After breaking off diplomatic ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia claims that it remains as committed as ever to securing peace in Syria and Yemen. This weekend, majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia ordered the execution of a dissident Shiite cleric, and, in response, protestors in majority-Shiite Iran stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
“From our side it should have no effect because we will continue to work very hard to support the peace efforts in Syria, in Yemen,” the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, said Monday, according to Reuters. “We will attend the next Syria talks and we’re not going to boycott them because of Iran or anybody else for that matter.”
“The Iranians, even before the break of diplomatic relations, have not been very supportive, have not been very positive in these peace efforts,” he told reporters. “I don’t think the break in relations is going to dissuade them from such behavior.”
On Saturday, the Saudi government in Riyadh ordered the execution of 47 people, including opposition Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, as well as Al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Sheikh Nimr and three other Shiites were accused of committing acts of violence against police during protests. From the New York Times:
Saudi officials said the mass execution, one of the largest in the kingdom in decades, was aimed at deterring violence against the state. But analysts said that the grouping of Sheikh Nimr with hardened jihadists was a warning to domestic dissidents that could ripple across the region.
The execution of Sheikh Nimr is widely seen as part of the growing rivalry, and Shiite leaders in different countries — in Iran, in particular — condemned it.
“It is clear that this barren and irresponsible policy will have consequences for those endorsing it, and the Saudi government will have to pay for pursuing this policy,” said Hossein Jaberi-Ansari, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry.
After Nimr’s death, Iranian protestors took over the Saudi embassy in Tehran, ransacking it, prompting the Saudis to announce that they were severing ties.
Many of the conflicts across the Middle East (including that in Syria) are actually proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose opposition is as political as it is theological. “This is a very disturbing escalation,” Michael Stephens, an analyst at the London-based research center Royal United Services Institute, told the Times. “It has enormous consequences for the people of the region, and the tensions between the two sides are going to mean that instability across the region will continue.”
A recent New Yorker profile of Secretary of State John Kerry illustrates what an excruciating process it was to get the two countries to even agree to sit down together (and, in turn, how potentially devastating this breakdown in communications may prove):
When Kerry became Secretary, the Saudis were still angry at the Administration for, in their eyes, betraying a reliable ally-autocrat like Hosni Mubarak. What if the House of Saud came to such a pass? The Saudis were also dismayed by Obama’s reluctance to attack Syria. Turki al-Faisal, the former director of Saudi intelligence and a member of the royal family, said, in 2013, that Obama’s failure to follow through on his “red line” warning “would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious.”
The focus of the meeting, for Kerry, was to nail down what had been raised in Vienna the day before, persuading the King to include Iran in the talks on Syria. The King’s security council—including the foreign minister, the Crown Prince, the deputy Crown Prince, the head of intelligence—listened intently as the two men talked. Salman seemed to leave the question of Iran a little more open and told Kerry that he should now meet with the security team. Kerry’s team was hopeful, thinking that Salman had given them room to maneuver.
With the King gone, the Saudi advisers, despite their ritual expressions of distaste for Iran, agreed to be in the same room with Zarif at future meetings in Vienna. This would not be first-level news around the world, necessarily, and the war went on, and the waves of refugees kept arriving in Jordan and Turkey and on the shores of Lesvos. But, for Kerry, these were the kinds of moves—a pawn seizing a center square—that just might lead to an endgame.
“Saudi Arabia killed Mr. al-Nimr at this sensitive juncture in time to widen the gap between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” an Iranian cleric, Fazel Meybodi, told the Times. “Unfortunately they had predicted our overreaction, and now they are using it against us to try to isolate Iran once again.”
“They knew we couldn’t look the other way,” he said. “That they would actually go ahead with killing him? That caught all of us by surprise.”