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And for the Middle East, a Cold War of its Own

Afshon Ostovar
Sunday, January 24, 2016, 10:06 AM

In the wake of Saudi cleric Nimr al-Nimr's execution, Afshon Ostovar examines the growing sectarian rift in the Middle East and options for mitigating the outbreak of conflict.

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Editor's Note: The confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran seemed on overdrive in 2015 – and already it's gotten worse this year. Tehran and Riyadh are on opposite sides in Syria, Yemen, and other countries in the Middle East, and the recent Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr has only exacerbated this divide. Afshon Ostovar, a regular Lawfare contributor and analyst at CNA, is not surprised. He points out that the latest flareup builds on longstanding regional tensions and that options for mitigating the conflict are few and far between.


The new year is already a grim one. As if proxy wars weren’t enough, Saudi Arabia and Iran took their spat to a new level of ugliness. Riyadh executed a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, provoking immediate and vociferous condemnations from Iran’s leaders. A website associated with the Revolutionary Guards called for protests outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, and within hours, the embassy was ransacked and torched. In response, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait severed diplomatic ties with Iran, and the UAE downgraded relations. Within 24 hours of announcing al-Nimr’s execution, the Middle East’s cold war had grown much warmer.

The rapid deterioration of Iranian-Arab relations came as a surprise to many. But it should have been expected. Iran and its neighbors have been on a collision course since the Arab Spring. As I argued in June, the Iran deal, instead of allaying tensions, would make them worse.

My June piece for Lawfare was prompted by a Track II dialogue I organized the month previous in Istanbul. The event brought together U.S. academics and former defense officials with counterparts from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Jordan, and Turkey. Presentations focused on U.S.-GCC relations and the potential for nuclear proliferation in the Gulf. But discussion continually came to focus on Iran and the problem it posed to regional security.

What became clear during the dialogue was that the vast majority of participants from the GCC saw Iran as the greatest problem in the region—much more so than the United States’ concerns about ISIS and jihadist groups. Arab states felt they could no longer count on America to keep Iran’s ambitions in check. To them, the Iran nuclear deal (still months away at the time) was a testament to the changing winds in Washington. If Arab states wanted to curb Iranian influence, they would have to do it themselves.

The feeling of abandonment by Washington was mixed with an unvarnished sectarian outlook. At the end of the dialogue, I commented on the issue of sectarianism, suggesting that, in my view, sectarianism was the biggest threat to regional stability and one that could not be solved by the United States. Sectarianism had to be addressed by the countries in the Middle East—particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran—if it was ever going to recede from regional strategic decision-making.

The feeling of abandonment by Washington was mixed with an unvarnished sectarian outlook.

Mine was an unpopular opinion. It inspired a heated counter from one delegate, who reminded me and the participants that all Shia were reflexively loyal to Iran’s supreme leader and could not be trusted. The Shia were, in his estimation, essentially a fifth column in Arab states. There was a single voice of dissent from the regional delegates on this point. The rest stood silent. The event ended with a stark realization: sectarian passions could not be easily divorced from regional power politics.

As Vali Nasr poignantly argued in his 2006 book, The Shia Revival, the Shiite/Sunni divide is a “very old, very modern conflict.” The historical dimensions are deep and complex; however, from the perspective of most GCC states, it was the toppling of Saddam Hussein, seen as the main bulwark to Iranian influence in the Middle East, and the empowerment of Iran-allied Shiites in Iraq that thrust sectarian divisions into the forefront of regional consciousness. As one retired high-ranking Gulf military official argued in the Istanbul dialogue, sectarianism began with Paul Bremer and the new Iraqi constitution. Washington should just “change the Iraqi constitution” he counseled. Changing that, in his opinion, would fix everything.  

If Saddam’s removal opened the Pandora’s Box of sectarian politics, the Arab Spring kicked them into hyper drive. The conflict in Syria, along with the uprisings in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, were seen in distinctly opposite ways by Tehran and its neighbors. Arab states saw Iran as pursing an anti-Sunni agenda in Syria, and Iran considered the Saudi-led intervention in Bahrain and crackdown on youth protests in the Eastern Province as the unvarnished violent oppression of Shiites.

While Tehran and Riyadh traded barbs publicly, and supported opposite sides in the region’s raging conflicts, a war was being fought in the shadows. In October 2011, U.S. officials revealed that an Iranian-American used car salesman had been arrested for plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir. The scheme was reportedly directed by the IRGC’s Quds Force and approved by “elements of the Iranian government.” Two years later, a suicide bombing outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut killed 23 people, including the Iranian cultural attaché. The target of the attack was rumored to have been Ghazanfar Roknabadi, Iran’s envoy to Lebanon, and its point man with Lebanese Hezbollah. Hezbollah chief, Hassan Nasrallah, blamed Saudi Arabia for the attack. An Al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group claimed responsibility. The group’s leader, a Saudi-national, was arrested by Lebanese security forces and died in custody.

While Tehran and Riyadh traded barbs publicly, and supported opposite sides in the region’s raging conflicts, a war was being fought in the shadows.

More recently, in this past September, a stampede during the annual hajj in Mecca killed over 2,200 pilgrims, including more than 450 Iranians. Among the Iranian victims was Ghazanfar Roknabadi, the former ambassador to Lebanon, who had reportedly gone missing in the chaos of the tragedy. His disappearance led to speculation by Iranian officials that he had been targeted and possibly kidnapped by Saudi security forces. Iran’s leaders were livid with Saudi officials. The supreme leader demanded an apology from Riyadh, and IRGC officials threatened revenge.  Roknabadi was later revealed to have been killed in the stampede, and his body was returned to Iran. The incident plunged Saudi-Iranian relations to their lowest ebb since the late 1980s.

It was in this context that Sheikh al-Nimr became such a powerful symbol. The senior Saudi cleric was arrested for his part in instigating the youth protests in the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012. He was a vocal critic of the Saudi royal family to be sure, but Saudi authorities also considered him an agent of Iran and a terrorist—claims that do not appear to gel with what is known of al-Nimr. The arrest and subsequent death sentence made al-Nimr a cause célèbre for Iranian and Shiite leaders. The IRGC and its Shiite militia clients in Iraq and Lebanon were particularly vociferous in condemning the sentencing of the Saudi cleric and threatened Riyadh with retaliation if the execution were carried out. Such support probably hurt al-Nimr more than it helped.

Despite high-level lobbying by Iran’s leadership and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, Saudi authorities chose to execute al-Nimr. It is hard to believe that Riyadh did not anticipate the fallout of that decision. Even if the decision was based solely on domestic concerns and done within the framework of Saudi’s legal system, regionally, it was kicking a hornet’s nest. It was an act that could only escalate tensions with Iran. Further, it was calling Iran’s bluff—as well as that of the IRGC, Hezbollah, and the Iraqi militias that had all promised vengeance. Executing al-Nimr was a surefire way to start a fight with Iran and fan the flames of regional sectarianism in the process.

Even if the decision was based solely on domestic concerns and done within the framework of Saudi’s legal system, regionally, it was kicking a hornet’s nest.

The subsequent protests in Iran were unsurprising. The sacking of the Saudi Embassy by demonstrators was also, sadly, not out of character for Iran’s hardliners. Tehran’s IRGC commander, Mohsen Kazemayni, claimed that his forces (including the Basij militia and affiliated hezbollahi groups) had nothing to do with the embassy’s destruction, but state security forces did nothing to prevent it either. Although Iranian leaders quickly condemned the attack, the incident gave Iran’s neighbors the pretext to cut off diplomatic ties. There could not be a more potent symbol of Iran’s unpopularity among its Arab neighbors than the speed and pervasiveness of the GCC states’ reactions. Only Oman has remained on normal terms with Tehran.

So, where does this leave us? Will Saudi Arabia and Iran go to war? Probably not. Neither country seems to want it, and neither can dominate the other militarily. I’d like to think that Iran and its neighbors would take the opportunity to reflect on their missteps and realize that their collective spat is jeopardizing the region’s future. But that is unlikely. More likely is that the region will be left with even fewer mechanisms for conflict mitigation – forget resolution – and scant prospects for change. Tehran and Riyadh will remain at loggerheads in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. The pretense of “political solutions” will ring more hollow than before, and the people of the region will continue to suffer.  Ironically, Saudi Arabia, with its new aggressive posture, has become as much an agent of regional destabilization as Iran. This makes America’s position in the Middle East more tenuous. Washington can ill-afford to follow its Gulf ally down a path that hardens bigotries and begets more instability. The competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran has led to little but ruin.

What is more, escalating tensions will accelerate the region’s plunge into the morass of sectarian hatreds. Sectarianism in the Middle East isn’t a conflict over theology or whose interpretation of Islam is correct. It is a conflict of identity, of who can be trusted and who cannot. With the execution of al-Nimr, and the mass cessation of diplomatic relations with Iran, the battle lines have been drawn. Any subtlety in Middle East affairs is over.


Afshon Ostovar is the author of Vanguard of the Imam: Religion, Politics, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, forthcoming April 1, 2016 from Oxford University Press.


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