Saudi-Iran Rift Threatens Syria Diplomacy

Saudi-Iran Rift Threatens Syria Diplomacy

This story was updated 3:10 p.m. on Monday with Bahrain, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates downgrading or cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran, as an escalating war of words between the two archrivals threatened to derail a renewed international bid to halt the conflict in Syria.

Riyadh on Sunday gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave Saudi Arabia after Iranian leaders condemned the execution of a popular Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, and after protesters stormed the Sunni kingdom’s embassy in Tehran in anger over his death. Three Sunni-ruled countries followed suit on Monday, with Bahrain and Sudan cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran while the United Arab Emirates scaled back its ties and withdrew its ambassador from Tehran.

The rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran came at a delicate moment in the fledgling diplomatic effort to launch peace talks later this month between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and opposition representatives.

The U.N. mediator for the Syrian conflict, Staffan de Mistura, was due to hold talks in Riyadh on Monday to pave the way for the negotiations in Geneva. But Western diplomats are concerned the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran could poison the atmosphere and wreck the discussions before they even begin.

The mood “can’t be good,” one U.N.-based diplomat told Foreign Policy.

In the wake of the Saudi Arabia-Iran tensions, opposition negotiators — most of whom are backed by Riyadh — will likely take a more critical stance toward the Assad regime’s patrons, Iran and Russia. In turn, it’s expected they will be even less willing to compromise over the composition of the opposition’s delegation at the planned talks, the diplomat said.

As a result, it will be up to the United States and Russia to try to shore up the diplomatic effort and limit the damage from the weekend’s events.

“I should think much hinges again on the U.S. and Russia if they want to salvage this while we try to keep the process alive,” the diplomat said.

Mistura, who is also due to hold talks in Tehran this week, has been struggling to forge common ground among major powers over which Syrian rebel groups should be allowed to take part in the talks. Russia has pushed to bar a number of groups from the discussions, labeling them as “terrorists” and equating them with the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

In his visit to the region, the United Nations envoy will be working to keep “this crisis as separated as possible from harming the planned Syrian political process,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, said in an email.

The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, appealed Sunday for calm and told Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, that the acrimony between Riyadh and Tehran risked derailing diplomacy on Syria.

“The international community and the main regional actors are actively working together to support a political solution for the crisis in Syria and to join forces against [terrorist] groups, and these efforts should not be jeopardized by new instability,” Mogherini said in a statement.

Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, tweeted that Saudi Arabia’s decision to sever diplomatic relations with Iran was a “distinctly bad move” that would raise tensions in the region.

Western governments and human rights groups had appealed to Saudi Arabia not to go ahead with the execution of Nimr, an outspoken critic of the Saudi royal family. Washington had kept its concerns private but had also voiced its dismay at plans to mete out the death penalty to the cleric, who was executed along with 46 others on Saturday, U.S. officials said. Most of those executed were Sunnis accused of participating in al Qaeda attacks on Saudi soil, but rights groups said some were merely political dissidents.

Amnesty International accused the Saudi monarchy of using the death penalty to “settle scores and crush dissidents.”

After the executions were announced, the State Department issued a statement saying it was concerned that the move risked “exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on his Twitter account that the Saudis would face “divine revenge” for the execution of Nimr, which he called a “political mistake” and a “crime.”

In Tehran, crowds on Saturday set fire to the Saudi Embassy, smashed windows, and tossed papers from the roof. Iranian officials criticized the violence and promised to punish those who damaged property.

But the Saudi Foreign Ministry said Iran was guilty of “blind sectarianism” and that by defending “terrorist” acts, Tehran was a “partner in their crimes in the entire region.”

Nimr had become a leader of Shiite opponents to the regime, leading protests until he was arrested in 2012. But Nimr insisted he had never advocated violence.

Apart from severing diplomatic relations, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said trade links with Iran would be cut and air traffic links stopped. But he later said that Iranian pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Mecca and Medina would still be allowed to enter the country.

Western diplomats and analysts said the tensions would only bolster hard-liners in both countries, feeding a mounting Sunni-Shiite conflict playing out in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

A senior U.S. administration official acknowledged that the heated rhetoric between Riyadh and Tehran represented yet another hurdle for diplomacy on Syria.

“The tension caused by these executions isn’t helpful in trying to move past some of the sectarian tensions with respect to Syria,” the official told FP.

But he added: “I think everybody is still trying to move forward.”

The United States is expected to repeat its appeal for restraint and calm when the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, Richard Stengel, meets the Saudi undersecretary for international communication and media, Abdulmohsen Alyas, in Washington on Monday.

But relations between the two allies have been marked by friction and discord in recent years, with Riyadh distrustful of President Barack Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran and frustrated at his reluctance to confront the Syrian regime head on.

In another sign of a frayed alliance, Washington has failed to persuade Saudi Arabia to wrap up its unsuccessful military intervention in Yemen. The Pentagon continues to provide intelligence and refueling support for Saudi air raids that have been denounced by human rights groups for causing numerous civilian casualties.

Analysts and former U.S. officials say the Saudi leadership’s move to cut off diplomatic ties with Iran reflects its mounting anxiety over the threat posed by Tehran in a competition for regional power. But the oil-rich kingdom is also rattled by discontent at home, plunging oil prices, battlefield setbacks in Yemen, and speculation about who will take the throne in the future.

“The Saudis face a potentially perfect storm: low oil prices, bogged down in Yemen, multiple terrorist threats, succession questions, and trouble with Iran,” said author Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “They are trying to intimidate their domestic dissidents.”

FPs Colum Lynch contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Jan. 4, 2016: Federica Mogherini is the European Union’s foreign-policy chief; a previous version of this article misspelled her first name. Also, Abdulmohsen Alyas is the Saudi undersecretary for international communication and media; a previous version of this article incorrectly identified him as the minister of culture and information.