Middle East | Saudi-Iran rift is a matter of embarrassment to Muslim world

Saudi-Iran rift is a matter of embarrassment to Muslim world

M.K. Bhadrakumar January 5, 2016 9:42 AM (UTC+8)
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The rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran appears to be touching a new threshold following the execution of a prominent Shi’ite cleric by Riyadh and the furious mob reaction in Tehran by burning down the Saudi mission, which in turn led to the move by Riyadh to break off diplomatic relations with Iran. But in reality, this is only the latest chapter of a chronicle of tensions waxing and waning, which the Muslim world has got used to over the decades.

Iranian men hold portraits of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration against his execution by Saudi authorities, on Jan. 3
Iranian men hold portraits of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration against his execution by Saudi authorities, on Jan. 3

It is useful to recall that the rupture in Saudi-Iran diplomatic relations itself is not unprecedented. Nor is this the first time that demonstrators in Tehran have stormed the Saudi embassy. In a 1988 incident, protesters also manhandled the Saudi diplomats and one official actually died of injuries, which led to a rupture in diplomatic relations that lasted till 1991.

Simply put, the western media projection of the latest Saudi-Iranian rift as potentially tearing the Muslim world apart is a bit of an exaggeration. The four countries with the biggest Muslim populations in the world – Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – are carrying on with the mundane issues of day-to-day life.

The Muslim countries the world over (with the exception of Bahrain, and Sudan, perhaps) seem to regard the latest events as primarily a diplomatic incident of gross impropriety on the part of Iran. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry reaction on Monday is typical. It expressed concern at the escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and called for “the resolution of differences through peaceful means in the larger interest of Muslim unity in these challenging times” so that the “dark forces of extremism and terrorism” do not take advantage of “any disunity in the Muslim Ummah” – whilst also, inter alia, rebuking Iran for the “most unfortunate and deeply regrettable” incident of the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

The Shia-Sunni sectarian passions are hardly in evidence in the statement, although Pakistan is a predominantly Sunni country. Without doubt, Iran would have easily gained the high ground but for the act of vandalism of the burning down of the Saudi mission. Tehran’s focus ought to have been on highlighting the fact that the Saudis have executed political dissidents, thereby drawing attention to the oppressive regime in that country and the farcical nature of its self-projection as the charioteer of democracy in Syria.

The heart of the matter is that the sectarian identities in the Muslim world may be a fact of life – somewhat like the caste system in the Hindu society – which everyone knows about and is resigned to accept, but the topic nonetheless is also an embarrassment when it sails into view. Ironically, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia will want to be known as Shia or Sunni countries – they would much rather prefer to be known as part of the Muslim Ummah.

Turkey’s reaction to the eruption of Saudi-Iranian rift also presents a case study. These are times when Turkey and Saudi Arabia are seen as comrades-in-arms in Syria’s killing fields. The Saudi-Iran tensions exploded even as the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had hardly returned to his country after a visit to Riyadh last week during which the countries decided to form a ‘High Council of  Strategic Cooperation’ (which Russia promptly billed as directed against its and Iranian interests in the Middle East.)

Again, Turkey is an overwhelmingly Sunni Salafi country and to add to that, Turkish- Iranian relations are not exactly in good shape at the moment, and, furthermore, Turkey also shares with Saudi Arabia a sense of uneasiness over Iran’s rise as regional power as well as over the likely prospect of a broadening of the US-Iranian engagement that could tilt the regional balance more to Tehran’s advantage.

Yet, Erdogan has sprung a surprise. The political leadership has taken a correct, middle line and is counseling Saudi Arabia and Iran to mend their differences in the overarching interests of the unity of the Muslim world and the region. The really surprising part is that the government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus directly criticized the Saudi act of killing the Saudi cleric, calling it politically motivated.

He said, “We are against all instances of capital punishment especially when it is politically motivated… For us it is not possible to support capital punishment by any country… But Saudi Arabia and Iran are our friends and we don’t want them fighting because that’s the last thing this region needs.”

Most certainly, Saudis will be shell-shocked by the Turkish criticism, which touches a raw nerve in its reference as “politically motivated”. Coming at a time when Russian propaganda is in full cry over Turkey’s links with the Islamic State, this surge of ‘secular’ temper in the Turkish reaction no doubt burnishes Erdogan’s image. (Frankly, even Russia has not dared to criticize the Saudi act of executing political dissidents.)

More importantly, Turkey returns to the centre stage as the torch bearer of the ‘Arab Spring’. Erdogan has not forgotten that Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shi’ite cleric put to death by the Saudi regime, was a central figure in the Arab Spring-inspired popular movement in the eastern Shi’ite dominated regions of Saudi Arabia and that his real ‘crime’ was that he demanded empowerment of the people.

However, the Turkish stance needs to be properly understood. It stands to reason that Turkey does not want to alienate Iran at the present juncture of regional politics when Ankara has few friends, if at all, in the region. Despite their divergent interests in Syria, Turkey and Iran also happen to have a shared interest in containing the wave of Kurdish nationalism sweeping the region. Traditionally, Turkey and Iran cooperated in battling Kurdish separatism.

Interestingly, this is a template of the Syrian conflict where Iran is not standing on the same page as Russia or the United States (both of whom visualize the Syrian Kurds as allies in the war against the Islamic State.) This undercurrent of common interest between Iran and Turkey in preventing the appearance of yet another Kurdistan on the region’s chessboard in northern Syria also explains Tehran’s refusal to support Russia in its rift with Turkey. In fact, Tehran has offered to ‘mediate’ between Russia and Turkey. (Interestingly, Moscow too has now made a reciprocal gesture by offering its good offices to ‘mediate’ between Iran and Saudi Arabia.)

The bottom line is that it is not necessarily the case that the Saudi-Iranian rift is going to complicate the Syrian situation. The Saudi ambassador to the UN Abdullah al-Mouallimi might well have had a point when he signaled on Monday that the rift with Iran “should have no effect” on attempts to end the wars in Syria and Yemen.

M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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