The severing of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, after Riyadh expelled Iranian diplomats on Sunday, giving them 48 hours to get out of the country, is not a surprising development. It was long feared that things would come to this pass. Yet, little was done to prevent it. Saudi Arabia’s execution of dissident Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr — along with 46 others, mostly Sunnis allegedly associated with al-Qaeda — on Saturday resonated across Shia communities in the Middle East, enraging Iran and provoking its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to invoke “divine revenge” on the Saudi kingdom. While Iran had the upper hand vis-a-vis an execution condemned across the world, the attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran prompted Riyadh to seize the narrative and cut off ties.
As leaders of the Shia and Sunni worlds respectively, Iran and Saudi Arabia have always been rivals, if not outright enemies. They have certainly never been friends. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the hostage crisis at the US embassy, Tehran and Riyadh found themselves in opposite Cold War camps. Although the late 1990s saw a substantial improvement in relations under Mohammad Khatami’s moderate regime in Tehran, the Iranian nuclear programme raised temperatures that refused to subside even after the American rapprochement with Iran culminated in last year’s nuclear deal. In recent times, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been on opposite sides in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the latter conflict being a proxy war between them. Since this rivalry had already been playing out in the Arab street, if the current crisis escalates into a more direct military confrontation, its impact on a volatile region devastated by conflict will be indescribable. Already, Bahrain and Sudan have followed Saudi Arabia in severing ties with Iran, while the UAE has downgraded ties.
Unfortunately, neither state seems to be in a mood to step back. Riyadh is wary of plummeting oil prices and a royal battle of succession. Tehran’s conservatives are afraid, post-nuclear deal, of a bigger reformist push and Western “impositions”. As a result, nationalist rhetoric and inflamed public passions directed outward serve both and the competition for Middle Eastern leadership provides the perfect frame. Any Shia-Sunni conflagration will spill over beyond the Middle East. But one of the first casualties, as is already evident, will be the low price of oil, followed by hopes for a political resolution in Syria.