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Iran-Saudi Crisis as a Measure for Boosting the Upcoming Elections in Iran

By February 5, 2016 No Comments

On January 2, 2016 Saudi Arabia executed Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a high-ranking Shia cleric, along with 46 others, on the charge of “acting against national security”. Immediately after, the plainclothes of the Islamic Republic, in a pre-planned move [1] that the Iranian officials and media have long been calling “spontaneous” in order to relegate responsibility, stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad, torching the buildings and inflicting a lot of damage on them. In response, Saudi Arabia recalled its diplomatic delegation from Iran and announced that it had broken off relations with Tehran. A host of Arab nations followed suit straightaway by either severing or reducing ties with Iran. Since then, the Arab nations, led by Saudi Arabia, have assumed a tough stance against the Islamic Republic.

In view of this succession of events that has led to a rapid escalation of the already-existing tension between Riyadh and Tehran, what I want to do in this article is first lay out a brief background of the Shia minority in the Arabian Peninsula, then shed light on the considerable role of the Iranian regime in provoking that Shia contingent against the Saudi government, and finally to predict what will come next in what is called, for lack of a better word, the “relations” between these two hostile states. My contention is that the regime of Iran created this current crisis in order to boost its standing in advance of the “elections” on February 26, 2016.

For a long time, Shias have existed in the Arabian Peninsula, a region mostly populated by Sunni Muslims. This Shia population is composed of a number of different denominations such as Ismaili, Zaydi, and Twelver. A small number of the Ismailis, the believers in the specifically mystical interpretation of Islam by the famous/notorious medieval Hashashin/Assassins, live in southern Saudi Arabia. The Zaydis, the followers of Zayd, the grandson of Husayn, the second Imam of the Shias, mostly live in the south of the peninsula, in the southwestern Saudi city of Najran and in Yemen. The Houthis of Yemen, comprising 35-40% of the Muslims in that country, belong to the Zaydi denomination.

The majority of the Shia population of the peninsula, who are Twelvers (believing in the twelve immaculate Imams after the Prophet, the same denomination to which also belong the majority of Iranians and a great number of Iraqis), live on the island-state of Bahrain and in the cities of Qatif, Al-Ahsa, Dammam and Dhahran in the ash-Sharqiyyah or Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It is estimated that 60-70% of the Bahrainis and 10-15% of the Saudis – a figure between 4-5 million – are Shia.

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The strategic significance of the ash-Sharqiyyah region (Eastern Province) for Saudi Arabia includes: its situation near Shia Iran and its location on the coast of the Persian Gulf; its containing the greatest concentration of Saudi natural oil resources and oil-producing facilities. Since Bahrian is located in the same region as ash-Sharqiyyah, and it is a Shia-majority country with a Sunni ruling family allied to the Sunni Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, it  also lies within a similar sphere of concern for Saudi Arabia. For all those reasons, ash-Sharqiyyah – along with Bahrain – proves to be a highly strategic region, and naturally Saudi Arabia is very sensitive towards it.

Since the Iran revolution of 1979, the Islamic Republic has been aware of the demographics and liabilities of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia (i.e. the majority-Shia population is prone to unrest and revolt.) For these reasons the Islamic Republic has earmarked that province, called ash-Sharqiyyah in Arabic, as a key spot of its “export of revolution”.[2][3]

To that end, the Islamic Republic has been constantly provoking the Shia population of the eastern Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the Houthis of Yemen to stage uprisings against the Saudi monarchy in order to overthrow it. It was following one of those uprisings in 2012 that Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a leading Shia cleric in the ash-Sharqiyyah region, was arrested by the Saudi security forces.

Prior to his emergence as a leading Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia, Nimr spent ten years in Iran studying at the Qom Seminary, one of the leading Shia clerical educational centres of the world. While in Iran, Nimr had taken a shine to the contemporary Shia clerical system of rule in that country specifically called “Velayat-e Faqih” (Guardianship of the Jurist), established by the first Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, and developed and perfected by his successor, Ali Khamenei, the incumbent Supreme Leader.

Intent on establishing an Iran-style Velayat-e Faqih [4] in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iraq, Nimr returned to Saudi Arabia and engaged in both overt and covert activities, to overthrow the Saudi monarchy (most likely with the aid and encouragement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards). And that was when he was arrested.

In 2014 Nimr was sentenced to death by the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court on a number of charges regarding Saudi national security, including attempting to stage a revolution against the monarchy, seeking foreign meddling in Saudi Arabia, taking up arms against the security forces, as well as sectarianism and secessionism.[5][6] The sentence was carried out on January 2, 2015, which brings us to the beginning of our story.

Previously, Saudi Arabia  tolerated any seditious act provoked by the Islamic Republic in the Arabian Peninsula, usually containing them with a mix of low-key militarism and high-profile negotiation. However, since King Salman’s accession to the throne (January 23, 2015) and then appointment of his son,  Muhammad bin Salman,[7] as Minister of Defense, Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that it will respond to any Iran-instigated sedition in the peninsula with an iron fist. So far, the almost year-long campaign against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen has borne out that resolve; the execution of Nimr and 46 other rebels is further evidence.

In hindsight, we can see that the head-on Saudi clash with the mullahs was inevitable as tensions had been brewing between the two countries for almost 38 years, ever since the Shia revolutionary regime grabbed power in Iran. In other words, for the Saudis, what happened in Tehran and Mashhad did not constitute a discrete act of vandalism on the part of a mad crowd in Iran. Rather, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Therefore, the Saudis seem to have finally resolved to take a decisive stand against the Iranian regime’s encroachment on Arab affairs. And the Arab League states have already voiced their support for Saudi Arabia by either withdrawing or downgrading their diplomatic delegations in Iran. As such, the daggers are likely to remain drawn for a rather long time on the southern coast of the Persian Gulf.

For now, the plan seems to be a comprehensive boycott of Iran short of all-out war. That plan includes preventing Iran from taking advantage of the oil market now that a portion of the international sanctions against the regime have been lifted. The Arab-induced collapse of the oil price that has made gasoline cheaper than drinking water in the UAE,[8] is a clear demonstration that Arabs are willing to incur loss as long as they can hurt Tehran.

However, on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf, although the regime of Iran, as already noted, has had long-term designs on the Arabian Peninsula, the immediate cause for escalating tension in Tehran and Mashhad, was completely different. As a result of its highly volatile nature due to its prioritizing “ideological” goals over “national development” programs in an industrially underdeveloped country with limited natural resources – the Islamic Republic is characteristically incapable of nurturing long-term plans for the advancement of the country and the improvement of the Iranian citizens.[9]This has led to a general popular discontent. And the sanctions enacted against Iran as a punitive measure for its notorious “Nuclear Program” has made the mullahs’ hold on Iran even weaker.

The regime did manage to provoke a fraction of the population to ‘dance and make merry’ before the eyes of the world during the 2013 presidential elections, demonstrating its own “popularity” in Iran (all on the promise of relieving the economic hardship should a “deal” be reached with the West). In other words, the bitter pill of the Rouhani Administration was fed to the populace with a sugarcoating of the sanctions relief. However, although a fraction of the sanctions has been reportedly lifted, the long-expected relief hasn’t come so far, and the Islamic Republic is planning to have yet another round of “elections” in less than a month.

Not being able to deliver on its promises of relief, the Islamic Republic needed a “crisis” in order to prompt a sizeable turnout for the eyes of the world in the upcoming “elections”. More specifically, the mullahs, their think tanks, and their security apparatus were counting on the people’s fear of a serious national security threat or war as well as their historically-ingrained “Arabophobia” to result in a considerable turnout and by that to show to the world that the Iranian regime is “stable”. However, the public reaction ranged from lukewarm to cold, probably due to the fact that the populace is exhausted under the burden of its own domestic problems, and as a consequence does not seem to care much about yet another foreign conflict.

As such, on that side of the Persian Gulf, the present crisis will continue on and off until the upcoming elections. In the meantime, the Iranian regime will partly try to appease the Saudis and the Arab League states in order to dodge their total boycott. The recent announcement[10] by the Spokesman of Iran’s Judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejeie, that “Since the attack, about 100 people have been arrested”, and that the ransacking of the embassy “has been condemned by all authorities and we have taken immediate and serious action”, perfectly matches that pattern of behaviour.

However, more vociferously, the Iranian officials and IRGC commanders will continue to issue strong statements against the Saudi government every now and then and act threateningly in the Persian Gulf [11] against Saudi Arabia, her Arab allies, and her supposed long-distance ally, the United States, in order to keep the tension brewing for their “domestic” purposes. Past that, the crisis, by taking a new turn, will merge into the ongoing struggle between the Shia Iranian mullahs and the Sunni Saudi kings for the fate of the greater Middle East.

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