Saudi Arabia's execution of a Shiite cleric has put the Middle East on edge — and set up Tehran for its favorite role.
Riyadh rang in 2016 with the executions of 47 people, its largest mass execution in over 35 years. Amid detainees accused of supporting al Qaeda was one figure with a far different pedigree: Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a dissident Saudi Shiite cleric, who had been imprisoned by Riyadh since July 2012. His death has already rocked the fragile geopolitical order in the Persian Gulf: While the Saudis have likely used this crisis to push their own cynical goals, Iran is also attempting to reap the benefits of Nimr’s execution.
Understanding how Tehran plays a role in fostering crises of this nature is important. The Islamic Republic sees itself as engaged in a long-term struggle for control of the region’s Shiite community, which represents a tool for Iran to counter its main Sunni regional foes and promote its theocratic absolute velayat-e faqih, which forms the basis of Iran’s clerical rule, and so-called “Islamic Resistance” ideologies.
So how did a Saudi Shiite sheikh who was a “second-tier political player,” in the words of one U.S. diplomat, become the centerpiece of a regional crisis with sectarian dimensions? And how did his detention and execution come to assist Tehran?
After Nimr’s arrest by Saudi authorities on terrorism charges that included seeking “foreign meddling,” and particularly following his 2014 death sentence, Iran and its proxies regularly issued threats to the Saudis, vowing dire consequences if they killed him. Iran’s elevation of a cleric who found most of his support among radical youths helped legitimize radical policy options in line with existing Iranian strategy. In much the same way that the defense of the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine south of Damascus, Syria, has been used as a religious legitimation for Iran to pull in Shiite jihadis to preserve the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Nimr’s imprisonment was cast as the cause célèbre for the Islamic Republic’s campaign against Riyadh.
We’ve already seen this dynamic in action, as a spokesman for the Iranian government said Saudi Arabia will “pay a high price” for Nimr’s execution. Then, as police looked on, Iranian mobs ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei went even further, saying that the Saudis would suffer “divine revenge” for Nimr’s death.
Ever since Tehran started beating the drum over Nimr, its Shiite Islamist proxies across the Middle East have followed suit.
In early January 2015, Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia and Iran proxy group listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, released a propaganda song that threatened the Saudis with an attack if they carried out the sentenced execution. The tune also included the rare addition of English translations and was likely aimed at Western, particularly American, audiences. The song blared, “The enemies of God will not be safe.… Ali’s [Shiite Islam’s first imam’s] enemies fear him [Nimr].… We will avenge Sheikh Nimr if he is executed.… Our brigades will roar like a lion.”
It wasn’t the only time that Kataib Hezbollah would threaten Saudi Arabia over Nimr’s fate. In March, the Iraqi militia posted another video showing trucks loaded with rockets and balaclava-wearing armed militiamen driving up to the Iraqi-Saudi border.
Iran’s other proxies in the region have adopted a similar stance. Starting in July, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, another Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia in Iraq, ran a promotional video to show support for Nimr, and Lebanese Hezbollah pushed solidarity campaigns for the Saudi cleric.
Following Nimr’s execution, Iran’s allies in the region issued nearly matching statements condemning Saudi Arabia and at times blaming the United States for the cleric’s death. Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kataib Hezbollah, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada are just some of the Iranian-backed and ideologically loyal Shiite militias that toed Iran’s line on the issue.
The Iraqi Shiite militias loyal to Iran claimed they would retaliate against Saudi Arabia at a time and place of their choosing. Kataib Hezbollah later announced that the execution had given it the “green light” to target Saudi interests in Iraq. These Iran proxies also amplified threats by shadowy organizations: Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite militia and Iran proxy active in Iraq and Syria, for instance, claimed that an otherwise unspecified “Resistance in Qatif” had threatened to attack the Ras Tanura refinery, an important oil port in Saudi Arabia’s majority Shiite Eastern Province.
The campaign has not simply been limited to mere threats. In mid-December, around 26 Qatari hunters — some of whom are members of the Qatari royal family — were kidnapped by some 100 armed men on the Iraq-Saudi border. While nine were released, the rest are still being held by the gunmen. One of the conditions for the detained Qataris’ release had been the Saudi government’s release of Nimr. (Kataib Hezbollah has been accused of kidnapping the Qataris, but has denied it.)
These messages are part and parcel of Tehran’s geopolitical strategy — a way of asserting that it can and will protect its Shiite coreligionists. The fact that the factions of the Shiite “Islamic Resistance” across the Middle East acted as one further demonstrates Iranian power and the Islamic Resistance’s ability and willingness to project power on behalf of Iran’s regional goals.
Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which sits on the Persian Gulf and is a vital economic hub for Saudi Arabia, plays a major role in Iran’s sectarian vision. This is the region where the kingdom pumps most of its oil — and even relatively limited strife there, or an attack on its oil facilities, could represent a significant threat to the Saudi economy.
The area was Nimr’s home, and its Shiite majority has suffered various forms of discrimination by Saudi Arabia’s Sunni state. Shiites of this region also often link themselves historically and socially to Bahrain’s Shiite community. Like the Saudi Shiites, Bahrain’s Shiites have also protested their Sunni-led government and have suffered discrimination under the rule of the Khalifa family, which is closely allied with Riyadh.
These populations’ sense of being oppressed, both real and imagined, represents a win-win situation for Iran. Harsher Saudi or Bahraini repression of their Shiite populations will mean a greater chance that more Saudi and Bahraini Shiites will eventually come to view the Islamic Republic as a true partner or protector. Even before Nimr’s execution, he had become a symbol for radical Shiite Bahraini militants — who, according to the U.S. intelligence community’s 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment, received aid from Iran — and a symbol to justify their violent tactics.
Still, Iran’s use of Nimr’s case also had other ideological goals beyond basic power projection and winning over Shiite communities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. While stoking deep-seated notions of Shiite oppression, Iran simultaneously aims to counter its Shiite competition. Tehran has worked hard to usurp and utilize the influence of other religious leaders — for example, exploiting Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s words and images to acquire Shiite recruits to fight in Syria or support Iran’s proxy militia efforts in Iraq, despite Sistani’s opposition to embroiling Iraqis in Syria’s war and disagreements with the basic tenets of Iran’s regime.
Nimr, rather than being a radical cleric who completely toed Tehran’s line, also offered some differing opinions on major issues. Now, it serves Iran’s purposes to posthumously anoint him a “martyr” to its cause.
For some time, there was confusion over whether Nimr himself fell into Iran’s ideological camp. In one leaked 2008 diplomatic cable, a U.S. diplomat wrote that Nimr was a “hard-line, independent actor, not directly affiliated with either the Shirazi or Hizbollahi [i.e., Saudi Hezbollah] movements.”
But Nimr’s relationship with Iranian-sponsored ideology was a somewhat complicated issue. He was a follower of Sayyid Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi, who once had a close relationship with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, only to later have ideological disagreements — particularly over the tenets of absolute velayat-e faqih. Still, Nimr had spoken positively of velayat-e faqih and had called for it to be adopted in Bahrain, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. He also backed Iran’s nuclear program.
Meanwhile, Nimr also denounced Syria’s Assad, the same man being propped up by thousands of Shiite jihadis and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members sent by Iran. That inconvenient fact was ignored by Iran’s allies. In the “usurp and utilize” form typical of Iran’s ideological movement, Kataib Hezbollah linked its retribution for Nimr’s execution to its fight in Syria: It published photos of a fighter posing in front of a rocket aimed at targets in Aleppo together with a sign saying the attack was “revenge” for the cleric’s death.
Nimr was also rolled into Iran’s radical ideological concepts of muqawama, or “resistance.” In one tweet from Supreme Leader Khamenei’s account, Nimr was included in a pantheon of “martyrs” and injured leaders who have been heralded as representative of Iran’s “Islamic Resistance” model. Nimr’s image appeared alongside that of Ibrahim Zakzaky, the recently wounded and imprisoned leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, a Nigerian Shiite Iran proxy group; Samir Quntar, the formerly imprisoned leader of a 1979 attack on Israel that killed a family and who was part of a 2008 prisoner exchange and then recently killed in an Israeli airstrike in Syria; and Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin, a Sunni imam and key promoter of suicide bombings, who was killed in a 2004 Israeli missile attack.
Events like Nimr’s imprisonment and execution have a profound effect on local Shiite populations. But Saudi Arabia and Iran are viewing these situations from on high, in the context of a regional struggle for power. The Islamic Republic aims to use this crisis to bolster the state’s ideology, expand its influence over regional Shiite communities it hopes to lead, and showcase its ability to project power.
As Mark Twain once wrote, “Sometimes a man’s make and disposition are such that his misery-machine is able to do nearly all the business.” Right now, the region’s misery-machine is in full motion — and it is cranking out a future of crises ready to be manipulated by all sides.
Photo credit: HAIDAR MOHAMMED ALI/AFP/Getty Images