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Jan. 13, 2016: In this edition
Five questions about the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict

Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to grow following Riyadh's execution of a Shiite cleric on Jan. 2. The rift is impacting other parts of the region, including Yemen and Syria, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in proxy wars, and complicating U.S. rapprochement with Iran, which yesterday released 10 U.S. sailors briefly detained after their two small boats drifted into Iranian waters. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East, answers five critical questions about the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict.

From Iran’s perspective, what would be a reasonable resolution to the conflict with Saudi Arabia?

A reasonable resolution to the conflict with Saudi Arabia would involve recognizing that the conflict in Yemen must be ended through diplomacy and political negotiation and resuming dialogue on a possible regional agreement on Syria. The difficulty of assigning any one “monolithic” perspective to Iran is that there are multiple and sometimes competing centers of power in Iran, each with their own sets of national and regional interest. This was on display in the response to the Saudi executions, whereby the pragmatists at the heart of the Iranian government condemned the actions of the mobs that targeted the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the Consulate in Mashhad, while the Supreme Leader was far more incendiary in his denunciation of Saudi actions. 

Iran in recent months has publicly stated that it is committed to a new era of peace and encouraging stability in the Middle East region. Does the Saudi dispute now cast doubt on those statements?

The dispute with Saudi Arabia and, especially, the response by elements within Iran, will have cast doubts on whether the country as a whole has changed as much as advocates of the nuclear deal claim. Images of embassies and consulates being ransacked and burned resonate deeply in key Western capitals, not least the United States and the United Kingdom. So, too, does the incident of the detention of two U.S. Navy boats in the Gulf on Jan. 12. Coming at a time when both the Iranian government and the Obama administration are placing great emphasis on the fact that Iran has changed its ways, such scenes have proven damaging and have provided opponents to the nuclear agreement — both in the United States and in Iran — with extra ammunition. Although the U.S. Navy personnel were released, the incident illustrated the vulnerability of U.S.-Iran ties to the competing interests at play within Iran, whereby hard-line elements may take actions that actively undermine moderates within the governing spectrum in Iran.

Iran has suffered repercussions from not only Saudi Arabia, but other Arab countries like Bahrain, Sudan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who have either severed ties with Iran or are taking steps to cut off diplomatic relations with the country. How crippling are these actions?

Iran only had minimal trade with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, so it will not suffer heavily from the suspension of diplomatic relations with either country. Kuwait only recalled its ambassador, while the UAE merely downgraded ties. The far closer economic ties between Iran and the UAE likely reflects the Emirati decision to maintain the basics of a working relationship with Iran, particularly when UAE-based entities could become the primary beneficiaries of any rolling back of the international sanctions on Iran in coming months.

The conflict between the two countries has primarily been framed as a sectarian Sunni-Shia divide. Is that a fair portrayal, or are there other critical factors fueling this diplomatic crisis?

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia use religion as a tool in what is essentially a political and ideological struggle for regional hegemony in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East. To the extent that Iran views itself as a natural leader of Shia Islam and Saudi Arabia sees itself as the equivalent in Sunni Islam, there is a sectarian dimension.

How does this impact ongoing peace negotiations for various conflicts within the Middle East? Are all eyes on Iran and Saudi Arabia for how to move forward?

The escalation of the Iran-Saudi dispute almost certainly sounds the death knell for any hopes of an imminent breakthrough in Yemen, given that the Saudis are a direct participant in the conflict and are likely to escalate their involvement in the war. The fragile ceasefire agreed on Dec. 15 in Yemen broke down on Jan. 2, the day Saudi Arabia announced the executions, and the peace talks scheduled to resume on Jan. 14 have been postponed. It is hard to see the negotiations gaining sufficient momentum so long as there is such an edge to Saudi-Iran ties. Similarly, while Syrian representatives must be at the heart of the peace negotiations set to begin on Jan. 25 in Geneva, Saudi Arabia and Iran represent the two most actively involved regional states, and their support (or lack of) will go a long way to determining the fate of the talks. At the very least, Saudi Arabia and Iran need to get onto the same page in terms of identifying the outlines of a political solution in Syria, and the current impasse makes that very unlikely.
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