How the execution of Shi'a cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr has re-opened old wounds
On January 3, the Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, announced the severance of diplomatic ties with the nation of Iran. Iranian personnel were given 48 hours to exit the country. Accordingly, Saudi diplomatic personnel stationed in Iran were ordered to return.
The two countries are divided across multiple lines. Extremely significant are age-old tensions between Sunni and Shi’a Islam which, by themselves, represent a major ideological divide that may never be entirely resolved.
This announcement of the cessation of diplomatic contact between Saudi Arabia and Iran came about partially as a result of the fallout from the execution of a Shi’a cleric, who was known to be a vocal opponent of the Saudi government.
Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was arrested in 2012 by Saudi authorities for inciting resistance against the regime in the form of protests and rioting, was sentenced to death in 2014. Although some of these things have most definitely occurred, there is little evidence that al-Nimr actually advocated publicly for the perpetration of violent acts as a means toward advancing his political and religious views. He is seen by many as a symbol for peaceful resistance against oppression.
He heavily criticized the Saudi royal family, often referring to them as “tyrants.” This can be seen as a primary motivating factor leading to his arrest and execution along with 46 other individuals (including three other Shi’a dissidents). He made his position clear in one sermon, emphatically stating, “A crown prince dies, put a new crown prince! What are we, a farm? Poultry for them? […] We don’t accept Al Saud as rulers. We don’t accept them and want to remove them.”
From the perspective of the Saudi government, al-Nimr posed a serious threat to stability, having been the suspected manager of a terrorist network in the east of the country. In reality, Nimr served as voice against unjust oppression and tyranny, although typically labels like this are not always so cut and dry.
Nimr also is known to have actually criticized the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Assad and his close circle are largely in control of the government and represent part of a Shi’a minority in the country. This is significant as part of the reason for his execution was his critical stance in relation to the Sunni royal family in Saudi Arabia.
Nimr’s execution was heavily publicized in Iran and has elevated him to the position of international celebrity. Many in Iran consider him to be a martyr for Islam. With this being the case one can clearly see why tensions have only been given room for escalation.
In response to the execution, protesters gathered outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Sunday, chanting anti Saudi slogans, and throwing stones and molotov cocktails that ignited a fire in one part of the facility, further heightening diplomatic tensions. Approximately 40 persons were taken into custody as participants in the attack. In a statement Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, labeled those who had taken part in the attacks as “extremists.”
Saudi Arabia has been a long term partner of the United States. On the other hand, since its revolution in 1979 Iran and the US have had a difficult history. A potential conflict between the two nations puts the Obama administration in a difficult position.
Saudi U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi commented that a restoration of normalized relations would require “Iran to cease and desist from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, including our own. […] If they do so, we will of course have normal relations with Iran. We are not natural-born enemies of Iran.”
Over the past year the Obama administration has striven toward cementing relations with the government in Tehran. As a part of these efforts, last summer, the administration brokered a deal in Vienna which would monitor and guide Iranian nuclear development and progress.
The creation of this deal may provide cause for concern on the part of the Saudis. In other words, it may appear that the United States is now making its way toward a lasting partnership with Iran. When this is viewed in the context of existing friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it becomes evident that the Saudis are likely to maintain some portion of caution in their moving forward. Presently, Washington is actually more annoyed with Saudi Arabia than Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia, along with the United States, notably supported the government of Saddam Hussein and experienced multiple instances of military aggression from Iranian forces during said conflict. This is only a small part of the deep history that frames the relationship between these two nations.
Saudi Arabia sees in Iran a geopolitical competitor which has, in recent years, increased its efforts at asserting itself both economically and militarily in the region. These efforts have no doubt been construed to be, in many ways, threatening to Saudi sovereignty. With respect to the position of Iran, one can certainly understand that the opposite case is likely to exist.
Hopefully, the international community will be able to find a diplomatic solution to this conflict. Fundamentally, friction between Iran and Saudi Arabia serves to benefit neither party. It is also likely that UN-backed peace talks will begin over the course of the next month. Looking toward the long term, sustained efforts at communication will be necessary.