Iran and Saudi Arabia ratchet up long-simmering tensions over religious schism

There have been demonstrations across the Islamic world at the execution in Saudi Arabia of Shi’ite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. This protest is in Tehran.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors skyrocketed over the weekend after Saudi officials executed prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Shiite protesters in Iran then broke into the Saudi embassy and ransacked it. Iran sees itself as the champion of Shiite Islam against a Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia retaliated by cutting off diplomatic relations and canceling direct flights between the two nations.

Nimr had been imprisoned since 2012. He was among 47 prisoners, all convicted of terrorism, executed on January 2.

“From the Saudi perspective, the people who were executed on Saturday were essentially the worst of the worst,” says Fahad Nazer, a political analyst with JTG Inc. He is also a fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute, a think tank based in Washington, DC that is funded by Saudi Arabia and aims at “increasing the understanding and appreciation of the social, economic, and political diversity of the Arab Gulf states.”

Nazer says those executed were “tried and convicted of some very serious terrorist attacks in which about 100 people have been killed. Some of these attacks go back to 2003. They basically targeted Saudis — both civilians as well as security personnel … and they had already gone through several appeals processes and exhausted basically all the legal measures within the legal system.”  

2015 was an especially brutal year in Saudi Arabia, Nazer notes, in terms of terrorist attacks. Most were ISIS inspired. These attacks pose a serious challenge to Saudi security, says Nazer. “The way I'm reading it, these executions were a message to Saudi Arabia’s own militants, whether they’re Sunnis or Shiites, that going forward, Saudi Arabia will have a zero-tolerance policy, and that you cannot conduct violent attacks against Saudis, no matter what your grievances are.”

But it's not clear to many observers why Saudi authorities decided to go ahead with the execution of the prominent Nimr who had always claimed he fought a war of words, not a war of violence.

“I think one has to realize or admit that [Nimr] was considered a firebrand, at the very least,” says Nazer. “His sermons were very fiery and on multiple occasions he essentially called for the overthrow of the Saudi government. I don't think he was implying that that should be done peacefully. In terms of the actual crimes that he was charged with, it was certainly not for his activism as is portrayed sometimes in the Western media.

"The Saudi government accused him of actually taking part in a terrorist cell and fomenting sedition and causing people to actually carry out actual attacks. And they held him personally responsible for some of the attacks in which security personnel were killed.”

Despite the protests mounted from Bahrain to Pakistan, and the storming of the Saudi embassy in Iran, Saudi authorities remain steadfast.

According to Nazer, the Saudi foreign minister ”made it very clear that the statements that came specifically from Iran, from its top religious and political leaders, were unacceptable, and were tantamount to unacceptable interference in the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia. And [the Saudi minister] also said that they let American officials understand that as far as they're concerned the judiciary in Saudi Arabia is an independent institution and that they reject any outside criticism questioning the judiciary’s decisions."

Meanwhile, to the Iranians, the execution of Nimr is a provocation. They believe he was unjustly targeted because he was a Shiite.

“The Iranian line is that this man was just a political prisoner, he had his ideas and he was never involved in any terrorist acts,” says Majid Afshar of BBC Persian. He adds that human rights groups have pointed out that Sheikh Nimr never received a fair trial “and Saudi Arabia failed to provide substantive evidence on what specifically this Sheikh has been accused of.”

Nimr, in his 50s, had close ties with Iran and even studied there for 10 years. He was critical of the Sunni monarch in Saudi Arabia and supported anti-government protests in the Shiite-majority Eastern Province, where he lived.

After the news of his execution reached Tehran, hardliners stormed the Saudi embassy in protest to his death. Afshar says that, at first, the Iranian government did not take the protests seriously.

“No one thought that it could get so ugly and these people would be allowed to enter the embassy,” he says.

But the situation quickly got out of hand. Protesters set fire to the building and smashed its windows.

“We know that the Iranian government is now quite unhappy,” he says. "Even the most conservative elements and groups inside have now condemned the ransacking of the embassy.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacted to the execution with a statement that said in part “divine revenge will seize oppressors who killed [Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr].” 

Afshar believes that those strong words, coming from the Supreme Leader, fueled the attacks on the Saudi embassy.

“[The attackers] took pictures of themselves and posted it online … thinking that they would be rewarded for this,” Afshar says.

But Iranian security forces arrested a number of the protesters and the government denounced their actions.

The rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran has a long history, over their ties to Sunni and Shiite Islam.

“Each of them see themselves as the protector and spokesman of these two sects of Islam,” says scholar Vali Nasr, “and in that capacity also see themselves as rivals for leadership in the Islamic world.”

The split in Islam goes back to a succession dispute after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century.

“But in reality, this is like the divide between Protestants and Catholics in Christianity,” says Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins.

“The origins are very old, in history, but they are also about modern-day political identity. And in a region of the world where religion matters enormously, then what form of religion you follow becomes very important. So, in some ways, Shia and Sunni today operate as a sort of proxy for ethnic identity. It defines who you are; are you part of the majority, or are you part of a minority in a country."

In other words, it's an old theological distinction with many modern world manifestations.

“You have two governments that are engaged in a very classic realpolitik," says Nasr. "If you really want to understand the Middle East, you don’t need to go back 1400 years to understand the Shia-Sunni divide. You can look at the history of Franco-German rivalry in Europe, or English-French rivalry. You have two great powers in the region that want to achieve dominance. And sectarianism is a very powerful tool in getting legitimacy for the quest for power.”

Shiites, who are also known as Shias, are definitely a minority of Muslims globally, but as Nasr points out, in the heart of the Middle East, the numbers are much closer, and the region is seeing huge political upheaval.

“Since the American invasion of Iraq, which handed over a previously Sunni-ruled country to the Shias, what we’ve had in the region is a gradual shift of power away from Sunnis in the direction of the Shias,” Nasr explains. “And this has proven to be a very turbulent process. So countries like Saudi Arabia and many Sunnis on the ground feel that Iran is rising. Iraq is now Shia. There is restlessness among Shias in Bahrain or in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. They have a sense of siege.”

The new rupture in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a big problem for US foreign policy. Nasr believes it will make it much harder to solve problems like Syria, Iraq, ISIS and Yemen. 

Related: Shiite vs. Sunni, explained

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