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Iran-Saudi tiff: bad news for troubled region

Iran-Saudi tiff: bad news for troubled region

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Iran-Saudi tiff: bad news for troubled region

By Sajjad Malik
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 5, 2016

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A Bahraini protester holds a picture of Baqer al-Nimr in Daih, Bahrain, Jan. 4, 2016. A demonstration was held on Monday in Daih to protest against Saudi Arabia's execution of Baqer al-Nimr, a prominent Shia scholar who was known to be an open opponent to the Sunni ruling dynasty. [Xinhua/Hassan Jamali]

Saudi Arabia and Iran are clearly on a war path. It started with the execution of a known Shiite cleric, namely, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, by the Saudi government on the charges of terrorism. The Iranians reacted with extreme anger by attacking the Saudi embassy. As a result, the Iranian government failed in its international obligation to safeguard the premises.

If Iran's anger was beyond justified limits, the Saudis went a step farther by severing diplomatic ties. It also displayed their regional clout, as Bahrain and Sudan followed path of Riyadh and cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran while the UAE downgraded its ties.

Saudi-Iranian enmity is not a secret. Their problem is partly historical, partly religious but mostly strategic. The two countries adhere to different schools of thought and Islamic jurisprudence. Saudis are predominantly Sunnis, just like the majority of other Muslims around the world. Iran's overwhelming population observes Shiite Islam which also has millions of followers in the Arab world as well as in other Muslim countries. The differences between the two schools are sharp, antagonistic and reactionary.

With the mixing of modern politics, the sectarian differences have become more radical. This phenomenon is more pronounced by the hardline Sunnis and several militant groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and Taliban among others. These groups consider Shiites as heretics and regularly attack them. The worst form of this rivalry can be seen in Iraq, Syria and sometimes in Pakistan.

The radicals among the Shiites are no less dangerous. Those aware of Hezbollah are well aware. Iran faces regular accusations from the West and Saudi Arabia for supporting militant groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and in other places. However, Iran denies these charges.

The issue of Sheikh Nimr could be partly explained within the context of the sectarian strife, but let us also be clear about his political background and keep in mind the particular Saudi justice system. Born in Saudi Arabia and educated in Iran, the cleric was the most vocal critic of the royal government. He demanded elections and led the protests in 2011-12 during the time of Arab Spring. He had also warned of the secession of the eastern province of Al-Awamiyah. It proved too much for the government to stand, and he was shot in 2012 and later arrested for promoting violence. He was given the death sentence in 2014.

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