Foreign Affairs
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The Deterioration of Diplomacy in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Split

On January 3rd, officials of the Saudi Arabian foreign ministry announced that Iranian ambassadors within the Arab Kingdom have 48 hours to evacuate the country, thereby ceasing formal diplomatic relations between the two nations. This severance of diplomacy between the two Middle Eastern rival states is the direct result of the violent protests against Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other individuals convicted of terrorism charges on January 2nd. The protests culminated in attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad, which had the effect of flaring sectarian tensions between Saudi Arabia—a predominately Sunni state—and its Shiite neighbour. The Islamic Republic’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini warned Saudi Arabian leaders of “divine revenge” in wake of the executions. In conjunction with this declaration, President Hassan Rouhani hastily condemned the embassy attacks on Iran’s state-run television network, yet concurrently criticized Saudi leaders for the executions of the Shia leaders.

Sectarian division between the aforementioned nations is not a recent phenomenon: Shia and Sunni Muslims have suffered from antagonistic religious differences regarding the legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammed since Islam’s inception in the region. In particular, a significant majority of Saudis (approximately 85-90% of the population) subscribe to Wahhabism, a fundamentalist sect that is the official form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabi supporters tend to perceive Shiite Muslims—which constitute roughly 90% of the general populace of Iran—with intense suspicion because of the divergence in their belief systems. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Iran’s foreign policies are incompatible, as the two nations share few—if any—international interests with one another. The two nations are currently engaged in proxy wars in Yemen—where Iran supports the Houthi minority and Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni majority—as well as in Syria, as a means to expand their respective political influence in the region.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia retains a slim Shiite minority within its nation, constituting roughly 10% of the nation’s population. These minority groups reside in the northern region of the country, close to Arabian oil fields, which function as a significant source of wealth for the nation. This further heightens the potential threat of an Iranian invasion in the minds of Saudi Arabian political officials, rendering the ongoing sectarian divisions as a focal point for Middle Eastern policy-making.

Following Riyadh’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats, a number of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies have also severed diplomatic relations with Tehran. Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates—fellow gulf-coast monarchies and Saudi Arabian allies—have suspended diplomacy with Iran as of January 4th, ordering Iranian diplomats to evacuate the nation within 72 hours and withdrawing their own diplomats from the Islamic Republic. Somalia, a nation dominated by Sunni Muslims, also issued an official statement condemning the Iranian attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The Arab League has also announced that its members plan to hold an emergency conference regarding the situation in the region, to be held January 10th. Specifically, the attacks on the Saudi embassies in Tehran will serve as central preoccupation of these talks.

Iranian allies have also responded to the severance of diplomatic relations between the rival Middle Eastern powers. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese militia group Hezbollah, openly condemned the executions of Shia rebels. Additionally, similar violent protests erupted in Iraq and Pakistan in wake of the mass executions, with both states’ top officials condemning the attacks as “unjust aggression.”

International Responses

As of 12PM EST on January 4th, the United Nations announced that Staffan de Mistura—the special envoy for Syria—will pay visits to the administrations of both Saudi Arabia and Iran as a means to ease political tensions between the two nations. U.N. representatives have voiced their fears that that heightened tensions in the region will disrupt international efforts for establishing peace in the ongoing Syrian conflict. The United States—Saudi Arabia’s most powerful Western ally—has also expressed a desire for de-escalating tensions between the rival regional powers, encouraging Saudi and Iranian leaders to implement “affirmative steps” to reduce strains on diplomacy. Canada, meanwhile, having closed its embassy in Tehran in 2012, has echoed the United States’ encouragement for a diplomatic solution to the ongoing crisis. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion openly condemned Saudi Arabia’s executions of high-ranking Shia officials, yet simultaneously expressed Canada’s openness to “re-engagement with Iran to promote meaningful change” in the region.

The Importance of Establishing a Détente

International calls for a peaceful solution to this issue suggest an inherent significance in the maintenance of peaceful relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Specifically, the importance of establishing a détente between these nations is dichotic: it mitigates the potential for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to regain its military strength, while simultaneously enabling a mutually-prosperous economic relationship between the two nations. While international leaders obviously focus their attention on the former, as evidenced by the multiple calls for reducing strains on diplomacy, the latter is significant to each country’s domestic stability.

Mounting tension between the Sunni and Shiite states has the potential to stymie the international military operations against ISIL. Specifically, a complete Saudi-Iranian split cultivates a political atmosphere that is conducive to the growth of the militant group. Saudi and Iranian leaders agreed to cooperate in the war against ISIL in July 2015. An increase in sectarian tension could result in the collapse of this alliance, which would undermine the effectiveness of the campaign against ISIL. Iraqi spokesperson Saad al-Hadithi even voiced fears that a Saudi-Iranian split would “help [the Islamic State] in building its fighting forces and getting support.” While the cessation of diplomatic relations between the rival powers has had no immediate ramifications on the campaign against ISIL, any further escalation of sectarian tension would definitively hinder international efforts to enforce peace in Syria.

The advantage of achieving a détente also occupies an economic dimension. In 1990, when Kuwait was invaded by Iraqi forces, the rivals united militarily, and formally restored diplomatic relations in the following year. Suffering from high unemployment rates and inflation (a direct consequence of the war with Iraq two years prior), Iran managed to reconstruct its economy by investing in Saudi oil, demonstrating the economic benefit of rapprochement. Conversely, Saudi Arabia also benefitted from a positive diplomatic relationship with Iran. Following rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in 1991, Iran lifted its ban on the haj (Islam’s holy pilgrimage to Mecca) and the umrah (a lesser pilgrimage). In turn, this generates enormous amounts of revenue for Saudi Arabia through religious tourism, netting $20-40 billion dollars (US) each year. A renewal of hostile relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran would therefore inhibit this mutual economic prosperity, which, in turn, would generate further domestic issues in both states


Justin Bonnano is a graduate of the University of Toronto holding an Honours BA with Distinction; he majored in English Literature and History, and is currently a continuing scholar at the University of Toronto.

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