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Saudi Arabia – Iran: what’s different this time?

Saudi Arabia has never hidden the fact that its preferred method of doing away with those it considers criminals is to behead them.  In 2013, five Yemenis were not only beheaded, but they were also crucified because they took part in an armed robbery in which a Saudi national died.  And since King Salman accessed the throne, there have been more executions; 134 in 2015 against 90 in 2014.  Yet, apart from some lukewarm condemnations, no one has batted an eyelid at these executions, especially no one in the region.  However, things changed this week with the execution last week of 47 people, among whom the Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who has been a vocal critic of the kingdom’s treatment of its Shiite or Shia minority.

Of course, the reaction of Iran, a predominantly Shia country, wasn’t long in coming.  Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran after ransacking it.  On that same Saturday, protesters attacked the Saudi consulate in the city of Mashhad and tore a flag.  On the diplomatic front, a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry, Hosein Jaberi-Ansari, in the wake of the execution of the cleric said, “it is clear that this barren and irresponsible policy will have consequences for those endorsing it, and the Saudi government will have to pay for pursuing this policy.”

For the Saudi kingdom however, they simply executed “a criminal” and it doesn’t have any lesson to receive from Iran of which the kingdom said was “blatantly interfering in its affairs.”  On Monday, the kingdom cut off diplomatic ties with Iran which it accused of having “distributed weapons and planted terrorist cells in the region.”  Many of its allies have also cut, or downgraded diplomatic times with the Islamic Republic.

This is not the first time there has been tension between the two countries.  Iran’s nuclear programme and the deaths of Iranian pilgrims at the Hajj in 1987 and again last year brought out the latent hostilities to the fore.  The aftermath of the tensions of 1987 led to the severing of diplomatic ties between the countries in 1988.  The relation was restored only after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuweit.

The U.S. state department spokesman John Kirby has spoken of the need for “leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions.”

“We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential,” he added.

The “cold war” between the two countries is not showing any sign of thawing.  For Riyadh, doing away with the cleric is a point scored against Tehran.  Instead of seeing the cleric as a pro-democracy activist he styled himself as, Saudi Arabia saw him as an agent sent by Tehran to destabilise the eastern province where he was based, a predominantly Shia area but oil-rich part of Saudi Arabia.

As for Iran, its Revolutionary Guard elite military force has promised retaliation and it is a threat Abdulaziz al-Sager, the head of the Gulf Research Centre warns us to take seriously.

“The revolutionary guard is part of the Iranian government and their threats should be taken seriously because they control militia in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and I would not be surprised if they use it to act against the Saudis.”

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