News / Middle East

    Analysts: Iran-Saudi Crisis Compounds Regional Wars

    A Houthi militant carries computer components out of the Chamber of Trade and Industry headquarters after it was hit by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Jan. 5, 2016.
    A Houthi militant carries computer components out of the Chamber of Trade and Industry headquarters after it was hit by a Saudi-led air strike in Yemen's capital, Sana'a, Jan. 5, 2016.
    Heather Murdock

    Drinking tea on his traditional Yemeni low sofa, Sultan Zaied, a 41-year-old accountant in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, says the diplomatic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran has already intensified tensions in Yemen, and the crisis is still growing.

    “They are attacking everything,” he said, referring to the Saudi-led coalition air assaults on the Houthis, believed to be supported by Iran. “This is proof that the attempts at negotiations are failing.”

    As countries and militias line up behind regional giants Iran and Saudi Arabia, analysts say the diplomatic crisis is already having an impact across the region. If it continues, they add, Middle East wars — including the fight against Islamic State militants — are more likely to expand than to be resolved peacefully.

    FILE - A Shi'ite protester carries a poster of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration outside the Saudi embassy in Sanaa, Oct. 18, 2014.
    FILE - A Shi'ite protester carries a poster of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration outside the Saudi embassy in Sanaa, Oct. 18, 2014.

    “This diplomatic crisis has diminished the prospects for peace in Syria and the same can be said about Yemen,” says Gulf State Analytics founder Giorgio Cafiero, speaking by phone from Oman.

    Islamic State militants have the most to gain from the crisis, which is spreading the chaos the group thrives on and dividing the region, he adds.

     

    Kuwait is the latest Sunni-dominated country to withdraw its ambassador from Iran, following Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, which have all either cut ties or downgraded their relationships with Iran following an international dispute over the execution of Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

    After the execution, the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked and Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties.

    Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
    Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran.


    Roots of dispute
     
    The regional rift is far deeper than the current dispute, according to Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the United States.

    “Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have all been pretty much in sync with Saudi Arabia concerning the perceived threat from Iran,” he says, adding that the “threat that has been exacerbated by the nuclear deal.”

    Iranian demonstrators hold anti-Saudi placards in a rally to protest the execution by Saudi Arabia last week of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Saudi Shiite cleric, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 4, 2016.
    Iranian demonstrators hold anti-Saudi placards in a rally to protest the execution by Saudi Arabia last week of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent opposition Saudi Shiite cleric, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 4, 2016.

    If the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers is implemented, Tehran is expected to be relieved of sanctions, greatly expanding its economic power and ability to fund militias in the region, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. But it is not just an economic rivalry, says Fitzpatrick.

    “This conflict has become more of a Sunni-Shia split and also the ages-long dispute between Persia and the Arab states," he explains. "It’s part of history and it’s part of the worsening of the relations in the region.”

    Additionally, both countries are using the dispute as a power play in domestic politics, says Max Abrahms, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and political science professor at Northeastern University.
     
    “The Saudi and Iranian governments are mirroring each other,” he explains, “by directing their rhetoric against the other country in order to shore up support for the hardliners at a time when both governments are accused of going soft for different reasons.”
     
    Long-term impact
     
    Regional wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya are less likely to be solved through peace talks if the major players in the region — and on the battlefields — cannot negotiate, according to Cafiero of Gulf State Analytics.

    An outright war between the powers may be unlikely, adds Cafiero, but both Saudi Arabia and Iran may increase their involvement in Syria and Yemen, often seen as a fight between two regional giants.

    “It’s far more likely we will see the two sides wage proxy wars more aggressively,” he says.

    The sectarian nature of the dispute — regardless of its causes — could deepen divisions in the region, adds Abrahms of Northeastern University.

    Followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burn an effigy of King Salman of Saudi Arabia as they hold posters of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 4, 2016.
    Followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burn an effigy of King Salman of Saudi Arabia as they hold posters of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 4, 2016.

    Angry rhetoric is already fueling the current wars and Shi’ite groups have long vowed revenge in the event of al-Nimr’s execution. Shi’ites across the region have already expressed anger and none of this bodes well for the coming year, according to Abrahms.

    “To a large extent the conflicts in the Middle East are an outgrowth of this sectarian discord,” says Abrahms. “And the fact that there is now this fallout at the very beginning of 2016 between the Saudis and the Iranians, that bodes very badly for the rest of the region.”

    Almigdad Mojalli contributed to this report from Sana'a.

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    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Godwin from: Nigeria
    January 06, 2016 8:23 AM
    Diplomatic effort to resolve Saudi-Iran face-off is a way to be busy doing nothing. I don’t see why Iran should frown at Saudi’s execution of just one more person while Iran has been deeply involved in arbitrary executions, detentions and incarceration of people – its own citizens inclusive – whom it accuses of being too liberal to accepting western ideals. Why is it now that anyone – Iran inclusive – should cry out against this ungodly, uncivilized attitude of totalitarian governments of Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Qatar etc against innocent citizens, especially speaking out against injustice? If anything, the row should be allowed to escalate. The world may be the greatest beneficially as this can lead to the masters of terrorism exposing each other’s strategy in the game, end this regime state-terror against freedoms or better still, force them to direct their terrorism to themselves alone thereby freeing much of the world that has been held hostage by their stock in trade – terrorism. The world will then channel its efforts to containing the few other terror habitats in Turkey and Qatar. Please let it be; it’s good for the health of the world.

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    January 05, 2016 8:29 PM
    If and when Iran and Saudi Arabia go to war, Syria will become a footnote. The Saudis will bomb Damascus to rubble along with Assad and his regime in the first hours. Israel will sit on the sidelines unless it is attacked. A war between Shia and Sunni has been looming for a thousand years and now it looks like it may come to a head. Where is Genghis Khan when you need him? 800 years ago he killed all of the Persians and destroyed their empire.
    In Response

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    January 06, 2016 12:18 PM
    Genghis Khan built the greatest empire in history. He was a genius military man who defeated all other armies. His methods were so effective his enemies never knew what hit them. To Mongolians he was a national hero. He was so powerful even the USSR could not wipe him out of history books. If he were alive today he'd probably be able to take on Russia, China, Iran and beat them all. He was as savage as they get. Russia doesn't like him because he wasn't one of theirs. He invaded and beat Russia too. Genghis Khan is probably one of the reasons Russia is so paranoid today. No he's not coming back. Pity.
    In Response

    by: Anonymous
    January 06, 2016 5:29 AM
    Genghis Khan was a Mongol/Turkic cancer cell that spread Turkish barbarians and their savagery across the region.

    Turkic/Mongol tribes destroyed a civilized world.

    The Turkish dirt stain still remains and its reincarnation is ISIS.
    In Response

    by: David from: spain
    January 06, 2016 12:56 AM
    It is better to say that the Arab new Muslims destroyed the Persian empire and burned all the libraries and forbidden writing for 200 years and forced Zoroastrian people of Iran to accept Islam, as Isis do nowadays, then after 700 years, Genghis Khan attacked Iran, at that time, Iran is a country that completely being destroyed under the control of Arabs.

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