When our enemies start fighting each other Israel can usually sit back and enjoy the show, although always with a weather eye out for any “collateral damage” that might be headed our way, whether from stray missiles and bullets or from a regime desperate to divert public attention away from their own misdeeds.
With that in mind, it is of great interest to see what’s been going on between the two extremist Islamic states.
On January 2, 2016, Saudi Arabia’s interior ministry announced that the kingdom had executed 47 individuals, Sunni and Shi’ite, on various charges, including carrying out terrorist operations and inciting to terrorism; espousing takfiri ideology; attacking the military and security apparatuses; killing security officers and civilians; and acting to undermine Saudi Arabia’s economy, standing, interests and its relations with “sister and ally countries.” Of those executed, 43 were Sunnis, members of an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group that acted in the kingdom in 2003-2004, targeting the army and security apparatuses as well as oil facilities. The most prominent of the Sunnis wasFares Aal Showil, aka Al-Zahrani, considered to have been one of the group’s leaders and chief ideologues.
The other four people executed were Shi’ites. The most prominent of them was oppositionist cleric Nimr Baqr Al-Nimr, one of the leaders of the Shi’ite protests in Saudi Arabia, known for his criticism of the Saudi regime and his support of Iran. In 2012 he rejoiced in the death of then-crown prince Nayef bin Sa’ud bin ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz, and in one of his sermons he explicitly declared his loyalty to Iran. In July 2012 Al-Nimr was arrested in the Shi’ite city of Al-‘Awamiyah, in the Al-Qatif region in eastern Saudi Arabia, on charges of inciting against the royal family and fomenting protest among the city’s Shi’ite population. In October 2014 a Saudi court sentenced him to death for “igniting sectarian fitna” in the kingdom and disobeying the king with the aim of creating chaos and toppling the regime. Subsequently, the Saudi appellate court and the Supreme Court rejected Al-Nimr’s appeal of the sentence.
It is noteworthy that Saudi analysts and op-ed writers likewise expressed sweeping support for the executions. Tariq Al-Homayed, the former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that they were necessary in order to protect Saudi Arabia from extremists and terrorists who threatened its security. He noted that the accused had received a fair and protracted trial, while they themselves never granted their victims even a single hour to flee. He also stressed that Saudis should not heed the criticism of Iran and others, because Saudi Arabia’s security was more important.
As was only to be expected, the Iranians are livid, threatening Divine retribution amongst other nasty stuff, as a second MEMRI report explains:
Iran reacted with fury to the execution of prominent Saudi Shi’ite sheikh Nimr Baqr Al-Nimr by the Saudi authorities on January 2, 2016. Iranian leaders threatened that his death would be avenged, declared that the Saudi regime was nearing its end, allowed enraged protestors to set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and changed the names of streets where Saudi representations are located to Sheikh Nimr Street.
Tensions grew ever greater as Iranian protestors set fire to the Saudi embassy, though the Iranians claimed plausible deniability:
After, on January 2, enraged protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran and broke into the Saudi consulate in Mashhad in northern Iran, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Hossein Jaber-Ansari, called on Iranians to avoid congregating in front of Saudi representations in the country, but expressed understanding for their feelings.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani condemned Al-Nimr’s execution, but also the Iranian “extremists” who had rioted outside the Saudi representations, calling their behavior “a disgrace to the [Iranian] regime and a blow to Iran’s honor.”
The Tabnak website claimed that the torching of the Saudi embassy had been carried out by Saudis in the embassy itself.
It is interesting to note in the MEMRI articles the ghastly editorial cartoons on both sides of this conflict which are not so dissimilar to the grisly antisemitic cartoons regularly published in Arabic media.
In reaction to the burning of its embassy Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran and expelled all Iranian diplomats from the country:
Saudi Arabia announced on Sunday it was cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, over attacks on its embassy facilities in Iran by people protesting the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, The Wall Street Journal reports.
The kingdom has requested that all members of Iran’s diplomatic mission leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh.
“The Iranian regime has a long record of violating foreign diplomatic missions,” he said, adding that the Iranian government hadn’t responded to requests to protect its embassy.
Women and children in Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic missions had been evacuated on a flight Sunday night, he added.
Interestingly, Hezbollah seems to want to stay out of this conflict:
In Lebanon, Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite Hezbollah movement, which is closely aligned with Iran, urged his followers not to rise to the bait of what he cast as sectarian provocation on the part of Saudi Arabia.
“The House of Saud wants to stir Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife everywhere, and our people must be aware of this and must not turn the issue into a Sunni-Shiite conflict,” he said. To do so would be “an act of betrayal of the blood of Sheik al-Nimr, and it serves the purpose of his killers.”
The Washington Post article above gives more background to the tension between the two countries, in which the executions play only a part:
Encouraged by Washington and by the regional realignment underway in the wake of the deal over Iran’s nuclear program, the two rivals had been tentatively exploring closer ties, and it is unclear whether Saudi Arabia intended such a rupture when it carried out the death penalty against Nimr.
The execution is in keeping with the newly aggressive stance adopted by King Salman, who has worn the crown for a little less than a year since the death of his half-brother, Abdullah, and it sent a powerful message that Saudi Arabia is intent on standing up to its regional rival, said Theodore Karasik of Gulf State Analytics, a consulting group.
“The Saudis hope to demonstrate that they are on the offensive in terms of the Sunni-Shiite divide, and they have just upped the ante on that significantly,” he said.
However, someone in Saudi Arabia was not thinking ahead, so it seems:
Saudi analysts question, however, whether the authorities in Riyadh intended or even foresaw the uproar that would ensue.
The different branches of Saudi Arabia’s government do not always coordinate, and it is unclear whether the Foreign Ministry, which has been taking steps to mend relations with Iran, would have been informed, said al-Shamri, the Saudi analyst.
A new Saudi ambassador to Iraq, whose Shiite-led government has also responded with outrage to the execution, was dispatched only days before the execution. Riyadh had been preparing to send a new ambassador to Tehran, after the previous envoy was withdrawn amid criticisms of a kiss, widely broadcast on social media, that he shared with Iranian politician Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.“That tells me there was no timing. It was not planned,” al-Shamri said, pointing out that Nimr had been sentenced in 2014 and that the government had announced the plan for the mass execution in November. “Bureaucracy in Saudi Arabia is very slow.”
But the most surreal explanation of all is the following:
The Saudi government may simply have been seeking to strike a sectarian balance in carrying out the death penalty against so many people, said Toby Matthiesen, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Britain’s Oxford University. Some prominent figures were included in the group of 43 Sunnis put to death, and Saudi Arabia has to tread as carefully with its majority Sunni constituency as it does with the minority Shiites.
Maybe, he said, “they threw in a few Shia amongst the Sunni militants that were executed to say, ‘We are evenhanded, we execute both Sunni and Shia.’ ”
The explanation above makes my head spin. In any other normal civilised country, “balance” or “equality” means treating your citizens the same, giving them all the same rights and privileges, and demanding of them the same obligations.
For the Saudis “balance” and “equality” means to execute equal numbers of Sunnis and Shiites.
And these are the people who occupy the Chair of a UN Human Rights panel. Mind-boggling.