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How does the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict affect Mideast diplomacy?

January 4, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
Why did Saudi Arabia execute a prominent Shiite cleric if it knew that it would inflame tensions with Iran? Judy Woodruff gets analysis of what that rivalry means for the region from Vali Nasr of John Hopkins University and Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we return to the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

I’m joined by Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute. And we welcome you both.

Randa Slim, to you first, why did the Saudis execute this cleric whom they had imprisoned already for several years?

RANDA SLIM, Middle East Institute: This is a crisis that needs to be looked at through the context of an ongoing rivalry for power between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

And this execution is a message from the Saudis to Iran, but also it’s a message to its own domestic constituency. But I think the crisis that has been caused by this execution is primarily driven by domestic factors.

We have two regimes in this case in Saudi Arabia and Iran that are acting out of fear and out of feelings of insecurity about the long-term stability of the regime. And they are using this crisis as a way to consolidate power and support internally and to send messages also regionally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Vali Nasr, the Saudis had to know that this would inflame and anger Iran.

VALI NASR, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University: Yes, they did.

And this came after another crisis which followed the death of several hundred Iranian pilgrims during a tragedy in Mecca last year. The relations got very tense. Both sides accused one another of bad intentions. And Iran had also warned about the killing of this cleric, and so had the United States.

And the killing of a cleric, particularly Shia Islam, is not a trivial matter. And the Saudis knew that this — killing a Shia cleric is not like killing any other Shia activist. And I think Randa is absolutely correct that there was a domestic factor. This execution case came a few days after the Saudis announced their first austerity package internally as a consequence of reduction of oil prices.

It also came regionally right after the United States first included Iran in the Vienna process. And then the Shia government in Iraq, with American and Iranian support, recaptured Ramadi. It looked like the Iranians were actually on much of an upswing in the region than the Saudis were. So, it’s also a signal. In addition to the domestic policy, it’s a signal to the United States as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Randa Slim, fair to say there is more animosity on the part of the Saudis toward Iran than the other way around?

RANDA SLIM: I think, look, the Iranian threat has all been prioritized by the Saudi political establishment.

And anti-Iran feelings, anti-Shia feelings are also prevalent among large segments of the Saudi population. But I hate to disagree with my friend Vali, but there is also — on the Iranian side, there are certain hard-liners inside the Iranian regime that have approved of the attacks against the Saudi Embassy and the Saudi Consulate.

And these are the members of the Iranian regime that are feeling very, how to say, concerned, scared about the consequences of the Iran deal, about Iran opening to the outside world, and how this is going to affect their own hold on political and economic power. And they are using this crisis as a way to ramp up support and consolidate their camp ahead of the upcoming elections in Iran in February.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Vali, some elements in Iran using this to bolster their own case against normalizing or even coming close to normalizing relations with the U.S.?

VALI NASR: No, actually, I agree with Randa. There is a faction in Iran which is not happy with the nuclear deal, is not happy with a change of Iran’s status in the global affairs, and also wants to defeat President Rouhani and his moderates in the upcoming elections.

And I think the Saudi action is much like when Republicans in Congress posture with new sanctions against Iran. The conservatives immediately take advantage of it in order to muddy the water, embarrass the president and try to prove that opening to the West has actually been a mistake and that Iran would do a lot better by taking a hard-line position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Having all said this, Randa Slim, what are the consequences? We know there is the war in Syria. There is the nuclear deal between the Iran and the U.S. What happens to that nuclear deal going forward?

RANDA SLIM: Look, this is happening at a time when tensions, especially sectarian tensions in the region, as they are, are already at a high pitch. So it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.

And the fallout, for example, in terms of the implications for the negotiations in Syria or the U.N.-sponsored negotiations that were to be launched at the end of the month in Syria, as well as the U.N. attempts to establish a permanent defense in Yemen, I think we can say that these efforts have now been dealt a very severe blow.

They’re on life support. And I don’t know whether the upcoming negotiations in Syria will take place now. Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran are incentivized to make concessions, to pressure their Syrian proxies to make concessions. But then there is also broader regional fallout.

I’m very concerned about whether Bahrain will follow Saudi Arabia too and ramp up its security approach in dealing with its own Shia opposition, the fallout with the security in Lebanon, where, if Iran or Saudi Arabia tries to pressure their respective proxies in Lebanon to take sides, how this will impact already high regional sectarian tension.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Vali Nasr, how do you see the repercussions going forward?

VALI NASR: Well, I agree with everything that Randa said, but also it’s important to know that the United States and its international allies have their own interests in the region, which is fighting ISIS, ending the war in Syria, making the Iranian nuclear deal successful.

It’s very clear that the hard-liners in Iran and the Saudi regime have a different agenda here. And sectarianism serves that agenda. Saudi Arabia didn’t want Iran to be included in the regional processes. It doesn’t want Iran to normalize relations with the West. From the very early on, it rejected the nuclear deal and it tied the nuclear deal to regional issues.

And, also, Saudi Arabia is much more interested in saying the problem in the Middle East is Iran, not ISIS, whereas, for the West, it’s now ISIS.

Going forward, in 2016, if the United States wants to get ahead of the ISIS issue, if it wants to find a way to end the war in Syria, which, I agree with Randa, it’s now very difficult to see how the Vienna process will get us there — it has to essentially be very clear about what it expects of both sides in terms of cooperation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Serious repercussions everywhere you look.

Vali Nasr, Randa Slim, we thank you both.



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