Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic ties to Iran, saying Iran must act like “a normal country” instead of “a revolution.” The remarks came after an Iranian mob, allegedly made up of protesters, attacked the Saudi embassy. The attack was in reprisal for Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shi’ite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, as part of a wave of executions allegedly aimed at crippling terror organizations within the Kingdom. The Sheikh had accused the Saudi government of mistreating Shi’ites, and called for the secession of the eastern part of the country. Others among the 47 executed included alleged al Qaeda leaders. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, Saudi Arabia’s top religious leader, said that the executions were “a mercy to the prisoners” because it would keep them from further damaging their souls via evil acts.
Although Iran says that a top police official went to the mob attacking the Saudi embassy to disperse it, the suspicion that the mob was a proxy by Iran’s government is highly credible. Iran still celebrates as a national holiday the Iranian Revolution’s mob overrunning of the American Embassy in 1979, when the hostages seized and held for more than a year were used by the new Islamic Republic of Iran in an attempt to extort the United States. In that environment, even without official organization the citizens of Iran know that mob attacks on the diplomatic enemies of their government will be welcomed and praised as authentic examples of the spirit of the revolution. Saudi Arabia’s comments about Iran needing to act like a normal nation instead of a revolution are meant in that context.
The feud between the two nations has both ancient roots and contemporary flash points. Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leader of the Islamic world as a whole, because it contains the holy city of Mecca and most of the important scenes of the life of Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic religion. However, it sides with the Sunni view of the proper leadership of Islam, a civil war between factions of the Islamic world that began hundreds of years ago shortly after Mohammed’s death. Sunnis followed a claim that the leadership of the Islamic world should fall to those with the greatest degree of education and investment in the religious ideology. Shi’a Islam believed that only blood descendants of Muhammad ought to lead Islam. This led to a series of murders and bloodshed among the generation immediately after Muhammad, capped by the Battle of Karbala in the 61st year of the Islamic calendar, or A.D. 680. The Shi’ite faction lost and their leader, Hassan ibn Ali, was killed. The Shi’ite holy festivals of Ashura and Arba’een commemorate this defeat, and are still today marked by huge pilgrimages with self-flagellation and self-cutting by the pilgrims.
In terms of the current flash points, Iran and Saudi Arabia are backing opposite sides in a regional conflict dominated by the wars in Syria and Yemen. Iran has been developing a series of Shi’a militias ideologically loyal to its particular vision of that faith as a means of exerting its influence to dominate a crescent of the Middle east from Yemen and Afghanistan to the Levant. The Saudi government officially bans support to terrorist groups, but has been allowing its citizens to route money through Kuwait to radical Sunni groups including al Nura Front and the Islamic State (ISIS). Saudi Arabia is also leading a coalition of regional nations against Iran’s proxies in Yemen, the Houthis, a band of Shi’ite tribes bent on replacing the admittedly corrupt and inefficient government there.
Saudi Arabia has diplomatic allies who are backing its play. Bahrain, which happens also to be the headquarters of the United States Fifth Fleet, has joined Saudi Arabia in suspending diplomatic relations with Iran. The UAE has downgraded its relationship. Sudan has also cut off Iran.
Although Iran is framing its immediate conflict with Saudi Arabia as over what it describes as politically-motivated executions, Iran has executed three times as many persons as Saudi Arabia in recent years. Many of these, possibly thousands of them, are of political dissidents opposed to the existing regime. By contrast, Saudi Arabia executed fewer than fifty in the end-of-year purge.
Outside of the realms of diplomacy and war, the conflict also has ramifications for the global price of oil. However, rising oil prices may be offset by the entry of Iran’s oil reserves into the global markets pending the full implementation of the Iran nuclear deal.