A Tale of Two Embassies

Iran accused Saudi Arabia of having bombed the Iranian embassy in Yemen during a Saudi-led airstrike on the capital city, Sanaa.  Reportedly no visible damage to the building occurred.  The accusation heightens tensions between the two nations, which appear to be on the brink of actual war with one another after years of merely fighting each other’s proxies.  Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is fighting Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq who are funded in part by money from Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia is fighting Houthi militants in Yemen that are backed by Iran, and recently executed a Shi’ite cleric who had called for the secession of the eastern part of Saudi Arabia.

If the Saudis did strike Iran’s embassy in Yemen, it would demonstrate a kind of symmetry with Iran’s response to the execution of cleric Nimir al-Nimir.  Iranians staged an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which led to the cutting of diplomatic ties between those nations.  Such a severance of ties is traditionally a prelude to war, although it can be done without war following — as was the case in 1979, when American diplomatic ties with Iran were cut following their attack on the American embassy and seizing of American diplomats as hostages.  The attack on the Saudi embassy involved gasoline bombs, commonly called “Molotov Cocktails” because of their infamous use during the Communist revolutions of the 20th century.  The minimal damage done to Iran’s embassy in Yemen is proportionate to what was done to the Saudi embassy.  Likewise, just as Iran’s government denied any role in causing the attack in Tehran, the Saudis can leverage plausible deniability by asserting that the attack — if it occurred at all — was simply a mistake.

The escalating feud has many regional effects.  For the Turks, the effect is one of being caught in the middle between two powers who are fighting in the Turkish backyard.  The proxy war in Syria cannot help but have spillover for Turkey, which has already come dangerously close to being embroiled by Iran’s Russian allies after they downed a Russian jet for penetrating Turkish airspace.  The war has emboldened Turkey’s Kurdish minority, whose relatives are carving out an independent Kurdish realm in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Iran-backed government in Baghdad.  Turkey has also seen itself used as a staging ground by Sunni militants, Turkmen militants, and has experienced bombings against Turkish citizens allegedly by these radical groups.

For Syria itself, the feud imperils any hope that there would be a quick end to the civil war raging there.  The United States has quietly abandoned its position that Syrian President Bashar Assad must step down, and in fact now concedes that Syrian President Assad will be in office longer than American President Barack Obama.

In Africa, the feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia is playing out through the severing of diplomatic ties with Iran by Saudi allies. Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia have all cut ties following the attack on the Saudi embassy by Iranian nationals.  Saudi Arabia is using petrodollars to encourage other states into its alliance, and is currently courting Nigeria.  Egypt, long opposed to Iran’s domination of the Middle East, has condemned Iran but for now maintains diplomatic ties.

Will this end of dialogue, coupled with spiraling provocations, lead to a hot war between Iran and the Saudi alliance?  The Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia denies the possibility.  Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that a war between the nations would be a disaster and that Riyadh would not permit it to happen.  However, he called upon the United States to step up diplomatic actions to resolve the heightening tensions in the region.  “The United States must realize that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it,” he said.