. How far Putin is ready to reinforce perception of Russia being opponent of Sunni Islam is yet to be seen. The odds are stacked against Kremlin due to grim economy and less promising results from its campaign in Syria. The ambitious Russian ruler has ambitions for global dominance, which he can partly share with Iran by increasing his stakes massively.

China has not preferred seeing the situation from afar, urging either side to exercise restraint. With its economy slowing down, Beijing stay out of intra-Islam feud. Unlike India, it's neither proactively pursuing mediation path nor trying to benefit from the raging tension. Beijing will continue to act as rational, neutral actor.

The Saudis have in principle decided to deal with Iran and Russia on their own. Riyadh has considerably reduced its expectations from Washington. Adding fuel to the fire is the Obama administrations' delay in imposing new sanctions on Iran after its long-range missile tests. Ahead of elections, the Democrats are bargaining a lot to make their signature foreign policy gain Iran nuclear deal a success. However, the pragmatism in the White House has further widened the gulf with its Arabian Gulf allies. President Obama's disregard for violation his red line on Syria's use of chemical weapons was not yet forgotten.

Notwithstanding Washington's disengagement from Saudi-Iran row, it exercises considerable capital through its allies like Britain, France and Germany. Berlin is best placed for a mediation bid between Tehran and Riyadh. Both the sides have hinted at contacts from friendly countries to help diffuse the tension. However, there has neither been any damage control exercise nor lessening of hawkish rhetoric, especially from the Iranian side.

Iranian officials have particularly targeted the Saudi deputy crown prince, who is in-charge of economy and defence affairs both. The 30-year old is the most favourite son of the monarch and such insult only make the feud ever more bitter. Sooner or later, the Persians will have to work with Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud.

With lesser risk of an all-out war, the wars in Yemen and Syria and protests in Bahrain will intensify. Iran and Saudi Arabia will cross the red line once either ignites domestic unrest in the others' territory. The level of escalation may become unprecedented and extremely explosive. The atmosphere is already so tense that airspace or maritime violation by either side is less likely to go unpunished. The threat of sectarianism in Lebanon, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Pakistan seems more credible than a couple of year ago.

Last but not the least, the forthcoming Syria talks will be a barometer of Saudi-Iran strain against each other as well as approach to the issue by various countries allied on the either side. Analysts on either side are anything but optimistic about a breakthrough on Syria. Iran will dig deep along with Assad regime and Russia as to which opposition group should be declared terrorist, thus disqualified to join the dialogue. Similarly, Swiss process for Yemen ceasefire and peace talk offers no hope as long as the hostile posturing by the Persians and the kingdom continues.