Iran-Saudi Row Reignites

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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News of the execution of 47 people convicted by the Saudi government for terror-related offences has unleashed a storm in the region.  Among those put to death was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken Shia cleric and critic of the Saudi government. Mr. al-Nimr’s death has been condemned vociferously by the Iranian government and its Supreme Leader, as well as by other Shia powers in the region, including Lebanon and Iraq. The back and forth between the two regional adversaries — Saudi Arabia and Iran — has now resulted in the suspension of diplomatic exchanges between the two countries and is likely to contribute to further instability in the region. Supporters of the Saudi government insist that Riyadh has acted according to its national interest and that any involvement on the part of other countries only provides further evidence of the Iranian interference in the affairs of a sovereign country.

Iranian leaders have led the charge against the executions, with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei , according to a Tehran Times report, taking an especially hard stance with regards to “the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, saying the entire world, including Muslim nations, should react to this ‘crime.’ Ayatollah Khamenei made the remarks at the start of his teaching to clerics at the post-jurisprudence level on Sunday, according to the website….Ayatollah Khamenei described the martyrdom of Sheikh Nimr and shedding his blood without any cogent reasons as the political mistake of the Saudi government….He also criticized the silence of those who make claims about freedom, democracy and human rights and condemned such people’s support for the Saudi regime that sheds the blood of innocent people just because they raise their voices against certain issues.”

Judging from remarks reported by the Iranian daily Press TV, Iran’s foreign minister was equally critical, albeit more diplomatic in his statements: “Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has warned against the repercussions of extremism in the Middle East region following Saudi Arabia’s execution of a top Shia cleric….The Iranian foreign minister also underscored the need for coordinated regional and international initiatives to bring a halt to measures against religious groups and tribalism-based policies. Zarif also said that the Islamic Republic remains fully committed to safeguarding diplomatic missions it hosts.”

In a recent op-ed, Al Jazeera’s Arjun Sethi  notes that according to critics of the Saudi government, the latter has been emboldened  to take the current course, after having been awarded a seat on the UN HRC and especially considering the tacit U.S. support and use of similar measures: “Despite its appalling human rights record, Saudi Arabia was awarded a seat on the UN Human Rights Council last year and this summer was selected to oversee an influential committee within the council that appoints officials to report on country-specific and thematic human rights challenges. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has used its newfound power to thwart an international inquiry into allegations that it committed war crimes in Yemen. It’s not by happenstance that the kingdom announced the mass execution just days after 130 people were killed in Paris in the worst terrorist attacks in Europe in more than a decade. Even before Paris, the U.S. used its ‘war on terrorism’ to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, engage in mass surveillance and develop an assassination program immune from judicial oversight. Is it any surprise that Saudi Arabia feels emboldened to intensify its own ‘war on terrorism’?”

Not all share Iran’s anger. The Gulf News editorial, for example, rather than criticizing the executions, urges the Saudi government to move forward with more robust anti-terror measures: “Saudi Arabia has the right and responsibility to take every step necessary to secure the peace, security and stability of its government, institutions and people against those who plot, act, conduct violence and instigate insurrection, discord and civil unrest. Terrorism takes many forms, uses many faces, embraces many peoples and those who advocate terrorist philosophies will use any means to further their narrow political, religious or philosophical outlooks. Countering these forces of evil requires determination and tough measures….The Saudi government, its officials and its security forces, must not be deterred nor distracted by external voices or international criticism. The fight against terror is too important. And the victims deserve nothing less.”

The Saudi dailies have been — as expected — supportive of their government’s actions. The Arab News editorial frames the decision of the Saudi judiciary as the actions of a sovereign country in defense of its national interest: “For Saudi Arabia, it is a matter of sovereignty and no country should interfere in the Kingdom’s internal affairs….The action sends out a strong message that the Kingdom does not and will not tolerate any attempt by anyone to tamper with its security and stability. The move shows that the country will take all measures to ensure the safety of its citizens from deviants and terrorist ideologies. As expected, some countries immediately politicized the execution of one of the terrorists for well-known reasons. Their irresponsible behavior is noted when they attack Saudi decisions.”

Similarly, writing for the Saudi Gazette, Mahmoud Ahmad suggests the Saudis were within their right to act as they did, which makes Iran’s threatening stance very troubling: “Saudi Arabia does not need to justify or explain to anyone anything. These people were found guilty by the court of law and these verdicts fulfill Shariah and legal requirements, achieve the purpose and objectives of deterrence, and protect society and its security and stability and no one has any right to interfere in the Saudi judicial system….In my opinion, it seems that the tone Iran adopted in voicing their dissent was very threatening. The thug in the region thinks that he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, forgetting that Saudi Arabia is an independent strong country and does not tolerate interference. Iran’s record and reputation with its constant meddling in Syria, Iraq and Yemen is a clear evidence of their ill intention.”

For Asharq Alwasat’s editorial staff there is little mystery to Iran’s forceful reaction to news of al-Nimr’s execution, considering that “what happed on Saturday was considered a shock for the Iranians who tried to challenge through official platforms, of which was recently the statement of Deputy Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, saying: ‘The execution of Sheikh Nimr would have dire consequences for Saudi Arabia.’ Nimr al-Nimr and many of his supporters from al-Awamiyah village shared the same path, which relies on going armed against the security men and the Saudi government claiming being oppressed religiously and hiding the people who are wanted by Security agencies. Their resistance prefers sect over the nation.”

While many of the countries in the region have sided either with Iran or with Saudi Arabia, not all are prepared to do so. In Turkey, some observers, including Hurriyet Daily News’ Murat Yetkin, have cautioned their government to stay out of the Saudi-Iran ‘rift’, since taking one side or the other would run counter to Turkey’s national interests: “The Saudi-led alliance was a bad idea when it was proposed last March, as rather than open a Muslim front against jihadist terrorism it could simply deepen the already existing Sunni-Shiite rift within Islam….The alliance was still a bad idea when it was formally established last December, and Turkey joining the alliance was a bad idea even if only limited to an ideological contribution. It would be even worse if Turkey joined militarily, because it would worsen Ankara’s already far from smooth relations with its eastern neighbor Iran, at a time when the Kurdish problem in Turkey’s southeast is again in flames and affected by the instability in Iraq and Syria. So Turkey should not get involved in this sectarian Saudi-Iran confrontation. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu should do everything he can to stay out of it.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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