Iran and Saudi Arabia have been embroiled in a bitter diplomatic spat over the past days. The face-off was triggered when the kingdom executed 47 people in a day, including a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, who is claimed to have incited unrest by taking up arms and calling for foreign intervention in the country. The claim is refuted by many journalists and commentators who have reported that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a non-violent preacher and simply advocated greater freedoms for the suppressed Shiite minority of Saudi Arabia. In the wake of the provocative execution, a mob of angry protesters unjustifiably attacked the Saudi Arabian diplomatic compounds in the Iranian capital, Tehran, and the northeastern city of Mashhad, ransacking the buildings and causing damage to the Saudi properties.
Even though 40 people were arrested on site and despite the quick condemnation by President Hassan Rouhani who called the embassy attackers a group of “extremist individuals” who will be brought to justice, the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir rushed to announce the severing of diplomatic relations with Iran and the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from Riyadh and Jeddah.
However, the Saudi government didn’t content itself with unilaterally cutting off ties with Iran, but prompted a full-fledged standoff between the Arab world and Iran by prodding other countries into taking similar action.
Bahrain, Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti followed the Saudi pattern and broke off their diplomatic relations with Iran while the UAE recalled its ambassador from Tehran leaving only a charge d’affaires and Kuwait reportedly downgraded its relations as well, even though Tehran officials denied it.
During the ensuing days, the officials of Iran and Saudi Arabia continued to exchange fire and embarrass each other with verbal threats and torrents of accusations. The Saudis’ anger was understandable, as their embassy and consulate in Iran had been assaulted and vandalized; however, it seems that the officials in Riyadh were not willing to understand the public anger they had caused not only in Shiite Iran, but across the Muslim world, by killing a noted cleric who apparently didn’t have a record of violence or armed conflict. The unchecked frustration of Iranians was aggravated by the astounding silence of the U.S. government and the EU member states, which are conventionally agile and quick in speaking out to condemn every instance of human rights violation in Iran, including the detention of journalists or activists, but remained unusually quiet on the mass executions in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights record
The hardliners who assaulted the Saudi embassy and consulate gave the best gift to the Riyadh officials – as noted by the New York Times correspondent in Tehran Thomas Erdbrink – by diverting global attention from the execution of Sheikh Nimr, which was a genuine humiliation for the Saudis and a testimony to their deplorable human rights record. However, the Saudis need to keep in mind that they cannot maintain the status quo and need to seriously revise their human rights policies.
Just a few statements from the Human Rights Watch 2015 report on Saudi Arabia: “Saudi Arabia continued in 2014 to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities. Systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continued. Authorities failed to enact systematic measures to protect the rights of 9 million foreign workers.”
“World Report 2015: Saudi Arabia,” Human Rights Watch
By violating the rights of its Shiite minority and suppressing them, Saudi Arabia has made its Eastern Province – the predominantly Shiite region in the kingdom – a gunpowder keg that’s readily prone to explode. Abdullah Ibn Jibreen, a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, once said that Shiites are heretics, apostates and the most vicious enemy of Muslims who “should be boycotted and expelled so that Muslims spared their evil.”
This kind of approach towards Shiite Muslims simply fans the flames of sectarianism and creates destructive divisions within the Islamic world, imparting the message to the international community that Muslims are unable to live together cooperatively and cohesively, and that this Sunni-Shiite rivalry is insurmountable. This is while the differences in the convictions and rituals of Sunnis and Shiites are far less significant than what they have in common.
They’re simply two denominations of a religion, just like there are several branches of Christian faith, and are normally expected to live by each other cooperatively and with civility. The reasons why they’re pitted against each other are elaborate and extensive. But the reasons why they remain at odds and sometimes declare the killing of the other side as permissible and even commendable should be examined by the shortsighted, parochial thinking leaders of the Muslim world – not simply in Saudi Arabia – who have been unable, after several decades of holding solidarity conferences and gatherings, to forge a consistent strategy to bridge this gap.
Iran’s problem with the hardliners
Unquestionably, Iran has a problem with the autonomous, self-directed hardliners who obviously don’t take orders from the government, but are always prepared to complicate the efforts of those who work for peace and moderation. After eight years of hardliner rule under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Rouhani won the hearts of Iranians in 2013 by promising constructive engagement with the international community. He made up for the mess that the hardliners had created in 2011 by similarly attacking the British embassy in Tehran, resulting in the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and ties with Britain were restored last year.
Rouhani met David Cameron two times in New York, an unprecedented gesture and an important sign of rapprochement after some 12 years. He ignored the verbal attacks and defamatory propaganda of the fanatics at home and responded to a phone call by President Obama, the highest-ranking contact between the leaders of the two nations in some four decades. He turned the impossibility of signing a nuclear deal with the six world powers into a reality and undercut the taboo of direct negotiations with the United States. President Rouhani demonstrated that he is able to resist the radicals and make life easier for the Iranian people who suffer from redundant hostilities. However, the recent diplomatic rupture with Saudi Arabia was simply an outcome of the intransigence of ready-to-rally mobs.
A deplorable blame game
A blame game is the worst thing Iran and Saudi Arabia can play these days. To exchange accusations and call each other the root cause of the calamities that prevail in the Middle East is to deflect responsibility from the despair that is inundating the crisis-stricken region. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia need to understand that they have a role to play in extinguishing sectarian tensions in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. They need to understand that they are both pivotal actors in the Muslim world and their animosity undermines unity among Muslims who need camaraderie and unity to counter the growing menace of Islamophobia – a threat that is haunting ordinary Muslim citizens worldwide, and would only intensify if the major Islamic nations continue their pointless infighting.