Saudi-Iran spat to fuel proxy wars

The rapid deterioration in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is threatening to inflame an already restive region. The match that lit the flame was Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. This prompted protestors in Shia-dominated Iran to storm the Saudi embassy in Teheran, an action that wasn’t apparently encouraged by the government. The Saudis hit back by snapping diplomatic relations with Tehran and expelling its envoys from the country, as well as suspending all flights to and from Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are long-standing rivals for pre-dominance in West Asia and the region’s heavy-weights; they see themselves as the leaders of the Sunni and Shia world, respectively. As the diplomatic tit-for-tat and war of words escalates between the two, others in the region and beyond are rallying behind one side or the other in a show of solidarity. While Bahrain has cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, the United Arab Emirates has “downgraded” relations with Tehran. Sudan expelled the Iranian ambassador and the entire Iranian diplomatic mission in the country and also recalled its ambassador from Iran.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran is willing to back down. Apparently, the ongoing muscle-flexing has more to do with issues at home. The Saudi monarchy is a divided house and King Salman, and his inexperienced son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, are adopting an aggressive posture towards the kingdom’s Shia minority to shore up mass support. The nuclear deal with the West has put Iran’s government on the defensive vis-à-vis the conservatives and the tough posture in the current spat with the Saudis could help blunt the opposition.The implications of the ongoing tensions are serious. Even if the situation doesn’t deteriorate into a direct military conflict between the two, there is a danger that proxy wars they fuel in other countries will escalate. This means that the situation in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan can be expected to worsen in the near future. This is unfortunate as the possibility of negotiated settlements to the Syrian crisis and the conflict in Yemen had grown remarkably in recent weeks. Importantly, the spat will undermine the international effort to defeat the Islamic State, which only recently saw major powers set aside their differences to cooperate. Should rising tensions disrupt the flow of oil, it would trigger a spurt in oil prices. The new year has got off to an unpleasant start with Saudi Arabia and Iran locking horns. The world is staring at a possible war in a volatile region.

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