By Julia Long
In the first days of the New Year, Saudi Arabia officially severed all diplomatic ties with Iran, after an attack on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. The attack was prompted by the execution of a well-known and outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, by Saudi officials.
The majority of Muslims in Saudi Arabia are Sunni, whereas the majority section in Iran is Shiite, so it’s not as though the two nations have never been at odds. The Sunni-Shi’a divide has existed for centuries, nearly as long as the religion itself, but never before has the conflict between them become so inflamed.
While each country has backed Sunni or Shiite forces in the Middle East in previous conflicts, direct conflict and violence between the two countries has not been so forthright. Other Sunni nations in the region applauded Saudi Arabia for combatting terrorism, whereas Iran, as well as Lebanon, Yemen, and other Shiite nations, criticized Saudi Arabia for executing who they believe is a peaceful dissident. What these tensions reveal is the increasing polarization occurring in the Middle East, isolating each nation and further dividing the region.
Involvement in the Syrian Civil War is certainly a catalyst for this division as both nations have contributed to the conflict. Recently, the United States hoped cooperation could bring the end in sight in terms of the Syrian and Yemen Civil Wars and ease tensions in other countries such as Bahrain and Iraq. However, while the two nations have never been in direct conflict, they have long been at odds for power and influence in the region as the larger powers behind their respective Islamic sects.
The United States has urged diplomacy and dialogue between the two countries. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif from his home on the day of the announcement. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also weighed in on the conflict.
“[I am] deeply dismayed by the trials [and subsequent executions] that raised serious concerns about the nature of the charges and fairness of the process,” said Ban.
The European Union (EU), and eventually the United States, have allied with this train of thought, citing the absence of due process and questionable charges for the basis of the executions of al-Nimr and others involved with his campaigns protesting the Saudi monarchy.
However, the attack on the Saudi embassy turned much of the world against Iran’s favor in the situation. Statements from the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and particularly from Zarif, express the government’s regret over the attack and its hopes to move forward.
“I think our Saudi neighbors need to realize that confrontation is in the interest of nobody,” said Zarif. “Iran is there to work with you. Iran does not want to exclude anyone from the region. There is no need to engage in confrontation.”
Degradation of Saudi-Iran relations puts the whole region in danger. At this point, it is very unlikely that Saudi Arabia and Iran will actually wage war against each other, but the diplomatic severance may lead to increased involvement in proxy wars, particularly in Syria and Yemen. It is the opposite of progress in terms of peace in the Middle East, and it shows disregard for the values of justice, peace, and unity that are so desperately needed.