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Saudi and Iranian diplomatic crisis : Heading towards regional cold war

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Tensions between Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni power, and Shiite-dominated Iran have erupted into a full-blown diplomatic crisis, sparking widespread worries of regional instability. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia and Iran are long-standing rivals for pre-dominance in West Asia and the region’s heavy-weights; they see themselves as the leaders of the Sunni and Shia world, respectively.

As a result of the tension, ties of a number of countries adversely affected. While Bahrain has cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, the United Arab Emirates has “downgraded” relations with Tehran. Sudan expelled the Iranian ambassador and the entire Iranian diplomatic mission in the country and also recalled its ambassador from Iran. Kuwait also recalled its ambassador to Tehran in the face of growing international concern. These developments have formalized the Sunni-Shiite polarisation that has fuelled the chaotic proxy wars and manoeuvring across West Asia.


Why the tension is mounting?

  1. The tension mounted when a Saudi state executioner beheaded the prominent Shiite dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This caused protest in Shia-dominated Iran. The unruly crowd attacked Saudi embassy in Tehran, an action that wasn’t apparently encouraged by the government. The Security Council condemned “in the strongest terms” the attacks which saw protesters firebomb the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Iran’s second- biggest city Mashhad.
  2. The Saudi government snapped diplomatic relations with Tehran and expelled its envoys from the country. The Saudis also suspended all flights to and from Iran. As the diplomatic tit-for-tat and war of words escalates between the two, others in the region and beyond are rallying behind one side or the other in a show of solidarity.
  3. The Saudi monarchy is a divided house and King Salman, and his inexperienced son, Deputy Crown  Prince Mohammad bin Salman, are adopting an aggressive posture towards the kingdom’s Shia minority to shore up mass support. The nuclear deal with the West has put Iran’s government on the defensive vis-à-vis the conservatives and the tough posture in the current spat with the Saudis could help blunt the opposition.
  4. Within Iran, there was also intense anger over the Saudis’ handling of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Before the summer, Iran temporarily halted pilgrimages to the holy city after accusations that Saudi security officials had sexually abused two Iranian teenage boys.

Possible implications:

  1. This means that the situation in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan can be expected to worsen in the near future. The west has called for calm amid fears the dispute could raise sectarian tensions across West Asia and derail efforts to resolve conflicts from Syria to Yemen
  2. Importantly, the spat will undermine the international effort to defeat the Islamic State. It could negatively impact the situation in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is hugely supported by Iran, while almost all of the rebel factions were supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States.
  3. The growing tensions could disrupt the flow of oil; it would trigger a spurt in oil prices. Saudi Arabia is the biggest producer in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, while Iran is also a key member, and there are concerns that their diplomatic spat could lead to a disruption in oil supplies.
  4. China is heavily dependent on Saudi Arabia and Iran for oil. China can’t afford a full-scale conflagration in a region, which is the source of the bulk (51.2 percent) of its energy imports. It is to be noted China has maintained military cooperation with both (Shia) Iran and (Sunni) Pakistan. China was instrumental to the development of conventional military as well as nuclear capabilities of both Muslim nations.

Impact on India: Sunnis make up more than 90 per cent of Muslims in India, but opinion is divided on the extent of their allegiance to Saudi Arabia and antipathy to Iran. India has adopted a position of neutrality since it enjoys good relations with both countries. Both India could be adversely affected due the ongoing spat. The peace in the Gulf region has vital economic and strategic significance for the country.

  • The region has seven million Indian nationals who account for about $40 billion of the $70 billion that India receives in remittances annually.
  • Saudi Arabia has the maximum number of Indian passport-holders outside the country. Saudi is one of the largest employment destination for the Indians.
  • Iran is equally important for India. A sanction-free Iran is India’s best bet in the region to advance its strategic interests, particularly with respect to Afghanistan.
  • Iran holds the key for India’s ambitious connectivity plans for the oil and gas-rich Central Asian Republics and to provide land-locked Afghanistan access to the sea via Iran’s Chabahar port, bringing down its dependence on Pakistan