The Sunni-Shia divide continues to wreak havoc on Middle Eastern diplomacy this week as multiple Arab countries and rebel groups break diplomatic ties with Iran. Following the execution of a Shi’ite Muslim cleric who spoke out against the Saudi regime, Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran, causing this death spiral in relations between competing powers. Saudi Arabia followed up to the attacks by completely withdrawing their diplomatic mission in Iran, and will also take steps to halt air traffic and commerce between the two. Sudan and Bahrain quickly followed suit by cutting all its ties with Iran. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has strong ties to the Saudi Kingdom, has not taken any action on the matter.
While this predicament may seem as if it came out of the blue, it is actually the creation of a cold war that has been waged off and on for decades between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Syrian and Yemeni Civil wars have put the two at odds more than ever before. On the Syrian front, Saudi Arabia is backing rebels fighting Syrian government forces that are allied to Iran. Iran itself has committed ground troops to the Syrian regime’s war effort. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has intervened in the country’s civil war with a brutal bombing campaign, where pro-Iranian Houthi rebels have routed crumbling government forces. Given these facts and the confrontational nature of both countries, a diplomatic fallout may have been inevitable.
With a U.N.-brokered peace talk scheduled to begin in Geneva on Jan. 25th between Syrian government and rebel forces, the U.N. worries that these heightened tensions could ruin this first concerted effort at peace. The United Nation’s work has already been ruined by this in Yemen, where a ceasefire in place since December 15th has been called off by Saudi forces.
Saudi Arabia’s call for Arab countries to join them against Iran may only be intended to isolate Iran from the Arab world, but it could get a lot more than it bargains for. The lessons of history are too often ignored. Let’s not forget that World War I, which left tens of millions dead or wounded and brought empires crashing down, started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, and a complex system of alliances which dragged all of Europe into war. The situation here is not so different, and could become ugly should someone get trigger happy. Diplomacy is the solution, and without it, there is no protection from the outbreak of war.