Iran-Saudi tensions serious issue for Middle East

Story highlights

  • Saudi Arabia last week executed Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr
  • Michael Williams: Breakdown in ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have serious consequences for Middle East

Michael C. Williams is a distinguished visiting fellow at Chatham House, a former British and U.N. diplomat and a member of the House of Lords. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Any hope that 2016 would bring some degree of peace to the Middle East has been shattered by the events of the past few days.

Saudi Arabia's announcement on Saturday that it had executed 47 people, including the well-known Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, has led to a further deterioration in Saudi-Iranian relations -- and a widening of the chasm between Sunni and Shia Muslims throughout the region.
Demonstrations in Tehran over the executions led to the sacking of the Saudi Embassy by some protesters on Saturday, and, 24 hours later, the breaking of diplomatic relations by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi announcement was followed by two other Arab countries, Bahrain and Sudan, likewise breaking diplomatic relations with Iran. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, meanwhile, have downgraded links with Teheran and recalled their ambassadors.
    The decision by Bahrain to follow the Saudi move is especially dangerous: More than 50% of the island monarchy's population is estimated to be Shia, and relations between them and the government have been poor in recent years. Yet it is probable that Saudi Arabia will put pressure on other Arab countries to undertake similar moves. (For some, like Lebanon and Iraq -- both of which have sizable Shia populations -- such a decision would be political suicide, a point underlined by the fact that thousands demonstrated outside the Saudi Embassy in Baghdad on Monday.)
    Lost in much of the discussion is that most of those executed by the Saudi authorities were in fact Sunnis, and their number reportedly included many convicted of having links to, or having actively supported, al Qaeda. Indeed, some had been in detention for years.
    Yet it is the execution of Nimr that has drawn most attention and concern. A leader of the Shia community in the Eastern Province's Qatif district in Saudi Arabia, he had over the years met with a number of Western diplomats. And while Nimr may have been close to Iran politically -- and one of the most vocal critics of the Saudi government -- his identification with the poor and disaffected among the Shia brought him considerable popular acclaim in the Shia heartland of eastern Saudi Arabia.
    Regardless, the breakdown in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have serious consequences for the Middle East as a whole and make compromise highly improbable on regional conflicts such as those in Yemen -- and most importantly, Syria. In fact, that this has happened on the eve of talks in Vienna, Austria, on the four-year Syrian conflict makes a successful outcome to those talks, or any progress at all on Syria, much more difficult. With this in mind, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have urgently appealed to both countries to reduce tensions.
    Sadly, this seems unlikely. On the contrary, Saudi Arabia may actually take offense at Monday's telephone calls by Kerry to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to urge calm. Many in Riyadh will likely be shocked by the evenhandedness of the U.S. approach, especially as Washington does not even have diplomatic relations with Tehran.
    This surprise may actually offer an insight into the Saudi decision to proceed with the executions, which have been criticized by both the United States and United Kingdom, among others.
    Many see the Saudi move, and the breaking of diplomatic relations with Iran, as being rooted in the deep misgivings aroused in the kingdom by Iran's rapid diplomatic rehabilitation by the West. Kerry's evident ease with Zarif in the lengthy talks in the Swiss city of Lausanne last year was not appreciated in many Arab capitals, least of all Riyadh.
    That these tensions are boiling over bodes ill for the Middle East in 2016. On Monday, Israel reportedly exchanged fire along the Lebanese border with Iranian ally Hezbollah. Thankfully, no one was injured, let alone killed. But the fact that the two sides resorted to force at such a delicate moment does not augur well in a region that has already seen far too much violence in recent years.