AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz
Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr was executed on January 2nd. Nimr’s family grieves, joined in mourning by millions of displaced and dismembered civilians in Syria — while corpses continue to pile up in Yemen. As sectarian tensions in the Middle East flare up and diplomatic ties between Iran and Sunni countries are severed, the Iranian people may be the only ones with anything left to gain from escalating regional tensions.
Saudi Arabia’s execution of the outspoken al-Nimr occurred in spite of numerous warnings from variegated sources, including Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia, political rivals—nay, arch-nemeses, have been fueling opposing sides of proxy wars in the region for decades, recently using Syria and Yemen as an outlet for their sectarian divisions.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are more similar than either would like to admit. Both are archaic, religious, autocratic regimes lacking internal political cohesion and respect for rule of law. Both sponsor terrorism and sectarian violence. Both depend on oil, exploit the religious beliefs of their populations by way of polarizing, politicized religious propaganda, and both have equally atrocious human rights records—especially with regards to gender parity and the right to life. In fact, there are only two differences that come to mind: first, that one is Sunni, while the other is Shi'a.
The second? Saudi Arabia is more popular. Saudi Arabia is invited to lead human rights panels and awarded billion-dollar trading contracts—for arms, no less! Meanwhile, Iran is (rightfully) crucified on those same panels, subject to economic sanctions (which hurt the population more than the regime) and vilified in popular media. Outnumbered, Iran has lost the oil-pumping, autocratic-popularity contest. At least, until a few months ago.
In 2015, after 9 years of negotiations, came the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a widely publicized international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. The widespread sanctions against the Iranian regime were lifted. US-Iranian diplomatic relations were rekindled; after three decades, the Presidents of Iran and the United States of America spoke directly by phone. The stage was set for Iran to (eventually) become the next Saudi Arabia—or at least to rival it, as the next Middle-Eastern regime with a free-pass for domestic barbarism.
Until it wasn’t. Saudi Arabia, feeling its Western-sanctioned Sunni hegemony threatened, brought tensions to a head with Nimr’s execution. Knowing the execution would hinder attempts at mitigating regional tensions, Saudi Arabia simultaneously withdrew from the ceasefire agreement in Yemen.
It’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia would have done this for petty provocative value, but rather for the ensuing diplomatic cesspool, which would escalate until every actor with a stake in the region was compelled to pick a side. In a historical, deeply-entrenched, and sectarian conflict—paralleled only by Israel and Palestine—tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran will not simply subside through empty diplomatic maneuvering.
America would eventually be forced to pick between one of two evils: the pious Persians or sacerdotal Saudis. Saudi Arabia acted knowing that when the time came, its billion-dollar trading relationships would make it the stronger horse to bet on. Thus, in an impetuous endeavour to offset Iran’s growing international role in the months following the Iran deal, the Saudis pulled the last card from their sanctimonious sleeves, hoping to polarize the region and impose a diplomatic dichotomy: the friend of my friend is my enemy.
If Saudi Arabia succeeds in its exacerbating regional tensions, Iran will inevitably lose some of its new friends. When that happens, the United States will not overlook Iran’s human rights violations as they have for the Saudi royals . Canada will not sign the longest weapons contract in their history with Iran, as they have with Saudi Arabia. Iran will not become Britain’s biggest market in the Middle East, receiving over £60bn in investments. Instead, Britain will continue to condemn Iran (and largely, Iran alone) for executions; the United States will lambaste Iran for its treatment of women and testing of missiles; Canada will cut off Iranian-Canadian citizens from their homeland, closing their only embassy and freezing their bank accounts. If the House of Saud gets its way, Iran will not become the next Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic of Iran isn’t looking forward to this day, but the Iranian people should be.
It is in the best interests of the Iranian people to watch their regime fall from popularity; for Saudi’s political sadism to be the sole recipient of the Western stamp of approval. Let there then be no incentives for Western actors to overlook Iran’s atrocious human rights record. If Western actors will not help weaken Iran’s ruthless regime, at the very least, let them not strengthen it.