On Jan. 10, Arab League foreign ministers condemned recent attacks on Saudi Arabia's diplomatic missions in Iran. A statement at the end of a Cairo emergency meeting accused the Iranian authorities of failing to protect the Saudi embassy set on fire by an angry crowd. All members of the Arab League voted in favor of the statement, with the exception of Lebanon.
No specific measures against Iran were announced; a committee is being set up to consult over possible action.
The crisis in the relations between Riyadh and Tehran flared up Jan 2 after the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia. In response, Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in the Islamic republic. As a result, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia have all broken off diplomatic ties with Iran, the United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations and Kuwait, Qatar and Comoros recalled their envoys.
On Jan 7, Tehran severed all commercial ties with Riyadh and accused Saudi jets of attacking its embassy in Yemen's capital.
The worldwide Vienna talks on the Syria’s crisis to be re-launched on Jan 25 are in jeopardy now.
The current confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran comes as no surprise. For some years both countries have been engaged in a kind of Cold War as followers of Sunni and Shia denominations of Islam. This dates back to about 1400 years ago – the original schism of 632AD, after Prophet Muhammad’s death.
The relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran deteriorated rapidly in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, which toppled the Shah rule. Concerned over growing Shiite influence in the region, the theological guardians of Sunni Islam have applied each and every effort to oppose it.
Today the fissure within Islam between the both branches has taken on political and geopolitical dimensions, given the broader strategic importance of the Arab and Muslim world.
The recent oppression of its own Shiite minorities inside the Saudi Kingdom, as well as the repression of Shiite movements in Bahrain and Yemen, proves the point.
Saudi Arabia, despite its well-known violations of human rights, enjoys the protection of the West, especially the United States. The kingdom is the biggest market for Western arms exports. It has also led an Arab coalition military operation against the Houthis in Yemen since early 2015. In addition, as the leading oil producer within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), it has kept the prices of oil down to prevent Iran from enjoying sufficient revenue to pursue its regional policies.
By contrast, Iran has been out of favor with the West for decades. The Iranian Islamic regime's revolutionary promotion of Shia Islam and designation of Saudi Arabia as an instrument of Western, more specifically US, hegemony in the region have long been a source of security concern for Riyadh and its Gulf Cooperation Council partners, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait. Iran existed under a strict sanctions regime for many years. Tehran has no territorial ambitions and its non-sectarianism is evidenced in its support for the overwhelmingly Sunni Palestinians. Tehran maintains a strong strategic partnership with the Shia-linked Alawite-dominated government in Syria, backs Hezbollah as a powerful Shia force in Lebanon and supports Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen. It has joined forces with Russia in the military operation in Syria opposing a range of armed opposition groups, including more importantly Islamic State.
The Saudi leadership and its Arab partners have viewed these developments as a threat to their security. The July 2015 nuclear deal that Tehran signed with the world powers makes Saudi Arabia intensify the anti-Iranian efforts.
The recent decision to cut diplomatic ties with Tehran by Bahrain, Sudan and some other Sunni-dominated states lining up alongside Riyadh merely confirms this fact.
Direct military confrontation is a distinct possibility.
Saeid Golkar, an Iranian expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told Al Jazeera that «the worsening situation ‘makes it more difficult for the two nations to establish rapprochement in the short term. It is unlikely that the two countries would engage in a direct armed conflict. Instead, they may resort to proxy wars in the region including in Yemen and Syria.’»
Against this background Russian President Vladimir in an interview with the German newspaper Bild stated that Russia is ready, if necessary, to take part in the resolution of the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. «If our participation in any form is needed, we are ready to do everything possible to resolve the conflict as soon as possible», Putin said. The President said Russia regrets that the two countries’ relations deteriorated.
It has already been reported that Moscow was ready to host the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers – Adel al-Jubeir and Mohammad Javad Zarif – for talks.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hosted both Jubeir and Zarif individually last year for the talks on the Syrian crisis as Moscow pushed for the creation of a broad coalition to fight Islamic State jihadists in Syria.
Moscow enjoys a unique position being on speaking terms with all the parties involved. Unlike the United States, it has no failed Middle East policy record behind it. Russia has never taken sides in the Sunni-Shia stand-off. Moscow is a key player in the Syrian conflict management and the Middle East situation in a broader sense. The Islam caliphate is a common enemy for all the parties involved.
With its international clout, Moscow can do the job pushing the sides away from the brink of war and saving the Syria’s crisis management process. A success is crucial for implementing the idea of having a broad international coalition against the global terrorist threat. The world cannot afford the Vienna talks stymied. Otherwise, the current regional problems carry the risk of an unmanageable Middle East storm, with dire consequences for all.