Saudi Arabia and Iran must cool rhetoric or risk escalation of conflict over cleric’s execution

Conservatives in both countries are using the dispute for political gain but there are concerns that it could spiral out of control

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2016, 1:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 January, 2016, 1:14am

Saudi Arabia and Iran are on opposite sides of conflicts in Syria and Yemen and rivals for dominance in the Middle East. They are not directly at war, but the diplomatic row that has erupted after the Saudi execution of a leading Shia cleric could easily spiral out of control. Internal differences could worsen, regional religious intolerance heighten and there is the risk of a military confrontation. To prevent an escalation, leaders have to lower the heat of their rhetoric and learn from the experience to seek a more reasoned approach to relations.

The storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by protesters after cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed was bound to cause a crisis. Envoys have been kicked out or recalled, severing vital channels of communication. Decades of bitter rivalry between Sunni Muslim-dominant Saudi Arabia and Shiite-dominant Iran had created volatile relations. As competing major oil producers and exporters, amid plummeting prices and the self-proclaimed defenders of their respective majority faiths, there was never any likelihood of cautious diplomacy.

Riyadh was aware that its actions would inflame tensions. Nimr was among 47 executed on terrorism charges, all but four of them Sunnis, but his outspokenness on Shiite matters and opposition to the ruling Saudi royal family had won him strong support in Shia communities in Iran and elsewhere. The Saudis have defended the killings as necessary to send out a message that the kingdom will not tolerate any attempt to tamper with the nation’s security and stability. Amid an internal succession struggle for the throne and the possibility of greater discontent as revenues decline, they also aimed at shoring up support.

Iran’s equally conservative leaders are also using the dispute for political gain, their eye on reformists and Western advances resulting from a recent nuclear deal. But the dispute has also dashed hopes that the nations will work together at talks to end the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Saudi and Iranian officials have to make every effort to ensure events do not slip out of control.