Not content with proxy wars in Syria and Yemen while promoting their regional interests, Saudi Arabia and Iran are now dragging the already volatile Middle East into chaos with their reckless confrontation.
As the self-declared standard-bearers of Shia and Sunni Islam, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have tried to export their version of religious extremism for decades and provoked sectarianism in their pursuit of a region-wide power struggle.
Both are authoritarian, draconian regimes with appalling human rights records. Neither abide by their international commitments to uphold basic freedoms nor do they respect the principles of democratic governance and the rule of law.
They consistently rank in the world’s top executioner countries. Saudis behead, Iranians hang from high cranes. In 2014 alone, Iran carried out a shocking 753 executions. In the first 9 months of 2015, winning the world record for most executions per capita, Tehran hanged at least 694 people, according to a UN human rights monitor. Saudi Arabia ranks third in the world for the most executions, after China and Iran. In 2015, it executed at least 151 people.
It is ironic that their latest showdown was sparked by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al Nimr alongside 46 other citizens last week.
What looks like a centuries-old religious, sectarian rivalry between Sunni and Shia Islam is, in fact ,a vicious political power struggle.
It may eventually come to a head-on collision and at times, one is tempted to say “let them do it, pay the price of their own reckless policies with their mutual destruction”.
If only it were all so simple!
The escalating tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia will, first and foremost, hurt those countries already torn apart with sectarian conflicts.
It will endanger the UN-led peace talks on Syria, scheduled to begin on January 25, in Geneva. It could derail efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen. It is sure to increase sectarian violence in Iraq, foiling budding Sunni-Shiite cooperation against ISIS. It will further amplify the political divisions in Lebanon. It certainly will make the lives of Saudi and Iranian human rights defenders more of a hell than it already is.
The Iranian leadership may choose to react more rationally in order not to endanger the July 2015 deal with the USA on its nuclear programme. Tehran has already signalled its interest in de-escalating the tension. But there are enough hardliners in Iran that are not too happy with the moderate policies of President Rouhani and they are ready to sabotage the nuclear deal. The Iranian government’s failure to protect the Saudi diplomatic missions was indicative of either serious disregard for the international law or a worrying weakness of the regime.
As for Saudi Arabia, the crowning of King Salman brought a new monarchical policy to the Kingdom. According to a London-based Saudi academic, preferring to remain anonymous, the war in Yemen rejuvenated the Saudi religious Arab nationalism. “Previously, religious nationalism meant cleansing the Arab peninsula from infidels. This new religious nationalism is militaristic, demanding interventions elsewhere to defend the interests of Sunnis against Iran and others”, she says.
As well as being aggressive and assertive, the Saudi monarchy is anxious and insecure. Their recent efforts to diversify their oil-dependent economy faces considerable resistance. The threat of extremism from ISIS is all too real. They also fear their Shia minority backed by Iran. Hence their impulsive decision to execute a prominent Shia cleric despite the risk of inflaming their powerful rival Iran and inviting rebuke from outside.
Turkey would do well to stay away from this unruly power game.
Ankara’s first official statement on the subject was measured. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Numan Kurtulmuş called for calm and mildly criticised the recent executions. However, a few days later, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took altogether a different line. He refused to condemn the executions, saying it was an “internal legal matter” of the Kingdom.
Having just visited Riyadh for talks with King Salman and having committed Turkey to take part in a new Sunni alliance with the Saudis and Qataris, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that Mr Erdogan chose to stand with his chief Middle Eastern ally.
There are still plenty of sane voices in Turkey urging the government to refrain from taking sides in this latest and highly unpredictable stand-off, but there is no sign yet that Mr Erdogan and his ministers are ready to abandon their illusions of always being able to punch above their weight.
This post is also available in: Turkish