Tensions flared in January after Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The fallout is not confined to governments in Iran and the GCC countries, with tensions echoing in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Now that the dust has settled, it appears the reverberations are testing the patience of other regional powers like Egypt and Israel, while further exposing the sectarian rift between Sunnis and Shiites, stoking fears of an all-out sectarian war erupting in the region.
by Ahmed Goher
additional reporting by Ahmed Mansour
The impact of the clash on Egypt is not clear cut. After the execution and the storming of the Saudi embassy and consulate in Tehran, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions as “unacceptable” and labeling Iranian behavior as intervention in other countries’ internal affairs.
Egypt limited its reaction to a statement expressing support for the Saudis because it follows “a balanced foreign policy and does not want to get involved in conflicts,” says Reham Mokbel, an international relations expert at the Regional Center for Strategic Studies.
“There is no doubt that the national security of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is intertwined. This is evident with President Sisi’s statements of Gulf security being a ‘red line’ and so on,” she says. “We know that Iran is playing on sectarian nerves and is trying to cause instability. However, Egypt cannot come into this. Egypt knows that in time things will subside and will not allow itself to get pulled into conflicts it can do without.”
When asked if the Saudis could pressure Egypt into, for instance, sending troops to Yemen or risk having the aid it receives cut off, Mokbel says the notion of “blood for oil” is completely rejected by Egypt.
“It simply does not work that way and it is unacceptable to even imply that. We will under no circumstances send troops to Yemen. It has not happened thus far and will not happen. I mean, Egypt will definitely be there if Saudi Arabia really need the support but Egypt won’t take an extreme position,” she says, adding that the country now understands that the real threats facing the region are terrorism and rogue militias; not conflicts between states.
At the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Arab World Affairs expert Khairat Ramsy agrees with Mokbel and stresses that Egypt wants to stabilize things back home more than anything else. “We have a lot on our plate. We cannot shift our attention to conflicts that are taking place away outside our borders,” he says. “I really do hope that we do not get embroiled in any such conflicts. This would be disastrous for Egypt.”
Ziad Waleed, a financial economist at Beltone, believes the economic consequences on Egypt will be more pronounced. “The impact on Egypt from the current tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia will not serve Egypt’s economic interests. Before, there wasn’t really an outright link between the aid the Saudis give and the problems it has with Iran. Now, on the other hand, with tension intensifying, we are likely to see this change,” Waleed says. “The Saudis are likely to request significant commitments on the part of Egypt when it comes to the ongoing cold war, be that in Syria or Yemen, for aid to continue. However, this is not necessarily something that will serve Egypt’s national security or economic interests.”
The fallout that ensued after the execution should have been no surprise to Saudi Arabia. Nimr had been shot and arrested during protests in Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shiite Eastern Province back in 2012. He was sentenced to death in October 2014 on charges of “foreign meddling,” prompting Iran to warn on September 25 that the execution, if carried out, “would exact a heavy price on Saudi Arabia,” in the words of Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African Affairs.
This begs the question of why Saudi Arabia would go on with the execution despite knowing the consequences. Mokbel believes the Saudis were trying to consecrate the Kingdom’s position as a powerful regional actor. “The new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, operates a bit differently when it comes to issues related to Iran than his predecessor, King Abdallah. He deals with matters more sternly, as we have seen in Yemen and the move to form a coalition to attack the Houthis there. Regardless of the actual outcome in Yemen, he wants to show that Saudi Arabia is powerful, influential and will do what it wants, in this case executing Nimr, regardless of the anger Iran or Shiites in the Gulf feel,” Mokbel explains, adding that relations did not just begin to fray with the execution, but have gradually been eroding.
The heated exchanges are not simply confined to reactions to the execution. On September 30, after a crowd collapse in Mina, Mecca, during Hajj left hundreds dead, Iran and Saudi Arabia embarked on a heated war of words. Iran’s Supreme Leader threatened Saudi Arabia with “tough and harsh” retaliation and claimed that Saudi Arabia failed to compensate victims appropriately as thousands of Iranian protesters marched in Tehran chanting “death to Al Saud family.”
“We are not talking about two normal countries here, but two regional players who have been in a nontraditional cold war so to speak. This is especially evident after the Iran nuclear deal. The Saudis do not see this as a technical matter in any way. They understand that this deal primarily has to do with legitimizing Iran’s political role in the region,” she says. “Traditionally, Iran has been seen by the West and the Gulf as an interventionist country that plays on sectarian tensions. Now, with the materialization of the deal, Iran has come to be perceived as a potential partner. And we see this very clearly in Iran’s participation in the Vienna process concerning Syria.”
Another reason the kingdom is under pressure to make its presence felt is what Mokbel terms as a US “withdrawal” from the region. “The US is not withdrawing out of weakness but rather because it wants to retreat. The US wants to regionalize conflicts, in the sense that it wants to see powerful players like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and even outside powers like Russia step in to solve the region’s problems.”
The reason for the shift in the US’ policy toward the Middle East, according to Mokbel, is that the Americans have grown frustrated with the region’s problems. “No single US administration can put out the flames eating up the region. Its experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that. The US now understands that perhaps by leaving a gap and retreating, other players can step in and relatively stabilize matters. For instance, look at how Iran stepped in to fill in the void left in Iraq following the US withdrawal.”
Another reason for the US retreat, according to Mokbel, lies in the US’ shift to the Asia-Pacific region, especially with China’s ever-growing power and the American desire to contain it.
Not everyone agrees, however, that the Saudis wanted to send any particularly message with the execution, rather viewing Iran as the main instigator.
“I believe the execution of the cleric was a domestic matter for Saudi Arabia that Iran shouldn’t have gotten involved in to begin with. The Saudi government acted upon its own laws and sentenced a Saudi Arabian citizen to death on their own land — I believe it had nothing to do with him being Shiite or Sunni,” Ramsy maintains.
From his point of view, Iran was the one to create the conflict and the Saudi government decided to sever its relations with Iran because of the attack on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. “It was very obvious that because of the executions that took place in Saudi Arabia, the Iranian Shiites would not be pleased and some acts of vandalism were expected,” Ramsy says. “Yet the Iranian government stood still and didn’t take precautionary measures to ensure the safety of Saudi citizens or their property.”
Far from being reactionary, Iran also had a role in escalating the tension, Mokbel says. “When it comes to Iran’s reaction, we clearly observe that something is not right. The executions carried out by Saudi Arabia also included many Sunnis. Yet Iran tried to spin this as a sectarian matter. Keep in mind that this is a sectarian state that will always try to play sectarian cards so it can intervene in other countries’ internal affairs. When the US or Europe condemn executions, it is somewhat understandable, with them being democracies and all. Iran, however, tops the list of countries that annually carry out executions. So when we see it condemning executions, a lot of red flags are raised.”
Mokbel also maintains that the Iranians could have protected the Saudi embassy and consulate, but chose not to. “It did not protect the embassy to achieve some interests. Per its international obligations and the Vienna Convention, it was required to prevent this from happening,” Mokbel says. “Yet Iran stood by and allowed the attacks to happen. Afterwards, it announced to the world that it would investigate the incident and hold the attackers accountable and even apologized to the United Nations Security Council.”
Further backing Mokbel’s argument are the following statements made by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on January 21: “We do not have a fight to pick with Saudi Arabia. … We believe that Iran and Saudi Arabia can be two important players who can accommodate each other, who can complement each other, in the region. … Unfortunately, the Saudis have had the illusion that backed by their Western allies, they could push Iran out of the equation in the region.”
From this perspective, the Iranians escalated tensions and then tried to play them down in order to appear as responsible players in the eyes of the international community, especially before the implementation of the nuclear deal.
“The Iranians are extremely smart. They essentially fueled tension and then tried to calm things down to make themselves look like they are out to stabilize matters,” says Mokbel, who notes that the plan seems to have worked, with the IAEA recently announcing that Iran had kept its end of the bargain when it comes to the nuclear deal.
“The Iranians bet on the time factor and knew that things would eventually subside,” Mokbel says. “Now all eyes are positively on Iran with sanctions being lifted. This current situation in no way favors Saudi Arabia.”
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are at the heart of many of the region’s current crises. Most notably, they are core players in the current wars in Yemen and Syria and tensions between the two countries usually end up playing out there. However, while some observers now estimate that prospects for a peaceful settlement of either crisis seem far out of sight, others do not think relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia affect wars in Yemen or Syria.
“The implications for Syria and Yemen are undoubtedly huge. Now, the chances of a solution to the crisis in Yemen are slim,” Mokbel says. “The Saudis will now completely reject any potential negotiation between the Houthis and the current government. We will also see intensified attacks on the Houthis.”
The situation in Syria will become even more complex than it already is and this is apparent with the Kurd’s absence from the Riyadh talks, Mokbel adds, in which opposition forces agreed for the first time to consider ending the crisis peacefully.
Iran enjoys heavy Russian support and as time passes, both Iran and Russia are managing to turn the focus and priorities of the international community toward combating terrorism rather than ousting Assad — a loss for the Saudis, Mokbel says.
Conversely, Ramsy maintains that Saudi Arabia is driven by internal motivators when it comes to taking certain actions or sides in the region, noting that “Iran has nothing to do with it and it cannot influence Saudi Arabia in any way. … I believe where Saudi Arabia stands on the Syrian issue is not clear. Saudi Arabia has always been a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. First, they insisted on removing Assad from power, but when things got out of hand and ISIS got involved, they sided with Assad, by setting agendas and signing agreements, in his fight with, what they now call, well-funded and well-trained terrorist organizations.”
One regional player that observers have given attention to is Israel, which has qualms with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Just recently the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Ali Jafari, said in a speech that Israel and Saudi Arabia were “partnering up” with the Kingdom acting as Israel’s “defense shield.”
“Today, the enemies have resorted to proxy wars and using other Muslim world capacities, instead of direct confrontation, against the Islamic Revolution and its example can be seen in what Saudi Arabia is doing,” Jafari said in a January 19 speech, adding “Today, Al-Saud has turned into a defense shield for the Zionists.”
Mokbel cautions that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are Israel’s enemies, and that Israel would not look to support either country.
“They are not allied with either country. Even if there is some level of minimal cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is all conducted through secret and informal channels,” Mokbel says. “Still, Iran is definitely Israel’s prime enemy currently, and Israel’s eyes are on it – especially after the nuke deal.”
Ramsey believes Israel always manages to appear as a spectator of the events unfolding across the Arab World. “Of course, they are going to come out and condemn everything happening in the Arab World. But everything is happening for a reason and that reason is that the US needs to make sure that its 51st state, Israel, is safe while its surrounding countries are suffering.”
Drums of war?
Mokbel dismisses the idea that Saudi Arabia and Iran could enter into direct military confrontation. She argues that neither side has the necessary strength or will power to pursue such a war.
“This crisis shows just that. The Saudis resorted to diplomatic channels like the GCC and the Arab League. They did not pursue direct confrontation and cannot afford to tarnish their image in this manner,” Mokbel says. “We can’t even speak of a proper proxy war between the two countries since Saudi Arabia simply cannot keep up with Iran, which has proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. …Who does Saudi Arabia have?”
Ramsy dismisses the notion of a hot war between the two countries. “The biggest indication regarding this matter is that right after the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Iran immediately came out with an apology. Iran has had its fair share of wars, such as the one with Iraq that lasted for almost 10 years. I do not believe that they are willing to relive this experience.”
Ultimately, Mokbel says, time is on Iran’s side and its relations with Turkey, the West and the rest of the GCC countries are bound to grow stronger now that sanctions are lifted and everyone converges to reap what they can from relations with a rising regional economic powerhouse.
Time is not in Saudi Arabia’s interests. The IMF recently warned in its latest regional outlook report that the kingdom may go bankrupt within the next five years if it maintains current policies and does not undergo serious reforms. This, coupled with rumored internal power struggles within the monarchy, paints a gloomy portrait for the country’s future, particularly when considering the kingdom’s high youth unemployment rate and relatively marginalized but sizable Shiite population.
With Saudi Arabia’s financial power receding at a time when Iran’s economy is set to gain a massive boost with the lifting of sanctions, some have postulated that perhaps Egypt may start to enhance ties with Iran, with which it had severed ties in 1989 and with which it could have very profitable economic relations.
Mokbel, however, does not expect to see a breakthrough in relations between Iran and Egypt anytime soon, let alone Iran replacing Saudi Arabia as a main ally. “While I think Egypt would strongly benefit from relations with Iran, I don’t think that’s feasible in light of current relations with Saudi Arabia. Egypt is a huge country and having strong relations with Iran would pose a huge threat to the GCC national security. This is why this is a red line for Saudi Arabia.”
Egypt also fears Iranian intervention in its own domestic affairs. “Even if their numbers are small, there are Shiites in Egypt and Egypt is wary of Iranian intervention in that regard,” Mokbel adds, stressing that while Egypt would benefit from having relations with Iran, the moral, economic and diplomatic support Egypt receives from Saudi Arabia is undeniable.
“Egypt won’t let go of that support easily. In the end, this is not about Egypt following Saudi Arabia, but about maintaining its interests,” she says.
Ramsy believes it is only a matter of time before the Saudis recover their economic strength. “Saudi Arabia has always been a strong ally to Egypt. It is only a matter of time until the Saudis get back on their feet economically. Egypt will not need Iranian assistance,” he says. “Oil prices have nothing to do with Saudi Arabia. I believe the US managed to lower oil prices to hit the Russians. Yet this also affected Saudi Arabia since they depend highly on oil exports. Still, I am sure things will eventually normalize. The US doesn’t want to lose one of their strongest proxies in the Middle East.”