They say - to the optimist, the glass is half-full, and to the pessimist, half-empty. Neither is correct, however; it is just that the glass is twice the size it needs to be. In a similar vein, some people call our world wretched and point, not without some relish, to all the suffering for evidence; this are the pessimists. The almighty has abandoned us for our sins; he is punishing us for our transgressions – are some of their common refrains, as if what we really needed was more divine intervention. To the contrary, our world is too blessed; that is the optimistic view, if you will. The world is, in fact, too blessed that we do not have enough fingers on our hands and enough toes on our feet to count the number of places that are ruled by demigods who are only answerable to themselves or to a figment of their imagination - that chief with white beard looking down from his remote perch upstairs. (It’s always an elderly fellow, isn’t it?) Iran and Saudi Arabia are just two places like that.
These two, the world’s foremost Islamic theocracies, have been calling each other terrorist and all sorts of other names in the past week, following the execution by beheading (What is it with this people and beheadings?) of the Sheik Nimr al-Nimr – a cleric with some acclaim among the adherents of Shiism in eastern parts of Saudi Arabia as well as Iran.
Some people in Iran reacted by torching the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The Saudis, on the other hand, mobilized their co-religionists in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and beyond to denounce Iran; Sunni Arab governments, including Bahrain – a majority Shia country but with a minority Sunni government, have been expressing their solidarity with the House of Saud. The Emiratis obliged by reducing their embassy staff in Tehran, whereas some others like Bahrain, Kuwait, Sudan and Djibouti complied by suspending their diplomatic relations with Iran altogether. There are more than a few things to be said about all of these.
Most importantly, although they may differ in their favored methods (Iran by hanging and Saudi Arabia by beheading or shooting) both countries routinely execute dissidents. Moreover, both are states that sponsor terrorism; Hezbollah, the state within the Lebanese state, and the so-called moderate Islamists in Syria are just some of Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s terrorist proxies, respectively. And should more evidence be needed to demonstrate either state’s involvement in atrocities, each can produce the necessary evidence on the activities of the other. So, it is not at all surprising each should lend the other a name most familiar to itself.
And whether the Iranian state instigated the anti-Saudi demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities and the attacks on the Saudi embassy makes little difference: the two have been, by virtue of their different views on Islamic history, and by virtue of their conflicting cultures before that, adversaries as long as anyone can remember; naturally, whenever there is a misstep by Saudi Arabia, Iran is always ready to jump at the smallest opportunity it can exploit to its advantage, and vice versa.
Despite Amnesty International’s contention that Iran executes more dissidents than Saudi Arabia, it still presents itself as a spokesperson for the Shias in Saudi Arabia whose symbolic leader the country just killed. Parenthetically, according to Amnesty International, Iran has executed a minimum of 2635 people between 2007 and 2014, whereas the minimum number executed by Saudi Arabia for the same period is 671. Even if you triple the last number to adjust for the population size of Saudi Arabia, which is about one-third of Iran’s, it comes short by some six-hundred executions. In simpler terms, Iran lacks the integrity to play the victim in this saga.
The sheik was officially charged, convicted and executed for “breaking allegiance with the ruler”, among other things. This charge is nothing short of the criminalization of thought, something tantamount to censuring what is illusory like what goes on in someone’s mind. And like the rest of the judicial process - if we may call it that, was no doubt unrigorous, even by Ethiopian standards; they dispensed with judicial niceties and simply executed a man they arrested for his opinions.
By the way, the sheik was not the only person to be executed by Saudi Arabia; close to fifty individuals were dispatched on this occasion. But the others in the batch were Sunnis and their execution did not result in any harsh diplomatic exchange between the exclusively Sunni government of Saudi Arabia and the Shia-dominated government of Iran.
Furthermore, the Saudi authorities timed the executions, as some are now suggesting, to coincide with the Christmas and New Year celebrations in Western capitals so as to present the latter with a fait accompli and avoid any uncomfortable conversations on the subject. It is not too difficult to imagine what the Saudis might have hoped for – any delay in the expectedly negative reactions from their major oil buyers who are hypocritical enough to always insist on due process of law.
Having said that, Iran is to the Middle East what Brazil is to Latin America; this parallel was drawn by the political scientist Samuel Huntington. Portuguese-speaking Brazil cannot help standing out in Spanish-speaking Latin America; and Farsi-speaking Shia Iran cannot help standing out in Arabic-speaking Sunni Middle East. This explains the continued efforts by Sunni governments to isolate Iran from the region.
That matters little, however, as cultural separateness from the region does not detract from Iran’s greatness; cultural separateness is, in fact, the foundation for Iran’s greatness. Certainly, the 1979 Islamic revolution has been trying to drag the country back to the moronic days of past. But those efforts always fail because Iran existed even before the Arabic hordes set out to impose an intolerant belief system so contrary to a tolerant Persian nature.
Parenthetically, we shall only remark on Iran’s greatness; we shall not take any trouble to make any comments whatsoever in regards to Saudi Arabia’s greatness at this time, nor at any other time in the future; hinting, even slightly, that the thousands of years of Persian cultural contributions to human civilization may equate in any way to anything the camel-herding lot of Hijaz ever came up with is an assault on everything that is even remotely honorable in the works of man. Excepting some of the important religious sites, there is no city in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that can hold a candle to Isfahan or Persepolis. No. We are never going to be talking about Saudi greatness, what greatness??
To go back to the topic we were discussing before the digression, the Saudi Arabian government, to the extent it has managed to prevail upon its Sunni allies to help it isolate Iran, has asserted itself vis-à-vis the same. And previously, not too long ago, Saudi Arabia formed a 34-nation Islamic coalition to fight the Islamic State group (IS). Another way to look at it would be: if a mentor trains his mentee so well that the mentee becomes independent of the mentor, but the mentor wants to keep mentoring, so, the mentor is forced to quash his mentee while he continues to mentor others until such time those other mentees should renege and be quashed in like manner. The Saudis are the intellectual forefathers, and I use the term intellectual very loosely, to IS and other Jihadi groups. The 34-nation coalition is nothing short of an attempt to rein in unruly pupils. This coalition as well as the execution of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr seem to indicate a certain determination on the part of Saudi Arabia to emerge as the region’s only powerbroker.
Yemen is another test case for Saudi Arabia which is leading the fight to oust Houthi rebels from Sanaa and, interestingly enough, altogether from Yemen. Where they intend the Houthis to go, who by the way are Yemenis after all, the Saudis didn’t say. That war, like any other proxy war, is less about those who do the actual fighting and more about those who remain on the sidelines and support the fighting. The significant support Saudis are lending to what they insist is the legitimate government of Yemen led by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and the substantial aid Iranians are giving to what they insist are oppressed and marginalized Shia Houthi rebels, amply demonstrate both nations’ ambitions to intimidate the other and encroach upon the other’s sphere of influence.
Consequently, and because Iran and Saudi Arabia hold very different views about the world and in respect to themselves, it is unlikely the current diplomatic conflagration between them would subside any time soon; it is likely they would keep slinging insults at one another for a considerable time to come. But neither party is stupid enough – at least let’s be optimistic they are not stupid enough – to venture beyond words and battle each other directly.