Iran has chosen to escalate its ongoing war of words with Saudi Arabia this week by accusing the Saudis of bombing the Iranian Embassy in Yemen on Thursday night.
Iranian state run media, IRNA, announced the attack stating that the Saudi Arabian Airforce had targeted the embassy, and injured several staff members. Later, reports downgraded this bulletin stating missiles fell in the vicinity of the Embassy, and a few were injured by shrapnel.
According to Reuters, eye witnesses from the Yemeni capital of Sana’a indicated this may not be the case, stating that a missile had exploded 2,296 feet (700 meters) from the embassy with shrapnel and rocks landing near the building.
So, is this simply a case of overzealous Iranians stirring up trouble with their Sunni neighbors? Perhaps the Iranians are deeply upset over the beheading of the Shia cleric Ayatollah Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, who was a staunch critic of the ruling Saudi and Bahraini monarchies.
From the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani stating: “One does not respond to criticism by cutting off heads,” and ceasing 172.5 million dollars worth of trade, to the statements by the Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declaring “divine retribution,” Iran’s leaders are visibly upset.
The Iranians themselves have also demonstrated their ire with the destruction of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and a consul in Mashhad.
Saudi Arabia, likewise, is understandably cooling its relations with Iran with equal vigor. Iranian diplomats were given 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia, and all diplomatic ties have been severed. In a recent report from the Economist the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, stated that the Saudi’s were not intending to make this a hostile confrontation.
“It is something that we do not foresee at all, and whoever is pushing toward that is somebody who is not in their right mind. Because a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region… For sure we will not allow any such thing.”
Perhaps this is because there are alternate proxy theaters where the tensions can be discharged.
Yemen, Syria, and Iraq
Since 2011 Saudi Arabia has been engaged in the Yemeni civil war, which it believes is being driven by Iranian support of the Houthis.
Ansar Allah, or the Houthis, as they have become known are a Zaidia Shia group from Sa’dah. Originally formed in 2004 during the insurgency against the former President Saleh, they are said to have received weaponry and training from Iran, and are regarded by the Saudis as a proxy for Iran in the region.
In the aftermath of the 2011 Yemeni Revolution the Houthis became dissatisfied with the Saudi run peace accord refusing to recognize the Saudi backed government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. In 2014-15 they seized the Yemeni capital Sanaa and the southern city of Aden, taking control of the government, and forcing President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.
In an attempt to reinstate Hadi to power, Saudi Arabia and its allies since this time have been bombing Yemen in an attempt to force the Houthis into retreat.
In Syria the original rebellion against Assad was turned into a sectarian conflict when the Saudis armed hard-line Sunni militias to fight against the Iranian supported regime of Assad, one of which was ISIS. As ISIS spread throughout Syria, Shia women and children were slaughtered, and the group soon spread to neighboring Shia led Iraq destabilizing another country.
Sectarianism or Defence
Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been rivals in the Middle East. As the recognized leading proponents of the Sunni and Shia Islamic sectarian traditions, both have a history of trying to extend their influence over the Middle East since the 1970’s.
In 1978 Iran went through a theology based revolution and started supporting Shia militant groups throughout the Middle East. From Hezbollah in Lebanon to Hezbollah al-Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, Iranian supported groups have initiated several domestic conflicts across the Middle East since the late 1980’s.
In an effort to combat this domestic disturbance and meddling, Saudi Arabia has countered the Iranian destabilization efforts by creating the Gulf Co-operation Council, and supported Sunni based groups and governments throughout the region
Far Reaching Effect
The effect of the zero sum policy making is that the entire region is often littered with conflicts based along sectarian divisions. Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq are all undergoing severe civil conflicts based around sectarian divisions, which have their roots in the Sunni Shia Cold War.
The recent cooling of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia has ruined the pending ceasefire in Yemen, and has derailed the peace negotiations in Syria and Iraq.
It has set back the fight against ISIS, which will require all surrounding states to cooperate together, and may cause further chaos as Iran ramps up its support of Shia militants in the region.
Dr. Victoria Kelly-Clark received her doctorate in political science and international relations from the Australian National University. She has lived in Central Asia and specializes in Russia and its former Soviet territories. For more information, go to Central Asia and Beyond.