Saudi-Iranian tensions: Regional turmoil and Turkey
by Veysel Kurt
Jan 08, 2016 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Veysel Kurt
Jan 08, 2016 12:00 am
With the increasing tension in relations with Iran due to the Syrian crisis, while relations with Saudi Arabia have been gaining speed in recent times, Turkey is required to take a more careful approach in politics
The news that the 47 people executed by Saudi Arabia included the Shiite religious leader Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr caused a sudden change in the region's agenda in the first days of 2016. Harsh announcements came from various Iranian political actors. While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that, "divine justice would get a hold of Saudi politicians," President Hassan Rouhani wrote on Twitter that he "condemned the execution of al-Nimr." A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry said that "Saudi Arabia will pay dearly for this," and the Revolutionary Guard, in its turn, said that, "Saudi Arabia will pay the cost of this shameful act." The justification for cutting diplomatic ties between the two countries was the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. After this incident, Saudi Arabia announced that it had cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran. Because all of this happened in only two days, the question in mind was if these tensions would transform into a conflict between the two countries.
Not content with just this, after Saudi Arabia's announcement that it had also suspended all commercial relations with Iran, including civilian flights, Jordan, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) all made announcements in support of Saudi Arabia. Bahrain also followed suit and cut off relations with Iran. The fact that the religious persona executed carried the title of ayatollah and that he was a prominent figure among Shiites in Saudi Arabia, will help to explain the protests going on, not just at the state level, but also in Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq and even Turkey. Leaving aside the historical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it is not possible to understand the rising tension without keeping in mind the crises in the region for the past five years and the alliances that have occurred because of them. The developments clearly demonstrate that the issue has moved from being a tension just between two countries, to a regional dimension.
It is necessary to draw attention to two important developments that paved the way for regional change in recent times. The first is the change in U.S. military presence in the Middle East and the second is the process begun by the Arab rebellions that caused the toppling or jarring of political authority in certain countries. With its military presence and strategy of intervention, the U.S. was a type of guarantor for the established regional order. However, with the pullback from President Barack Obama's administration from the region due to the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, a power vacuum occurred in the region. Regional actors wanting to benefit from this vacuum chose to act in a more aggressive manner. Iran gained a much more influential position in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, and is the first example of this situation. The U.S. pullback after toppling Saddam Hussain, without re-establishing political authority, left Iran a large space to fill in Iraq, which has a majority Shiite population. Countries where political authority was weakened or lost due to the Arab rebellions became areas of struggle for regional actors.
Syria and Yemen became countries where the aforementioned struggle turned into actual conflict. Iran's following of irredentist politics by using sectarian elements caused the tension to be interpreted as a sectarian conflict. We are, in fact, witnessing a power struggle. Saudi Arabia is after forming a large and strong coalition led by itself against Iran. In addition, alarm bells go off when it considers the U.S. The fundamental reason for it escalating tensions within the region is this.
Iran is considering the nearing elections, on one hand, while also attempting to protect the regional advantages it has gained over the last 15 years. For this reason, it must abort the U.S. from giving its support to the Saudis. This is where things get complicated for Iran. It is known that in the upcoming parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections, the reformists have quite an advantage. The Basij attack on the Saudi Embassy means an escalation in tensions, and this gives the reformists an advantage in the elections. Saudi Arabia also looks to benefit from this polarization. Saudi Arabia will attempt to use this advantage to strengthen and, if possible, widen the regional alliance it has established with its operations in Yemen. Attempting this through opposition to Iran is very convenient. To go back to the question of if the tension will transform into a conflict between the two countries, there are many reasons to say no. The proxy war has been in third world countries such as Syria and Yemen, and has continued and has not reached its limit. So it is not expected that a direct conflict will break out between the two countries. However, the tensions will spread out to the regional level and we will see a confrontation among Saudi and Iran - and their allies.
The tensing of relations with Iran due to the Syrian crisis and relations with Saudi Arabia have been gaining strategic speed in recent times, and this has required Turkey to follow much more careful politics. The fact that relations with Iran have become more strained is no reason for Turkey to directly take sides in the crisis. However, it is necessary to keep in mind the potential for sectarian politics to have a potential negative effect on Turkey. It will be useful to remember that the discomfort about this issue came from the most authorized of people. Therefore, it is not hard to see that Turkey will stay away from sectarian discourses in the context of struggle and conflict. Iran expects that Turkey will maintain a neutral attitude on the present crises. Statements from Turkish decision makers do not have a tone that would please or displease either side. However, Turkey's attitude is not yet set, and it is necessary to keep in mind two factors that could determine this attitude, which are also influential in regional politics - first, Iran's attitude from here on out in the crisis Turkey is experiencing with Russia, and second, the meeting that is expected to be organized on the Syrian crisis on Jan. 25, and its aftermath.
* Ph.D candidate at the department of political science and international relations at İstanbul University, SETA researcher