Examining The Confrontation Between Saudi Arabia And Iran
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Another majority Sunni nation recalled its ambassador from Shiite Iran today. Kuwait joins Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan in the diplomatic standoff. Meanwhile, Iran's president accused Saudi Arabia of using the diplomatic back and forth as cover for its crime of executing a prominent Shiite cleric. Here with us in the studio this morning to talk about this crisis in the Gulf is Vali Nasr. He's dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Welcome back to the program.
VALI NASR: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Saudi Arabia executes the Shiite cleric. A mob in Iran then ransacks the Saudi Embassy. Saudi Arabia severs diplomatic ties. Other Gulf states follow. That's the surface. What's the subtext?
NASR: Well, the subtext is that these two countries are engaged in a intense rivalry for influence in the Middle East. This has been accelerated first by a palpable U.S. withdrawal from the region, secondly by the fact that the Arab Spring brought about the collapse of a number of Arab states - Iraq, Syria, Yemen - which, actually, provide an opportunity for these two to try to engage in a proxy war of domination, and those wars became very sectarian quickly. And thirdly, a nuclear deal between the United States and Iran suggests that Iran would have a very different future in the region, which would be much more engaged. And I think the Saudis are reacting to all of this and have decided to put down a marker of their own, both for Iran and the United States and also to tell the Sunni population in the region that they actually are going to draw a wall that would contain Iran's influence in the region.
MONTAGNE: So that's what Saudi Arabia hopes to gain by being tough on Iran. Iran, though, in the last day or so seems to be oddly conciliatory or acting as if what happened? What did we do?
NASR: Well, there are two voices in Iran. There are the conservatives and the security establishment, which were behind the attack on the Saudi Embassy, which are not quite reconciled to entering the world and engaging the United States on issues like Syria, Iraq or normalizing relations. Also they like to use every opportunity to embarrass and undermine President Rouhani ahead of the parliamentary elections that are coming up in a couple of months. There's domestic politics there. But, Iran as a whole has been gaining. Namely, they've been invited to the Vienna peace process on Syria. They are not talking to the United States. Iran doesn't benefit necessarily from a sectarian confrontation in the region because its sect of Islam is the minority sect. It likes to gain influence on the back of secular issues like opposition to Israel or opposition to the U.S. It is the Saudis who see emphasizing Sunni identity as a way of limiting Iran's ability to sway the Arab population in the region.
MONTAGNE: Now you just mentioned the peace talks around Syria. How might this flare up, which seems serious at the moment, affect international efforts to end that civil war because, of course, after much effort, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are expected to be at the table?
NASR: Well, I think the Saudi decision to execute this Shiite cleric was a direct challenge to U.S. policy in the region. In fact, it torpedoes America's approach, which has been that we should put other issues aside and focus on defeating ISIS and ending the war in Syria. And that requires Iran and Saudi Arabia to get on the same page, try to arrive at a lowest common denominator solution for Syria. The Saudis should support this Shiite government in Iraq as it fights Sunnis in Ramadi and Al Anbar. And by this execution and heightening the sectarian tensions, the Saudis have basically shredded American policy in the region to pieces.
MONTAGNE: Well, these proxy wars that we know about there, Syria being one of them, how does this all affect the whole region? There's also Yemen, Saudis behind the Sunni former government. Iran is behind these Houthi rebels. What is the end game here ultimately?
NASR: Well, what we are engaged in in this region is a great power rivalry. It's not very different from when the Germans and the French or the French and the British were fighting over influence over the continent. Because the region has these sectarian divisions within each of these countries and each sect now in this environment of polarization gravitates towards one of the big power patrons, Sunnis towards Saudi Arabia, Shiites towards Iran, this game is being played in every one of these countries. The end result is that each of these countries want to arrive at the solution where they have the upper hand or at least protect their minimal interest. So the Saudis are trying to arrive at the situation where the Sunnis would dominate in the region and the Iranians would like a much greater voice for Shia as if not Shia domination in the region. So we're going to have this proxy war go on for some time.
MONTAGNE: Longtime Middle East scholar Vali Nasr, he's dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thanks very much.
NASR: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.