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4 January 2016

What you need to know about Saudi Arabia and Iran

Why has Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran - and what's the broader context of the rift?

By New Statesman

What’s happened?

Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran, giving diplomats 48 hours to leave the country.

The kingdom made the move on Sunday after protestors stormed its embassy in Tehran.

Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabian foreign minister, has accused Iranian authorities of supporting the attack, claiming that their diplomatic representative had several requests for help ignored. The Gulf Cooperation council has additionally condemned the attacks, saying that Iran must bear responsibility for failing to protect the Saudi diplomatic mission.

The protests came following Saudi Arabia’s execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia religious figure known for his criticism of the Saudi regime. Nimr had previously studied theology for over a decade in predominantly Shia Iran.

Speaking to Reuters on Monday, Jubeir said “there is no escalation on the part of Saudi Arabia. Our moves are all reactive. It is the Iranians who went into Lebanon. It is the Iranians who sent their Qods Force and their Revolutionary Guards into Syria.”

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“Iran’s history is full of negative interference and hostility in Arab issues”, he said, suggesting Iran had also “distributed weapons and planted terrorist cells in the region”. 

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Bahrain and Sudan have both followed Saudi Arabia in cutting diplomatic ties. Additionally, UAE has downgraded its diplomatic team to Iran: it has recalled its ambassador but will continue to uphold trade links.

The background

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the key Sunni and Shia powers in the Middle East, with tensions long brewing between the two nations – and each respectively blaming the other for stoking conflict. 

As this piece at The Conversation explains, current tensions can be traced back to Iran’s 1979 revolution, when the new Islamic Republic added religious complications to a growing political rivalry. These divides have subsequently coloured more recent debates over Syria and Yemen. In November, Michael Axworthy outlined how sectarian splits have underpinned conflict in the region.

More recently, Saudi Wahhabism and the country’s resulting religious policies have come under increasing fire from human rights campaigners and those who seek peace in the region. Last summer, Mark Leonard noted how Iran’s traditional loathing of the United States was being superceded by suspicion towards Saudi Arabia.

What next?

It’s unclear. So far, developments are largely continuing along sectarian lines, with protestors taking to the streets in Baghdad and Iraq’s Shi’ite cities while Sunni states rally around Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, international concern is growing. In a rare foray into Middle Eastern diplomacy, China has expressed its concerns over the developing situation. (It’s worth noting that China is a huge commodity consumer, and was by 2012 the second-largest importer of crude oil after the United States). Russia has also called on Saudi Arabia, Iran and others to show restraint in their actions, while starting that attacking diplomatic missions is not a reasonable means of protest.

Reuters now reports that Saudi Arabia is seeking to halt flights and trading with Iran.