By Mustafa Akyol
As if the Middle East did not have enough tension, a new one has been added with the New Year: An Iran-Saudi clash, which has already deep roots, that further escalated with Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shiite cleric and activist Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. In return, angry crowds in Tehran stormed the Saudi embassy, while Saudi Arabia officially cut all ties with Iran. Soon, Bahrein and Sudan also joined the Saudi line by cutting off ties with Iran and, apparently, showing some Sunni muscle.
There is no doubt here that in this particular incident, the initial blame lies with Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Nimr was an outspoken critic of the Kingdom’s regime and had called for street protests. But there is no hint that he ever engaged in an armed struggle. So his execution was nothing but political murder, for which the Saudi government deserves to be condemned. It should also be asked: If being an outspoken opponent of a regime justifies execution, why do you have a problem with the Bashar Assad regime in Syria? Didn’t this bloody regime start the Syrian civil war by killing unarmed protestors who only chanted, “Down with the regime?”
Meanwhile, while Iran had the right to protest the execution of the Shite cleric, the storming of the Saudi embassy was another crime that cannot be tolerated. In fact, to his credit, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized those who attacked the diplomatic buildings, called them “radicals” and ordered the arrest of 50 suspects. But Rouhani does not call all the shots. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took a tougher line by warning Riyadh that it will face “quick consequences” for executing Sheikh Nimr.
Now, there are two basic options ahead for both Iran and Saudi Arabia and for the whole region: Either this tension can escalate, adding to the bitterness already built by the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. Even worse, the political tension between these two nation-states can further poison the ties between Sunnis and Shiites.
Or, the two countries can realize that escalation will only hurt their own interests and the values they claim to uphold. Instead of more chest-beating, the leaders of the two nations may begin to talk in more constructive ways. A diplomatic channel may be opened to speak about a rapprochement. Saudi Arabia may, at least, stop such executions and take a step to honor the late Sheikh Nimr.
It is not rocket science to see that the latter option will be better for everyone. But it is also probably no secret that such constructive politics is rarely seen in the region and it is a bit too optimistic to expect them from Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet that is precisely why the third parties – other governments, religious groups, NGOs, intellectuals – should promote that moderate, reconciliatory path. Instead of showing Sunni or Shia solidarity, which has no virtue other than blind partisanship, we should all promote a fair and reasonable solution to the ongoing sectarian strife in the region.
The initial response from the Turkish government was, helpfully, along those lines. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş, one of the level-headed people in cabinet, spoke on Jan. 4, noting, “We are against all kinds of political death sentences,” in an implicit reference to the execution of Sheikh Nimr. He also said, “Saudi Arabia and Iranare two major countries of the Muslim world, and we have ties with both of them. Both countries should leave these tensions behind as soon as possible. The region cannot carry such tension.”
Well said. That should be the guideline of Turkey for this particular tension and, in fact, for all tensions in the region.