Political and sectarian tensions in the Middle East have been pushed to new heights by Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 people, including a senior Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, in the early hours of the new year for terrorism.
The killing of Nimr sparked two days of outrage among Shia communities in the Middle East, Pakistan and Indian Kashmir, culminating in the burning of the Saudi embassy in Iran’s capital, Tehran.
On Sunday, Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference that Iran’s diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia had been given 48 hours to leave. He said Riyadh would not allow Iran to undermine the Sunni kingdom’s security.
Iran’s foreign ministry countered on Monday by accusing Saudi Arabia of stoking regional tensions. A spokesperson said: “Saudi Arabia sees not only its interests but also its existence in pursuing crises and confrontations and attempts to resolve its internal problems by exporting them.”
Days later the Gulf state Bahrain, which has a Shia majority, followed its close Saudi ally by expelling Iranian embassy officials. Kuwait subsequently recalled its ambassador to Iran, and Sudan too downgraded diplomatic relations with Iran.
The execution marked a clear hardening of the Sunni kingdom’s stance towards its archenemy and can only compound the cross-cutting tensions and conflicts that make the Middle East so volatile and crisis prone.
Nimr’s execution could have been stopped by royal pardon; clemency had been repeatedly sought by officials in Tehran. However, the Saudi monarch, King Salman, refused to intervene.
A prominent critic of the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies, Nimr had been a prisoner since 2012 and was championed by both Iran and the United Nations. He was executed despite pleas for clemency delivered personally by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon.
“Sheikh Nimr and a number of the other prisoners executed had been convicted following trials that raised serious concerns over the nature of the charges and the fairness of the process,” Ban’s spokesperson said.
Riyadh, meanwhile, stuck to its position that Nimr had committed acts of terrorism. Saudi officials are convinced that he was a central figure in attempts to stir dissent among Saudi’s Shia minority, which makes up about 15% of the population and is viewed by Riyadh as a subversive threat, urged on by the Iranian leadership.
Many of those executed were Shias who had taken part in anti-regime protests, while others were convicted members of al-Qaeda. One of those put to death was allegedly among the gunmen who shot BBC correspondent Frank Gardner on the streets of Riyadh in 2004, leaving him paralysed.
The executions have created a delicate poser for Saudi Arabia’s major Western backers, the United States and the United Kingdom. It has turned a spotlight on Westminster’s economic and political links with the conservative Saudi Arabia regime.
The UK’s treasury secretary, David Gauke, repeated the government line that Riyadh had passed on information critical to thwarting terror plots. “We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia where we are able to speak candidly to them, where these issues are raised on a regular basis by the foreign secretary and the prime minister and our representatives in Riyadh,” he said. “Clearly, it [the executions] is a worrying development.”
The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, which has been increasingly critical of the UK’s cosy relationship with Riyadh, expressed anger that the British foreign office minister, Tobias Ellwood, had merely described the executions as “disappointing”. The British foreign office later issued a tougher message calling for restraint on all sides.
Labour’s spokesperson on human rights, Andy Slaughter, condemned the relationship with the Saudis and wrote to the secretary of state for justice, Michael Gove, asking him to confirm that discussions of judicial co-operation were continuing with the Saudi government and calling for them to “cease immediately”.
“It’s not right that the UK should be actively co-operating with a justice system that shows such flagrant disregard for the most basic human rights and the rule of law,” Slaughter said.
Bahrain’s crackdown on Iranian diplomats comes as no surprise. Against the background of unrest among the country’s Shia majority, it has often blamed Iran for fomenting subversion and terrorism. Its decision will step up pressure on the United Arab Emirates, another close Saudi ally, to follow suit.
The Saudis sent troops into Bahrain in February 2011 to help crush the “Pearl Revolution” protests that erupted in the spirit of the Arab Spring. Bahrain also joined Saudi Arabia in air attacks on the Islamic State in Syria.
Powers in the region, most notably Saudi Arabia, this week said the diplomatic upheaval would not affect Syrian peace talks, but Iran did not immediately comment on whether it would still attend meetings scheduled for later this month. – Additional reporting by Kareem Shaheen and Saeed Kamali Dehghan © Guardian News & Media 2016
Recent events deepen Shia-Sunni divisions
Outright sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims has been rare, but in recent decades tensions have risen and sectarianism is at the root of much of the current violence in the Middle East.
More than 85% of the world’s 1.5-billion Muslims are Sunni and the rest Shia.
The two denominations share many fundamental beliefs and practices, and in many places their followers have coexisted for centuries.
Both groups agree that Allah is the one true God and Prophet Muhammad his messenger. Both follow the Qur’an as the holy book and the five pillars of Islam, such as fasting during Ramadan.
The schism goes back to the death of the Prophet in 632CE, and a disagreement over who should succeed him. Some Muslims believed that his successor should be chosen; others wanted a continuation of Muhammad’s bloodline.
The majority of Muhammad’s followers backed Abu Bakr, a friend of the Prophet, to inherit his office. They became known as Sunnis. A smaller number insisted the Prophet had anointed his cousin, Ali. They became known as Shia.
The Sunnis prevailed, although Ali briefly ruled as the fourth caliph after Abu Bakr and his successors died. But the Muslim split deepened when Ali’s son, Hussein, was killed in 680CE by soldiers of the ruling Sunni caliph.
His death is commemorated by Shia Muslims as a day of ritualistic mourning known as Ashura.
Tensions between Sunnis and Shias deepened following the revolution in Iran in 1979, when Shia clerics took control of the country, offering support and giving hope to Shia populations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who ruled over a Shia majority in Iraq, invaded Iran the following year in a regional and sectarian power struggle. The ensuing war lasted nearly eight years and cost more than a million lives.
The Arab Spring uprisings beginning five years ago have further heightened Sunni-Shia tensions, and led Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia to crack down on what they see as Iran’s attempts to promote its radical Shia agenda.
In countries with Sunni governments, Shia Muslims tend to be among the poorest sections of society and often see themselves as discriminated against. – Harriet Sherwood © Guardian News & Media 2015
Reaction to attacks come full circle
Storming an embassy was once a symbolic act by ardent revolutionaries that was championed by the most senior officials in Iran’s Islamic republic. Now it is biting the hands of the leadership that initially endorsed it.
Iranian hardliners who set ablaze the Saudi embassy in Tehran and attacked its consular offices in the eastern city of Mashhad have shifted the focus from the Saudi execution of 47 people in a single day to the ensuing diplomatic crisis between Riyadh and Tehran.
Iran could have argued that Saudis were to blame for growing sectarianism in the region, but instead scored an own goal.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution, students stormed the United States embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days, sparking a crisis that still reverberates.
Although started by revolutionary students without official sanction, the hostage crisis was endorsed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who praised the perpetrators and labelled the embassy “a den of spies”. The incident has been kept alive in an annually celebrated national day for more than three decades.
In 2011, another group attacked the British embassy in Tehran, ransacking offices and diplomatic residences and prompting Britain to expel all Iranian diplomats.
There was a significant shift in the official reaction, with Iran’s current leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying that it was not right for the students to carry out the attack, even though their sentiments were justified.
This year, as it tries to reintegrate itself into the international community, Iran finds itself hampered by the “death to this, death to that” chants at Friday prayers and the burning of enemies’ flags and property.
Significantly Iranian officials went to great lengths to distance themselves from the storming of the Saudi embassy at the weekend. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani condemned it as “totally unjustifiable” and ordered the police to identify and arrest the perpetrators of the attack.
“The actions last night by a group of radicals in Tehran and Mashhad leading to damage at the Saudi embassy and consulate are totally unjustifiable, as the buildings should be legally and religiously protected in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Rouhani said.
“I call on the interior minister to identify the perpetrators of this attack with firm determination and introduce them to the judiciary so that there will be an end to such appalling actions once and for all.” – Saeed Kamali Dehghan © Guardian News & Media 2015