The war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the breakdown in diplomatic ties is bad news for President Hassan Rouhani and his efforts to bring Iran out of isolation. It also threatens to escalate the sectarian tensions pushing the region deeper into crisis.
The 3 January mob attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad, protesting the execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia, was reminiscent of both the attack on the US embassy in the wake of the 1979 revolution and the 2011 ransacking of the British embassy in Tehran.
The consequences of these attacks were severe for Iran, initially branding Iran as a pariah state and subsequently reinforcing that image. The latest attack on the Saudi embassy is consistent with this pattern, one that Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif have been trying very hard to change. In his first speech at the United Nations general assembly, Rouhani spoke of Iran’s commitment to a new era of peace, dialogue and moderation. He promised Iran to be an anchor of stability in the region.
With the signing of the nuclear deal with the P5+1, which promised to bring Iran’s nuclear program under an exceptionally strict inspection regime in return for the removal of sanctions, the Rouhani/Zarif team appeared to have some significant success. They sought to present Iran as a “normal” state and shake off the baggage of ideology in its international affairs. The 2015 invitation to join peace talks over the Syrian crisis following the signing of the nuclear deal was the first tangible dividend of the Rouhani approach.
But Rouhani’s success is not irreversible. His internal critics have accused Rouhani of compromising too much and being weak against international and regional bullies, code names for the United States and Saudi Arabia. A senior commander of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, for example, bluntly rejected the deal – a message that was echoed by the Kayhan daily (close to the Revolutionary Guards). Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of Kayhan, wrote:
Even by simply looking at the deal you can see some vital red lines of the Islamic Republic have not been preserved.
The hardliners were already critical of the government’s handling of the Hajj disaster when more than 400 Iranian pilgrims died in Mecca. The execution of Sheikh al-Nimr offered an opportunity for them to lash out at Saudi Arabia and undermine the Rouhani government in one move.
The conservative daily Kayhan ran an editorial which labelled the Saudi monarchy an extension of the US-Zionism in the region, fanning the fires that engulfed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The Saudis have complained that the Iranian security forces facilitated the attack, a believable charge given that the security apparatus is aligned with the hardline faction in Iranian politics.
The diplomatic breakdown puts the Rouhani government in a very tough situation. Rouhani has tried to be firm but measured in his response, without looking weak. He called the execution of al-Nimr a political move to silence dissent and a violation of human rights, but didn’t go any further.
Following the ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consulate in Mashhad, Rouhani took to Twitter to condemn the attacks and asked the interior ministry to prosecute such acts of extremism. But his position is increasingly untenable when the Supreme Leader has come out to condemn the Saudis who have “shed the blood of martyrs”.
This diplomatic crisis, expounded by the severance of diplomatic ties by Bahrain and Sudan, is a U-turn for Iran’s fortunes in the region. Since its inception, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been very much aware of the limitations of sectarian identity for its regional ambitions. While tied to a minority sect in Islam, Iran has consciously advocated Muslim unity to overcome the Shia-Sunni divide. Unfortunately for Iranian leaders, the Syrian crisis quickly turned into a sectarian conflict with Iran and Saudi Arabia supporting opposite ends of the war. It is common in Iranian public commentary to draw a line connecting the Islamic State (Isis) with the Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia.
With this latest row, sectarian tensions and clashes are likely to rise. There are reports of clashes in the Sunni populated parts of Iran and the Shia populated parts of Saudi Arabia. The sectarian scourge is destabilising the whole region, from Syria to Yemen. That’s damaging to everyone. But the sectarian conflict hurts Iran (especially Rouhani’s vision of Iran) most, because it boxes Tehran in a corner with only Shia friends. That only validates the charge that Iran is pushing a sectarian agenda in the region.
Rouhani’s attempt at normalising Iran’s relations with the international community and its neighbouring countries has hit a wall. Recent developments threaten to undo his gains on the international stage, and undermine his ability to keep his internal critics at bay.
This is likely to pan out badly for the reformist camp in the parliamentary elections next month. Reformists have traditionally suffered at the ballot box in times of crisis. While Rouhani’s international performance and the signing of the nuclear deal was a source of optimism for them, the latest downturn and the growing assertiveness of the hardline and conservative factions do not bode well for a reformist ascendancy in the next parliament.