The Sunni Muslim Saudi kingdom executed prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, sparking a diplomatic duel between the two powerful countries.
But this dispute doesn’t come out of nowhere, says University of Ottawa politics professor Thomas Juneau.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have never been friends.
“We’re talking about a ramping up of significant pre-existing tensions,” he said.
But relations have been particularly strained over the past year. The countries are on opposing sides when it comes to Bashar al-Assad and the so-called Islamic State; Saudi Arabia opposed Iran’s deal to curb its nuclear program; and new Saudi king Salman has “been much more assertive in terms of foreign policy in the region,” Juneau said.
That said, this latest spat isn’t likely to escalate into direct military confrontation, Juneau said.
“They are very good at confronting each other indirectly, through groups that they support in Yemen, in Iraq and Syrian, or elsewhere, but theu have no interest in direct military confrontation between each other,” he said. “As much as you see them escalating tension, you also see them being careful that things don’t spin out of control.”
And Iran, rhetoric aside, is not in a position to take on Saudi Arabia, Juneau says. The country has its hands full dealing with a “restless” population and an economy stressed by economic sanctions that have yet to be eased in the wake of a nuclear agreement reached last summer. There’s no set date for some sanctions to be lifted, but NPR reported that could begin to happen as early as this month.
“Whatever Iran gets from sanction relief as a result of the nuclear deal, a lot of it … will have to be invested domestically – not in its foreign policy,” Juneau said.
But international governments and agencies are still worried the row could further fuel instability in the region.
“We urge Saudi Arabian authorities and local and regional leaders, including those in Iran, to work with all communities to defuse these tensions and promote reconciliation,” Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion said in a statement Sunday.
“Canada is particularly concerned that the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr could further inflame sectarian tensions in the region.”
Saudi Arabia and Iran have long typified the Sunni and Shia divide fuelling Middle East tensions, says University of Calgary politics professor Michael Zekulin.
He describes Saudi Arabia as the “most homogenous” Sunni state, and Iran as the Shiite equivalent.
Most other countries are a mix, with Iran and Saudi Arabia exerting competing influences.
In Syria, for example, Iran supports the minority Alawite regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad, which has ruled over a Sunni majority for decades. Saudi Arabia supports opposition groups fighting his regime – including accusations it supports the so-called Islamic State.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has led a military campaign against the Shiite Houthi rebels since last March. The Houthis, who took over the capital Sanaa in September 2014, are to some degree supported by Iran.
But it goes beyond religion, Juneau said.
“It’s really because these are the two biggest countries, on the north and southern shore of the Persian Gulf, and they just compete for power because that’s what countries do,” he says. “And in such a volatile environment as the Middle East right now, it just makes things worse.”
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