Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are at their worst for nearly 30 years.
Tensions have spiralled following the execution of Saudi cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the subsequent setting ablaze of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Riyadh's expulsion of Iranian diplomats.
The struggle between Riyadh and Tehran for political and religious influence has geopolitical implications that extend far beyond the placid waters of the Gulf and encompass nearly every major conflict zone in the Middle East.
Most notably, perhaps, the crisis means prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough in Syria and Yemen now look much more remote, just as international momentum for negotiations seemed to be on the verge of delivering results.
Years of turbulence
The current standoff is as dangerous as its 1980s predecessor, which first saw diplomatic ties suspended between 1988 and 1991.
This occurred at the end of the turbulent opening decade after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the grinding eight-year Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988.
Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states backed Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the war and suffered Iranian attacks on their shipping, while in 1984 the Saudi air force shot down an Iranian fighter jet that it claimed had entered Saudi airspace.
Saudi and other Arab Gulf governments also linked Iran's post-revolutionary government with a rise in Shia militancy, an aborted coup in Bahrain in 1981, and a failed attempt to assassinate the emir of Kuwait four years later.
Meanwhile, the Iranian regime established Hezbollah al-Hejaz in May 1987 as a cleric-based group modelled on Lebanese Hezbollah intent on carrying out military operations inside Saudi Arabia.
Hezbollah al-Hijaz issued a number of inflammatory statements threatening the Saudi royal family and carried out several attacks in the late 1980s as tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia rose sharply.
While the current crisis lacks as yet equivalent instances of direct confrontation, tensions are as dangerous as in the 1980s for three reasons.
The first is the legacy of years of sectarian politics that have done so much to divide the Middle East along Sunni-Shia lines and foster an atmosphere of deep distrust between Iran and its neighbours across the Gulf.
In such a supercharged atmosphere, the moderate middle ground has been sorely weakened and advocates of a hardline approach to regional affairs now hold sway.
Second, the Gulf states have followed increasingly assertive foreign policies over the past four years, partly in response to what they see as perennial Iranian "meddling" in regional conflicts, and also because of growing scepticism about the Obama administration's intentions in the Middle East.
For many in the Gulf, the primary threat from Iran lies not in Tehran's nuclear programme but in Iran's support for militant non-state actors such as Hezbollah and, more recently, the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Both the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the multinational coalition against terrorism announced last month by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman show Saudi officials in no mood to compromise on regional security matters.
Finally, the breakdown in diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran probably sounds the death-knell, at least for now, for regional efforts to end the wars in Yemen and Syria.
Lost in the furore over the execution of Nimr al-Nimr was an announcement that the fragile ceasefire agreed in Yemen on 15 December had broken down.
Neither the ceasefire nor the UN-brokered talks that started at the same time had made much headway, and while the UN talks were due to resume on 14 January that is unlikely if the Saudi-led coalition and Iran intensify their involvement in Yemen.
A similar outcome may now await the Syrian peace talks due to begin in Geneva in late January, as weeks of patient behind-the-scenes outreach to align the warring parties will come to nothing if the two most influential external parties to the conflict instead double down and dig in.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is the Research Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University's Baker Institute for the Middle East and an Associate Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. Follow him on Twitter.
BACKGROUND : Shi’a sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr
MEETING WITH CONTROVERSIAL SHI'A SHEIKH NIMR AL-NIMR (C-CT7-00989)
B. 08 RIYADH 1070
Classified By: CG JOHN KINCANNON FOR REASONS 1.4 (B) AND (D)
1. (S/NF) SUMMARY: In an August 13 meeting with PolOff,
controversial Shi'a sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr sought to
distance himself from previously reported pro-Iranian and anti-American statements, instead adopting a less radical tone on topics such as the relationship between Iran and the Saudi Shi'a, and American foreign policy. Arguing that he is portrayed publicly as much more radical than the true content of his words and beliefs, the Sheikh also espoused other conciliatory ideas such as fair political decision-making over identity-based politics, the positive impact of elections, and strong "American ideals" such as liberty and justice. Despite this more moderate tone, Al-Nimr reasserted his ardent opposition to what he described as the authoritarianism of the reactionary al-Saud regime, stating he would always support "the people" in any conflict with the
government. He also continued to argue for the right of the Saudi Shi'a community to seek external assistance if it were to become embroiled in a conflict. The Sheikh was also cognizant of the increased profile that his strong language has earned him, saying that his fiery words continue to attract interest from an increasing percentage of the Shi’a community, particularly young people.
Background on al-Nimr
2. (S/NF) On August 13, PolOff met with Shi'a sheikh Nimr al-Nimr at the Sheikh's Awamiyya home in the Qatif area. The always controversial sheikh has gained extra attention over the past months by calling in bolder-than-usual terms for an end to anti-Shi'a discrimination in Saudi Arabia, and by seemingly endorsing the Iranian regime, its nuclear ambitions, and its increasingly active role in the region. Al-Nimr is typically regarded as a second-tier political player in the Eastern Province (EP), in large part because he is not directly affiliated with either the Islahiyyah movement (often called the Shirazis) or Saudi Hizbollah, the two largest political blocs in the EP Shi'a community. Despite this secondary status, al-Nimr is currently gaining
popularity locally, particularly with young people, as his words appeal to those disaffected by the general economic malaise experienced by Saudi Arabia's lower classes and a perceived lack of sufficient SAG reform in relations with the Shi'a community. Meanwhile, at a national and international level, with everyone from Salafi sheikhs to regional intelligence agencies, al-Nimr's words have gained him increased notoriety due to fears that his words will spark unrest and perhaps point to an Iranian hand in Saudi Arabia
3. (S/NF) Al-Nimr, a former follower of the late Ayatollah Mohammad al-Husseini al-Shirazi, now follows the religious leadership of Iraqi Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Mudarrasi, the Karbala-based spiritual leader of the Islamic Action Organization. In the meeting with PolOff, al-Nimr complimented both Ayatollahs for being leaders in combining the power of the mind with the power of the Quran in determining guidance for public life. Al-Nimr described his and al-Mudarrasi's attitude towards Islamic governance as being something between "wilayet al-faqih," in which a country is led by a single religious leader, and "shura al-fuqaha," in which a council of religious leaders should lead the state. Al-Nimr, who conducted religious studies for approximately ten years in Tehran and "a few" years in Syria, stated that all governance should be done through
consultation, but the amount of official power vested in the hands of a single official should be determined based on the relative quality of the religious leaders and the political situation at the time.
Al-Nimr on his Loyalties
4. (S/NF) When asked by PolOff as to whether his tough talk promoted violence or simply warned of it as a possible repercussion of continued discontent in the Shi'a community, al-Nimr responded that if a conflict were to occur he would side with the people, never with the government."
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He continued by saying that though he will always choose the side of the people, this does not necessarily mean that he will always support all of the people's actions, for example, violence. Religiously, al-Nimr said that he is first a Shi'a, then a Muslim, then a member of the Ahl al-Bayt
(literally People of the House; the phrase refers to Muslims, Christians and Jews), and finally a member of humanity. He quickly followed by saying that politically, he is on the side of justice, wherever or with whomever it may preside. He provided the example of Iraqi politics, saying that he does not support the aspirations of any Arabs - be they Sunni or Shi'a - or Turkomen who would aspire to power in northern Iraq. In al-Nimr's view, as the Kurds are an undoubted
majority in the region, it would be unjust if they did not
exercise a majority of power.
Al-Nimr on Iran, the United States
5. (S/NF) Much of the attention recently received by al-Nimr is due to his comments in sermons and an interview with IslamOnline website perceived as supporting Iran, including defending Iran's nuclear aspirations and complimenting the people and government of Iran on their piety. In a July 26 follow-up letter to IslamOnline, Al-Nimr attempted to distance himself from Iran, saying that piety is only God alone, and that all nations act in their own interests. It was this sentiment that continued in the meeting with PolOff, as al-Nimr stated that his fundamental view of foreign powers - including Iran - is that they act out of self-interest, not
out of piety or religious commonality. Al-Nimr said he was against the idea that Saudi Shi'a should expect Iranian support based on some idea of sectarian unity that supersedes
6. (S/NF) In addition to supporting Iran, al-Nimr's recent sermons have been laced with anti-American rhetoric, for example that America "wants to humiliate the world." In this meeting, the sheikh distanced himself from these ideas, saying that he has great affection for the American people.
Al-Nimr stated that in his view, when compared with the
actions of nations such as Britain, the European colonial powers, or the Soviet Union, the "imperialism" of the United States has been considerably more benign, with better treatment of people and more successful independent states.
Al-Nimr said that this was evident in comparing the fortunes of West and East Germany, where the American-supported West was clearly more successful than the Soviet-supported East.
The Sheikh also cited Japan as another case of America
properly compensating and building a nation. The Sheikh
believes that U.S. efforts in the Middle East are also better intentioned than previous imperial powers in the region, but that the U.S. has made tremendous mistakes in Iraq.
7. (S/NF) Al-Nimr also stated that Shi'a Muslims, even more than Sunnis, are natural allies for America as Shi'a thought, as reflected by the Imam Ali, is based on justice and liberty, ideas central to the United States. Al-Nimr cited as proof of his logic the fact that Sunni sheikhs regularly issue fatwas calling for violence and defending murder in the name of God. Meanwhile, in his view, proper Shi'a religious leaders would never advocate such tactics, as they directly contradict the spirit of Shi'ism. In addition to giving his
comparison Shi'a and American ideals, al-Nimr showed
significant historical knowledge of U.S. foreign policy - for example, speaking positively of the spirit of Middle Eastern initiatives during the Carter administration - and was well-informed regarding the state of the U.S. Presidential campaign.
8. (S/NF) Though al-Nimr moved away from Iran and spoke
somewhat positively of America in the meeting with PolOff, he did not change course regarding his previously stated
conviction that it is the right of the Shi'a people of Saudi Arabia to avail themselves of help from a foreign power should they become involved in a conflict. Citing Kuwait and Saudi Arabia employing the U.S. military to defend themselves against a fellow Arab force from Iraq, and the people of Darfur relying on foreign intervention to stop their countrymen in the Sudan, al-Nimr stated that the Shi'a community had the right to search for foreign assistance in the case of conflict against other Saudis. Al-Nimr did not invoke Iran in detailing where this foreign assistance might come from, and did not delineate regarding at what point in
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hostilities foreign intervention would be justified.
Al-Nimr on the SAG
9. (S/NF) In addition to his unswerving belief in the right of the Shi'a community to receive foreign assistance, al-Nimr also unflinchingly continued to denounce the Saudi government and its actions. One of the al-Nimr's overriding messages in this meeting was his view of governments as reactionary institutions. For example, al-Nimr stated that Eastern European countries gained their independence through
agitation and Soviet failure, not due to any plan by the
Russians to offer greater liberty. This fundamental belief affects his thinking generally and is at the foundation of why he advocates tough talk and is not averse to tough action. The Sheikh believes that the SAG is particularly reactionary and has been throughout its history. Al-Nimr stated that whether it is the Holy Mosque takeover, Iranian Revolution and EP Shi'a uprising of 1979; the realities of external pressure after September 11, 2001 and internal panic after the Saudi Arabia attacks of 2003 and 2004; or the
advent of satellite television and the Internet, the Saudi government has never introduced change but has instead always been forced to change.
10. (S/NF) The examples given by al-Nimr were numerous:
increased laxity in prohibiting the entrance ofreligious
materials into the Kingdom is only due to current technology making it impossible to stop access to religious information; minor freedoms recently gained by the Shi'a of Qatif - for example, greater ability to celebrate Ashura - are a result of tensions building due to rising Shi'ism in both Iraq and Iran; municipal councils are a response to America's talk of
supporting democracy and liberty over stability in the Middle East. Al-Nimr also cited a very personal story, saying that when he was detained in 2006 by the Saudi Mabahith, he was beaten by authorities and treated quite poorly. The people of Awamiyya, per the Sheikh's account, received no response to letters and formal pleas to the EP Governor for leniency.
It was only when citizens began to advocate community
demonstrations and a "no fear" attitude toward the SAG that al-Nimr says the authorities' abuse ended, and he was eventually released from detention.
11. (S/NF) With regards to specific SAG policies, the Sheikh believes that the Interfaith Dialogue initiative is a sham, a public relations exercise for audiences external to the Kingdom. He cited as evidence the crackdown against EP Shi'a that accompanied the high-level talk of dialogue (Reftel B).
Additionally, he believes that the early June anti-Shi'a
statement issued by 22 Salafi sheikhs was published with the consent of SAG officials. In the opinion of al-Nimr, many of the 22 are too close to the SAG for the statement to have been issued without government knowledge or approval. When asked by PolOff if he considered some members of the royal family to be truly committed to greater tolerance, al-Nimr responded that he does not distinguish between different
members of the al-Saud, but only judges the government by its actions within the Kingdom, which he feels belie any sign of greater moderation or openness. He did, however, mention that there is a small amount of hope that younger generations, as they continue to study abroad in larger numbers and are exposed to more tolerant societies, will bring more tolerant attitudes back to the Kingdom.
12. (S/NF) While supportive of the idea of elections as a positive development in Saudi society, al-Nimr dismissed municipal councils as non-political, ineffective institutions with purview over only basic functions, and an inability to exercise authority over even those issues. He cited the fact (unconfirmed by post) that Diriyah, the ancestral home of the
al-Saud, receives a larger municipal budget than Qatif
despite Qatif having several times the population of Diriyah, as proof that municipal governance is simply another area in which the regime's discriminatory policies manifest themselves.
13. (S/NF) Al-Nimr's private remarks were consistent with his previous public statements in their disregard for the SAG,
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their support of foreign intervention on behalf of the Saudi Shi'a, and their inferences that the Sheikh at the very least will not denounce the idea of violent uprising. On the sensitive topic of Iran, however, the Sheikh eagerly attempted to divorce himself from the image of being an Iranian agent. Likewise, the Sheikh was much more complimentary of the U.S. - perhaps even somewhat disarming in his recounting of U.S. foreign policy in World War II, the Cold War, and the Carter administration - than he has been previously portrayed. Though it is certainly possible that al-Nimr changed his tune on these issues for the company of a
U.S. diplomat, the pace, passion and certainty with which he spoke seemed to reflect true belief, and not cold political calculation or manipulation. In any case, his ideas seem to be internally contradictory. While it might be possible at a theoretical level to distance himself from Iran while also arguing the right of Saudi Shi'a to seek foreign assistance, at the de facto level Iran is certainly the only country at
this time that might work with the Saudi Shi'a to undermine SAG control - a future Shi'a Iraq being the only other actor of any possibility. It is perhaps this reality that leads some local analysts to believe that al-Nimr would not hesitate to join Iranian agents in a possible uprising.
14. (S/NF) Also notable for the purpose of predicting
al-Nimr's future behavior was his recognition of his own
growing popularity, an observation supported by many in the community. Post contacts have described al-Nimr as someone who in previous years was largely an apolitical religious figure, and is still a secondary player in local politics. These contacts point to the death of Ayatollah Shirazi as the moment when al-Nimr began to take more political stances, his politicization a product of desire for greater community influence. Assuming al-Nimr's primary goals are greater
rights for Shi'a and greater personal influence, it would
seem his plan will be to continue forcefully calling for
reform and creating unrest, endearing him to the disaffected, and fitting with his vision of instability as being the only catalyst for real change in the Kingdom.