The Iran-Saudi conflict broadens

The deepening crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran looks certain to escalate into a full-blown regional crisis, dragging in the two countries' sectarian allies.

Major powers too are stepping in, notably with Russia seeking to expand its influence in the Middle East and offering to act as an intermediary in the conflict. Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov reportedly invited his Saudi and Iranian counterparts to Moscow, in a bid to prevent a further deterioration of ties.

The latest crisis erupted after Saudi Arabia's beheading last weekend of prominent dissident Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 other so-called terrorists.

The move infuriated Iran's Shi'ite theocractic leadership and other Iranians, who sacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Teheran. This led Saudi Arabia to cancel diplomatic ties with Iran and halt direct flights.

The biggest fear of the Saudis and their allies is that Iran will unleash its proxies , directing them to carry out terrorist attacks on mainland Saudi Arabia and its interests in the wider world. This could include targeted assassinations against officials as well as attacks against Saudi diplomatic missions.

The Saudi-Iranian stand-off threatens to add fuel to the Sunni-Shi'ite divide, possibly even spilling over to other countries in the Gulf which have openly sided with Riyadh.

Similarly, there are concerns that Iran could stir unrest in key Shi'ite Muslim population centres - historic adversaries of the Saudi   Sunni Muslim ideology - including the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province where a Shi'ite majority prevails.

The Saudi-Iranian stand-off threatens to add fuel to the Sunni-Shi'ite divide, possibly even spilling over to other countries in the Gulf which have openly sided with Riyadh.

Bahrain's Sunni-led government has severed ties with Iran. But as its population is largely Shi'ite, the authorities there are bracing themselves for more protests against the executions. The United Arab Emirates has also downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran.

Added to all this are new threats to the Saudis expressed by Iran's Hizbollah allies in Lebanon, who say retaliation against Riyadh is inevitable. Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah launched an unprecedented attack on the Saudis by declaring in Beirut this week that the cleric's execution "reveals to the world the real criminal, takfiri (impure apostates) and terrorist face of Saudi Arabia. This is not something we can ignore".

In the Middle East, there is speculation that the Saudi authorities planned the beheadings as a way of diverting attention from its many internal problems connected to its involvement in the Yemen civil war, a smaller national income resulting from the plunging oil price and its covert support for Islamic militants belonging to Al-Qaeda. Likewise, there are those who believe the Saudis want a confrontation with Iran because they are simply fed up with fighting Teheran's proxies in Yemen.

Arab political analysts believe the executions are meant to send a "threatening message" to Saudis at home, both Sunnis and Shi'ites, that Riyadh will not tolerate any political or military dissent that mirrors what happened in earlier years in Tunisia, Egypt or Yemen, when governments of the day were overthrown by popular uprisings.

In the absence of any unified Arab approach or strategy, the Russians now have an opportunity to defuse the Saudi-Iranian crisis.

The Russian foreign minister's invitation is seen by Arab political analysts as part of President Vladimir Putin's strategy to return to the glories of an earlier era when his country, at one time the world's only other superpower, was deeply involved in the Arab-Israeli crisis.

Moscow has traditionally played an important role in the region, underlined by the one-time alliance between the then Soviet Union and then Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Until some 30 years ago, the Russians had security advisers at military bases to help strengthen the Egyptian army in any confrontation with Israel.

In recent years, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has replaced Egypt as Moscow's most trusted and major ally in the Middle East. A few months ago President Putin raised eyebrows across the world by interfering militarily in the four-year-old Syrian civil war. His goal was to save his ally, Mr Assad, who has been fighting a battle for survival against various secular and religious opposition groups committed to overthrowing his regime.

By siding with Mr Assad, Mr Putin has found himself in the same boat as Iran, which is also a long-time ally of the current Syrian government.

As yet, it is not clear whether Russia supports Iran in the stand-off between Teheran and Riyadh. By deliberately taking a neutral position in the Saudi-Iranian conflict, Mr Putin also sees himself as a potential, long-time ally of the Saudi ruling family. He has been careful not to alienate the Saudis. Last year, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir visited Moscow, and Mr Putin, since then, has had at least one substantive telephone conversation with Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

The Russians' interest or involvement underscores the low-key role of the United States, where all attention is focused on this year's presidential election. After getting their fingers burned in Afghanistan and Iraq, American officials are reluctant to get involved in yet another Middle East calamity. The Americans are also reluctant to voice any public criticism of the executions for fear of undermining the Saudi support they need in fighting militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and ending the conflict in Syria.

•The writer was editor of Asian Affairs, a magazine published from London and New Delhi, and a former Middle East correspondent of The Observer newspaper.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2016, with the headline 'The Iran-Saudi conflict broadens'. Print Edition | Subscribe