The Saudi execution of senior Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is but the latest in a series of provocations towards regional rival Iran. The furious reaction from Shiite Iran to the beheading of Nimr – a renowned Islamic scholar – and the severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries appears to be a calculated winding up of tensions by the Sunni Saudi rulers. But the real objective for Saudi Arabia is more likely to embroil its political patron in Washington in a sharper regional conflict – a conflict that would also lead to a conflagration with Russia.
The reaction of Washington to the execution of Saudi-born cleric Nimr al-Nimr was one of «surprise», according to the New York Times. That suggests the Saudi rulers went rogue on the move. The Times noted that the Obama administration is worried that the cleric’s death could «jeopardize diplomatic efforts in the region» – which is probably exactly what the Saudi regime wants.
Nimr was executed at the weekend along with four other Shiite activists and over 40 alleged members of the terror group Al-Qaeda. It was the biggest mass execution in the kingdom for over three decades. The state killing of Nimr along with condemned Al-Qaeda terrorists only adds to the insult towards Iranian leaders who referred to the cleric as a «martyr» and a man of peace.
Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei vowed that «God’s vengeance would strike the Saudi rulers»; Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah denounced the sentence as «an assassination»; while Iraqi Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani said that the killing of 56-year-old Nimr was «an unjust aggression».
Nimr had become a household name among Shiite Muslims across the world because of his courageous defiance of the House of Saud, whom he lambasted as despots and openly called for its overthrow. The cleric upheld the democratic rights of Saudi’s minority Shiite community which has long protested persecution under the radical Sunni rulers. Nimr had peacefully agitated during the 2011 Arab Spring revolt, but was arrested by the Saudi authorities in 2012 and convicted of a range of charges, including terrorism, which carried the death sentence. Supporters and international rights groups accused the Saudi rulers of trumping up the charges and of gross miscarriage of justice.
Iran was particularly vocal in protesting the sentencing of Nimr and when his appeal against execution was rejected in October 2015, Tehran warned the Saudi rulers then that there would be dire consequences if they carried out the capital punishment.
That the Saudis went ahead with the execution – in spite of widespread protests – seems to be a calculated bid to antagonize Iran. The next grim step to watch for is whether the Saudis proceed with the execution of Nimr’s nephew, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who is also on death row, on charges over his involvement in the 2011 street protests in Saudi’s Shiite populated eastern province. Again, that case has also drawn international condemnation as a travesty of justice, especially because the youth was only aged 17 years when he was first incarcerated. Under the Saudi judicial system, Ali Mohammed could be executed any day, his particular sentence involving gruesome crucifixion. That would be sure to really explode regional tensions among Shiite Muslims as it would be seen as another gratuitous political killing.
What we have to appreciate is the wider context of decades-long political rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, going back to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The autocratic House of Saud has always viewed the Islamic Republic of Iran as a subversive threat in the region. Much of the Saudi fears are due to a paranoid insecurity about their own precarious political system, relying as it does on a dynastic hold on power by one family – the Al Sauds – and their draconian application of Sharia law under a fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam.
The Arab Spring protests in 2011 amplified Saudi fears of instability. Iran was blamed for instigating subversion in two countries that the Saudi rulers consider to be their backyard: Bahrain and Yemen. Saudi accusations against Iran were overblown in both cases. There is no evidence that Iran was fueling popular protests in either Bahrain or Yemen against incumbent rulers patronized by Riyadh.
In Yemen, when the mainly Shiite Houthi uprising finally succeeded last year in overthrowing the Saudi-backed regime, the Saudi rulers typically made hysterical claims that Iran was fomenting trouble in its Arab Peninsula southern neighbor. On that unsubstantiated basis, the Saudis mobilized a military coalition of other Sunni Arab countries to launch a war on Yemen, beginning on March 26 last year, which continues unabated. Both Washington and London have supported the Saudi-led war on Yemen, with supply of warplanes, munitions and logistics, even though as the New York Times noted: «But Western diplomats say the Saudis vastly overstated the Iranian role, at least at the war’s start. Nonetheless, a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, backed by the United States, has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes».
Yemen can be considered as the first major provocation towards Iran over the past year. It is noteworthy that the Saudis launched the war one week before the signing of the interim nuclear deal in Lausanne, Switzerland, between Iran and Washington and other world powers in the so-called P5 + 1 group. That deal and the subsequent finalization of an accord in Vienna in July has vexed the Saudi rulers intensely as they fear that normalization of relations will only bolster Iranian influence in the Middle East. It is reasonable to assume that the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen was aimed at derailing the P5+1 process and its ongoing fragile implementation.
Nine months of non-stop Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen have been interspersed with tendentious allegations by Riyadh that Iran is agitating and arming the Houthi rebels. There is no evidence for such material support, although to be sure as a Shiite-dominated power Tehran has openly voiced diplomatic backing for the Houthis. Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei has frequently excoriated the Saudi action in Yemen as «genocidal crimes».
A second major provocation came in September when more than 450 Iranians were killed in a stampede during the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage near Medina in Saudi Arabia. Although the tragedy appeared to be a monumental accident, Tehran was furious at the way the Saudi authorities reportedly showed disrespect towards the Iranian crush victims by delaying the repatriation of their corpses.
The five-year war in Syria is another source of Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The Saudi regime has backed an array of insurgent networks, which have been linked to terrorist jihadists in the Islamic State group and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. Washington and other Western powers, Britain and France, are also implicated in this covert war for regime change against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Iran has been a staunch ally of Assad’s Syria as being part of the region’s anti-imperialist resistance bloc, which also includes Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
With Russia’s dramatic military intervention since September in support of its long-time strategic ally in Syria, the war dynamic has been transformed in favor of the Assad government and the Syrian Arab Army. The foreign-backed insurgency is decidedly on the retreat in large part because of Russian air power and Iranian and Hezbollah troops fighting alongside the Syrian army.
The losing tide against the foreign-backed insurgency in Syria has evidently shifted Washington’s calculations towards a political process for pursuing its objective of regime change. US Secretary of State John Kerry has noticeably stepped up the diplomatic efforts over the past three months, along with Moscow, to convene peace talks on the Syrian conflict. Those talks are to begin later this month in Geneva. Remarkably, Washington and its British and French allies have dropped their erstwhile demand that Assad must quit power immediately. Thus, the West appears to have moved towards Russia and Iran’s position which is that any peace process in Syria should not be conditioned on the political future of Assad, whose fate, they say, depends on the electoral choice of the Syrian people as a matter of sovereign right.
The Western powers, it can be averred, still want regime change in Syria for their geopolitical ambitions in the region, in particular for extending hegemonic power and isolating both Russia and Iran. Nevertheless, realizing that the covert military option of forcing regime change in Syria is waning due to Russia and Iran’s intervention, Washington, London and Paris appear to be «giving peace a chance» in the altogether cynical calculation that they might achieve at the negotiating table what they failed to achieve on the battle field.
Not so the Saudis. Or, it can be added, the Turkish regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. With their Salafist/Wahhabi Islamist affiliations and deeper investment in the insurgent mercenaries, both Riyadh and Ankara still persist in demanding that the Syrian leader must stand down as a precondition for any political settlement.
From the Saudi viewpoint, Washington appears to be giving too many concessions to Syria and its arch-enemy Iran. For the Saudi rulers, the peace talks due to begin in Geneva are a vexing reminder of the P5+1 nuclear accord that Washington signed up to with Iran.
Neither the P5+1 nuclear deal nor the Geneva peace talks on Syria may actually bear much fruit for Iranian interests and those of its allies. But from the House of Saud’s paranoid perspective – which sees Iran as its nemesis – these developments, however tentative, are absolutely anathema to Riyadh.
This probably explains the provocative execution of the cleric Nimr al-Nimr. It is but the latest in a series of acts by Saudi Arabia aimed at goading Iran and its regional Shiite allies into a more inflammatory conflict. If Iran were to hit back militarily at Saudi Arabia that would inevitably draw in the United States as Riyadh’s primary Western ally. The Saudis have been itching for Washington to launch military strikes on Syria going back to at least the suspicious chemical weapons atrocity near Damascus in August 2013, when President Obama reneged at the last minute – much to Saudi ire back then.
If Saudi Arabia can provoke an Iranian military response – and the provocations have been unrelenting over recent months – then the House of Saud stands to kill several birds with one stone. It gets America to go to war for regime change in Syria and against Iran at the same time.
However, what the reckless Saudi rulers don’t seem fazed by is that such an escalation would inevitably lead to an international conflagration with Russia.