Over the weekend, a geopolitical black swan landed in the Mid-East where Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric set in motion a series of events that led Riyadh to sever diplomatic ties with Tehran.
Protests broke out almost immediately after news of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s death hit the wires. Tensions reached a boiling point on Saturday evening in Tehran where demonstrators torched the Saudi embassy. In Bahrain, angry Shiites burned tires and confronted riot police who used tear gas to disperse the crowds.
As BBC notes, Bahrain “has frequently accused Iran of supporting a low-level Shia insurgency that flared following the regional Arab Spring uprisings in 2011.”
“Bahrain’s Saudi-backed Sunni authorities crushed protests led by its majority Shia shortly after they erupted on February 14, 2011, taking their cue from Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa,” al-Jazeera wrote back in February when hundreds took to the streets of Manama to commemorate the anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising. “Tensions are running high in the kingdom where a sectarian divide is deepening and there is a growing gap between the Sunni minority government and the Island’s Shia majority.”
On Monday, the island followed in the footsteps of the Saudis and cut diplomatic ties with the Iranians. “Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Iran on Monday, deepening the region’s sectarian divide following Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric,” WSJ writes, adding that the country “accused Iran of intervening in its affairs and those of its allies, and ordered all members Iran’s mission to leave the country within 48 hours.”
And it’s not just Bahrain. As predicted here over the weekend, this has quickly morphed into a sweeping sectarian conflict with the UAE lowering diplomatic representation in Iran and Sudan expelling the Iranian ambassador. UAE Ambassador Saif Al Zaabi was summoned to return, while the charge d’affaires will remain,” Bloomberg reports. “[The UAE’s] exceptional step was taken in light of Iranian ‘interference’ in Gulf, Arab states’ internal affairs,” the foreign ministry said. For its part, Kuwait says it backs “all measures adopted by Saudi Arabia to maintain its security and stability.”
Meanwhile, Tehran says Riyadh is using the embassy fire to obscure its own misdeeds. “Iran has acted in accordance with its (diplomatic) obligations to control the broad wave of popular emotion that arose,” foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari said on Monday.
“Saudi Arabia benefits and thrives on prolonging tensions [and] has used this incident as an excuse to fuel the tensions,” he added.
Recall what we said on Sunday evening:
It’s also worth noting how absurd it is for the Saudis to suggest that the Iranians are the ones “spreading chaos and sectarianism” in the region. After all, it wasn’t Tehran that just executed a prominent member of another sect and it’s not Iran that preaches a dangerous, ultra puritanical interpretation of Islam similar to that which Sunni extremists use to justify the execution of apostates. Further, it wasn’t Iran that destabilized Syria by fanning the flames of sectarian discord.
“Bahrain also gave the Iranian diplomatic mission 48 hours to leave the country, and plans to close its mission in Tehran,” Bloomberg writes before underscoring the hypocrisy on full display in the Gulf states with the following assessment of Bahrain’s rationale: “The move came in response to Iran’s interference in Bahrain and other Gulf countries. [Bahrain] accused Iran of funding, supporting and arming ‘terrorists and extremists’ and inciting strife in the region.”
Right. We wouldn’t want anyone to “fund, support, and arm terrorists and extremists” or “incite strife”, even though that is precisely what the Gulf monarchies are doing in Syria and indeed, supporting extremists is something of an unwritten foreign policy imperative in Riyadh where the government follows an interpretation of Islam that is uncomfortably akin to that espoused by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and many of the other Sunni extremist groups that the Western world generally identifies with terrorism.
And speaking of Saudi-backed groups who some analysts call “extremists,” Jaysh al Islam threw its support behind Riyadh’s move to cut ties with the Iranians. You’ll recall that Jaysh al Islam effectively administers Ghouta which was the site of the infamous 2013 sarin attack in Syria. Late last month, the group’s leader Zahran Alloush was killed by an apparent Russian airstrike in what many described as a serious blow to the rebel cause. Iran is “threatening the security of the region by exporting criminal militias that spread destruction and death and are filled with sectarian vengeance”, the group said, an assessment that applies equally if not more to the Saudis than it does to the Iranians.
Predictably, Iraq is seeing a backlash against its Sunni population. As Reuters reports, “at least two Sunni Muslim mosques have been attacked in Iraq and two people killed in apparent retaliation for the execution of a senior Shi’ite cleric in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.” Here’s a bit more color:
The attack on the Ammar bin Yasir mosque in central Hilla destroyed its dome and several walls, according to a Reuters TV cameraman who visited the site. Provincial council member Falah al-Khafaji and a police source said a guard inside the building had been killed.
“We saw smoke rising from the dome of the mosque. We found all the walls destroyed and the furniture inside in shambles,” said resident Uday Hassan Ali.
Another mosque in Hilla’s northern outskirts, al-Fath al-Mubeen, was also attacked, Khafaji and the police source said.
A local Sunni cleric was killed in a separate incident in Iskandariya, about 40 km (25 miles) south of Baghdad, they added.
So there you have it: a full blown sectarian melee. One shouldn’t underestimate the gravity of what’s unfolding here. The region is a veritable tinder box and the events that took place over the weekend provided the spark.
Don’t forget that many of these countries are effectively already at war with Iran in Syria and Yemen. Consider also that this is likely to inspire further protests by oppressed Shiites living in the Gulf states – especially now that the five year anniversary of the Arab Spring is upon us. Throw in the fact that Iran is about to get an economic boost from the lifting of international sanctions and you have the recipe for a complete reimagining of the dynamics that shape the Mid-East balance of power.