Saudi-Iran crisis unlikely to lead to war: Analysts

Supporters of Rah-e-Haq religious party burn an effigy of Iran, Israel and US during a rally in favour of execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Jan 5, 2016.
Supporters of Rah-e-Haq religious party burn an effigy of Iran, Israel and US during a rally in favour of execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Jan 5, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

DUBAI (AFP) - The escalating standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia may raise instability in the Middle East, but it will probably not become a direct military confrontation, experts and diplomats say.

Riyadh has severed all ties with Teheran, withdrawn its diplomats and cut air links in response to weekend attacks on its missions in the Islamic republic.

The assaults on the Saudi embassy in Teheran and consulate in Mashhad followed vehement Iranian criticism of Sunni Saudi Arabia for executing leading Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr after convicting him of "terrorism".


"The Saudis have no intention to escalate... but if the other side decides to escalate, the Saudis are ready to take up the challenge at any price," said Mustafa Alani, security expert at the Gulf Research Center.

"The mood in Riyadh is that there will be no compromise... The new administration is going to take up the challenge and the fight with no regard to the cost," he said.

According to a Western diplomat, Iran is "not going to enter a war with Saudi Arabia".


Gulf officials have spoken instead of possible Iranian attempts to fuel instability in the region by attacking Saudi and Arab interests.

Other sources said there could be also a rise in attacks on Shiite mosques, mainly in Iraq and Lebanon.

"This would be much more vicious... by proxy," said the diplomat, ruling out direct conflict between the rival regional heavyweights.


"It is not the moment for the Iranians to detonate mines in the Gulf" region as they await an effective lifting of sanctions and are about to start exporting oil again, said the diplomat.

In July last year, Teheran agreed to measures to put a nuclear weapon beyond its reach in exchange for sanctions relief.

Experts say that the worsening diplomatic crisis will at least affect the situation in conflict-ridden Syria and Yemen, where the rivals were already at loggerheads.

The dispute is also likely to have an effect on international efforts to bring the warring parties in Syria and Yemen to the negotiating table.

In an apparent attempt to salvage those efforts, the United Nations envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura travelled on Monday to Riyadh before heading to Teheran later in the week.

The world body's Yemen envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is also expected in Riyadh on Wednesday.

Riyadh's ambassador to the UN, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, said the diplomatic rupture with Iran will not alter the kingdom's efforts to reach a political solution to the wars in Syria and Yemen.

"From our side, it should have no effect because we will continue to work very hard to support the peace efforts in Syria and Yemen," he said.

Although Riyadh has no intention to escalate, Alani argued that the crisis will "harden the Saudis' attitude in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen".

"For the Saudi leadership, there will be no compromise with Iran's aggressive policy," he said.

"The old policy was a wrong policy in which you turned a blind eye to the Iranian challenge and intervention," he added.

In almost a year on the Saudi throne, King Salman has departed from the kingdom's hesitant policies of the past.

By executing cleric Nimr, the authorities have appeased the kingdom's Sunni clergy but also risk provoking the Shiite minority which has always complained of marginalisation, experts say.

"The Iranian support for Sheikh Nimr will be welcomed by many Shia, even those who do not agree with the Iranian system itself, because they see virtually no one else speaking up for them," said Jane Kinninmont of the London-based Chatham House think tank.