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Politics & Policy

The Potential Losers In The Iran-Saudi Arabia Feud

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech last July. He has condemned the attack on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, but the episode gave the appearance that he's unable to keep hardliners in check. i

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech last July. He has condemned the attack on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, but the episode gave the appearance that he's unable to keep hardliners in check. Ebrahim Noroozi/AP hide caption

toggle caption Ebrahim Noroozi/AP
Iran's president Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech last July. He has condemned the attack on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, but the episode gave the appearance that he's unable to keep hardliners in check.

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation in a televised speech last July. He has condemned the attack on the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, but the episode gave the appearance that he's unable to keep hardliners in check.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

It was never going to be easy to work out a truce in Syria. And the latest escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia is likely to spill over into the Syria talks, making prospects for a ceasefire even more remote, according to analysts who follow the region.

Another potential loser in the feud is Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, who's been trying to open up his country to the world and is looking to gain additional allies in elections set for next month. But the latest events have played into the hands of his hardline opponents.

These are just a couple examples of the potential fallout following Saudi Arabia's execution of a well-known Shiite cleric, Sheik Nimr al-Nimr. His beheading on Saturday ignited furious reactions in Shiite populations across the region, especially in Iran, where Saudi diplomatic buildings were stormed and partially burned. The response from the Saudis, cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, hardened the dispute along sectarian lines.

Analyst Salman Shaikh, who formerly directed the Brookings Doha Center and now runs a private consultancy, notes that the Iran-Saudi rift is just one of many factors working against a possible truce in Syria.

"The Russian engagement and attacks against moderate factions on the ground, as well as those of the Syrian regime, have actually, I think, taken us farther away from the peace process," he says.

Russia and the U.S. do deserve credit for getting Iran and Saudi Arabia to the table last month to discuss Syria's future, says Shaikh. But, he adds, "there was no meeting of minds, in my view, whatsoever."

A new round of talks is planned for Geneva on Jan. 25.

Iranian President Condemns Attacks

The ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad drew condemnation from around the world. Iran's pragmatic president was quick to join in, saying those responsible must be prosecuted.

But the damage was already done, says Iranian history professor Ali Ansari at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

"All this actually is very bad news for Rouhani and his administration," says Ansari. It's not something Rouhani would have been likely to foresee, he says, "but it was worrying (because it shows) his government doesn't have much control over the security forces in Iran. I mean, it's quite clear they stood back and watched it happen."

Ansari says the overreaction of Iranian hardliners to Nimr's execution allowed the Saudis to change the debate. Very few people outside the region are now focused on the execution or the Saudi judicial system. But the cutting of diplomatic ties has shone a spotlight on Iran once again storming an embassy, reinforcing the image of the country as a revolutionary theocracy.

"And I think that's something that Rouhani is acutely aware of, which is why he's gone out of its way to condemn the attack on the embassy," he says.

If Rouhani wants diplomatic and economic re-engagement with the outside world, says Ansari, then "Iran has to be very careful not to get a reputation for basically whenever it gets angry at a country of assaulting its embassy."

Analyst Salman Shaikh agrees that biggest losers in Iran from the spiking tensions are the moderate and pragmatic factions, including Rouhani.

In late February, Iranians will elect a new consultative assembly, a kind of advisory parliament, says Shaikh. In additon, a new Assembly of Experts will also be chosen. That body is charged, among other things, with approving the selection of the next supreme leader.

"Now if things continue to heat up, I'm sure hardliners would find ways to make inroads on the political scene, especially after the setbacks they've felt over the last year or so," he says.

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