Iran’s return to international community undermines Saudi aspirations for regional supremacy

The decision by the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia to execute the famed Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on January 2 and the resulting angry response by a group of protesters in Iran who ransacked the Saudi diplomatic premises in the cities of Tehran and Mashhad marked the New Year in the Middle East with unexpected tensions and a full-fledged diplomatic faceoff involving Tehran and Riyadh.

The Saudi kingdom severed its diplomatic relations with Iran and gave the Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave its soil. Several Arab countries rallied behind Saudi Arabia and either suspended or downgraded their relations with Iran.

That said, it’s not unthinkable that the Saudis’ immediate decision to break off relations with Iran and prod their Arab and African allies into taking similar action was driven by their apprehension towards the economic and political reemergence of Iran following the enforcement of the landmark agreement over Iran’s nuclear program concluded last summer.

“Iran’s return to international community will undermine Saudi aspirations for regional supremacy, and even more its hopes that a U.S.-Iran military confrontation would weaken Iran to a point that it would not be a contender for regional power,” said Prof. Shireen T. Hunter in an interview with Iran Review.

Prof. Hunter, however, believes there should be no reason for the Saudis to be anxious about the nuclear deal and Iran’s return to the international community: “there is no compelling reason that Iran’s return to the international community following the JPCOA should be harmful to Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, a more moderate Iran would contribute to regional peace, and economic revival in Iran could benefit the entire region.”

Prof. Shireen T. Hunter is a political scientist and university professor. From 2005 to 2014, she was a Research Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU) at Georgetown University. She has taught at the George Mason University and Washington College and was a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. She was the first women in the Iranian Foreign Service before the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and served as a chargé d’affaires in Iran’s UN Mission in Geneva. A member of the Council on Foreign relations, her recent book is entitled “Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates in Identity, Culture and Governance in the 21st Century.”

Iran Review spoke to Prof. Shireen T. Hunter about the global repercussions of the execution of dissident Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the anxieties it generated in the region, the rising Iranian-Saudi rivalry and Riyadh’s reaction to the implementation of the nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers. The following is the text of the interview.

Q: The execution of 47 people including a noted Shia cleric by Saudi Arabia on January 2 stirred tensions in the Middle East, culminating in the suspension of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh. How do you see the executions, the international response to it and the ensuing diplomatic feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

A: Currently, there is a tension in the world between the principle of states’ sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states by other states, and the issues of respect for basic human rights, which is of concern to all peoples and states throughout the world. This means that, at one level, the Saudi government is correct in saying that the executions were a domestic matter. However, on the other level, the Saudis should have shown more respect and sensitivity to broader values of human rights and should have heeded international pressure to at least desist from executing Sheik Nimr. The execution of Sheik Nimr was an extremely unwise act because he was a respected religious scholar and a symbol of the Saudi Shias’ efforts to acquire equal citizenship rights. The Saudis should also have known that this act would be perceived as a provocation by many Shias throughout the world.

Q: Some observers see the execution of Sheikh Nimr and the subsequent Iran-Saudi showdown against a religious backdrop, including the retired U.S. Navy commander Daniel Dolan, who has talked of an “irreconcilable” rivalry between the Shias and Sunnis. Is it really the case that there’s a Shia-Sunni divide which keeps the two nations apart?

A: The fact that differences exist between the Shias and the Sunnis cannot be denied. The question to be asked is why these differences, which had been dormant for a very long time, have become so strong in the last decade. The answer lies both in the greater role that religion has acquired in the internal politics of Muslim states, and the use of religion as an instrument of foreign policy. For example, Saudi Arabia has seen the spread of Wahhabism as helping its foreign policy goals. Because Wahhabism is particularly anti-Shia among the Sunni schools, its spread has exacerbated sectarian tensions. Meanwhile, Iran’s greater emphasis on religion in its foreign policy has also contributed to this trend, although Iran emphasizes Islamic unity and not Shia supremacy. To this must be added the impact of regional and international politics and struggle for power in the Middle East and South Asia and the use of sectarian fault-lines in this struggle. For example, some countries have tried to bring about a rapprochement between the Sunni Arabs and Israel by exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Q: Saudis have been greatly worried about the Iran-West de-escalation, and had restlessly warned against the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran several times before it was inked. Will Saudi Arabia be a loser following the implementation of the JCPOA?

A: Clearly, Iran’s return to international community will undermine Saudi aspirations for regional supremacy, and even more its hopes that a U.S.-Iran military confrontation would weaken Iran to a point that it would not be a contender for regional power. However, beyond this perspective, there is no compelling reason that Iran’s return to the international community following the JPCOA should be harmful to Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, a more moderate Iran would contribute to regional peace, and economic revival in Iran could benefit the entire region.

Q: Many world leaders are concerned that the recent standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia may harm the negotiations over the future of Syria, which both Tehran and Riyadh are involved in. With mounting hostilities marring the relations between the two nations, is it realistic to expect that they’ll continue working together in good faith to find a viable solution to the crisis in Syria?

A: The resolution of the Syrian crisis would mostly depend on the ability of the U.S. and Russia to reach a compromise. If the U.S. decides that insistence on Assad’s immediate removal will not allow the resolution of the conflict and accepts a compromised solution and it gets the Russian cooperation, others can do little to prevent it. What is clear is that neither the regional players nor the international actors can get all that they want and all must accept some sort of compromise. So Saudi-Iranian tensions would have a minor impact on the chances of finding a peaceful resolution to the Syrian problem.

Q: A Saudi political analyst said in an interview with the Israeli paper Jerusalem Post that he thought neither the mass executions of January 2, nor the surprising decision of cutting diplomatic relations with Iran would have happened under King Abdullah, who was seen as a more conservative and pragmatic leader. What do you think of King Salman’s decisions since he ascended the throne? Did he pursue a more aggressive foreign policy?

A: It is difficult to say how King Abdullah would have behaved in the current situation. What is clear is that the inexperience of the Saudi Arabia’s current leaders, notably Muhammad Bin Salman, King Salman’s illness and competition for power within the Saudi royal family have contributed to the more reckless behavior of Saudi Arabia in recent months.

Q: Saudi authorities continuously accuse Iran of meddling in the internal affairs of the Arab nations and causing instability in the region. However, they rarely comment on their military expedition in Yemen, their role in Bahrain’s crackdown against the protesters since the upheaval broke out in 2011 and their contribution to the growth of ISIS. What’s your perspective on Saudi Arabia’s role in the regional developments, which some in the media and academia have described as diplomatic brinksmanship?

A: Unfortunately, to some extent all countries interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, especially if they are hostile to each other or are competitors. Therefore, to some degree, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have interfered in each others’ internal affairs. Saudi Arabia funds opposition to Iran, lobbies against it in the West and tries to infiltrate Iran’s Sunni population. Iran has tried to spread its revolutionary ideas that the Saudis find threatening, and has voiced support for the Saudi Shias. The question is why the Saudis have decided to use this issue now to escalate tensions with Iran. The answer is that the Saudis feel that they are running out of time to prevent Iran’s return to the international community.

By Iran Review