The long-standing crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations has a sudden and acute escalation on the backdrop of disputed regional issues, namely the crises in Syria, Iraq and the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting in Yemen to restore legitimacy to the country.
But this time, the crisis has begun to further fuel the sectarian conflict in the region after Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy consulate in Tehran and Mashhad following Saudi Arabia's execution of 47 terrorism convicts, including Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia responded to the attack on its diplomatic posts by severing its diplomatic relations with Iran and giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave.
This time, the sectarian dimension is standing out after Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that "divine retribution" will befall Saudi politicians because of the execution of al-Nimr, and called upon Islamic countries to "feel a responsibility toward this matter." Khamenei's statement was, in fact, a forthright call to Iran's Basij, the paramilitary volunteer militia, to target the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
In addition, Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts and a Friday prayer leader, attacked Saudi Arabia for the execution of al-Nimr and threatened that the reaction of Shias in Saudi Arabia will destabilize the Kingdom. While Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized the "group of radicals" for attacking the Saudi embassy and consulate Tehran as "totally unjustifiable", he criticized the execution of al-Nimr as an "inhuman and un-Islamic action" and noted that it would ultimately destabilize the region.
Continuous State of Revolution:
The current regime seized power in Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution; stability prevailed in their favor after neutralizing the political powers and major causes that played a crucial role in the revolt against the Shah's regime. Since then, the new self-proclaimed Islamic regime has been promoting itself as the best and optimal model that should be embraced throughout the Islamic World under the leadership of then-supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who established the one most important determinant of the new regime, which is the principle of “exporting the revolution”.
As a matter of fact, this approach would not continue to hold out without maintaining the "state of revolution" which enables the regime to press ahead with efforts to interfere in the internal affairs of all its surroundings, and attempt to re-shape the surrounding within an Islamic framework to find a favorable opportunity for interference. The Palestinian cause, even though is seen as an Arab and nationalist cause and not an Islamism-related one, is the best instance of this approach, whereby the Iranian regime was bent on depriving the Palestinian cause of its essence and attempted to give it an Islamist dimension because Iran is a non-Arab state.
Despite all the criticism against its blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Arab states in the Gulf which have Shia minorities, as well as other Arab countries in the region, the Iranian regime totally rejects any attempts to address the issue of Iran's Sunni minority which accounts for 9% of the country's 75-million population. It is a known fact that Sunnis in Iran continue to be persecuted and are banned from exercising their right to practice their religion. This is also the case for other religious minorities - such as the Christians, Zoroastrians, and Jews - that the Iranian regime persecutes even more than it does Sunnis.
In fact, this approach is not only sectarian as it also reflects the Iranian regime's policy toward all minorities, in particular, those groups which represent a source of threat to the regime and its attempts to preserve its identity. Arabs, Azeris, Kurds, Baluchis and Turkmen are among the oppressed minorities being oppressed by the Iranian regime.
The peak of persecution is reflected in the very name of the "Islamic" Republic of Iran, which is supposed to be an Islamic state that rejects any sectarian discrimination but, in reality, does the opposite.
Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution states that the president must be elected from among religious and political personalities possessing the following qualifications: Iranian origin; Iranian nationality; administrative capacity and resourcefulness; a good past-record; trustworthiness and piety; convinced belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the official madhhab-religion of the country. Article 12 states the official religion of Iran is Islam and the Twelver Ja'fari School, and this principle will remain eternally immutable.
The Iranian constitution and this state of revolution show how deep Iran's extremist sectarianism is as it persistently tries to impose an unchangeable de facto situation. This is why the Iranian regime interferes in a flagrant manner in the internal affairs of regional countries that have Shia minorities like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, where it attempts to find a footing despite the different demographics in terms of the sectarian majority in these countries.
Three Reasons behind Iran's Angry Reaction:
For Iran, the issue transcends the execution of a Shia cleric and it even way beyond being a purely sectarian discord. Based on the status of Iran's Supreme Leader, who is considered to be the "imam" and the highest leader of Shias, the Iranian regime considers the execution of Nimr al-Nimr as a "challenge" to its ability to adopt the causes of the Shias across the world. Therefore, the Iranian regime sees al-Nimr’s execution as a "personal" insult to the Supreme Leader, on the one hand, and as a belittlement or underestimation of the Iranian regime itself, on the other, because al-Nimr was a graduate and an affiliate of the Shia theological seminaries of Qum, considered the holiest place for Shias.
From another perspective, the Iranian-Saudi dispute about several regional issues was reflected by Iran's reaction to al-Nimr execution, because Iran is seeing the recession of its regional influence, in which it has long invested heavily, becoming a reality. This is particularly so, due to the developments in Syria, where Russia has become in control of the roles being played by effective actors in the country, as well as in Lebanon which is seeking to promote stability despite the fact that foreign interferences continue to confuse the political landscape in the country.
In Iraq, too, the Iranian-backed Shia Popular Mobilization Forces were excluded from any role in the liberation of Ramadi and other Sunni areas in Iraq, a rejection which Iran saw as an underestimation of its role in Iraq, where Iran's rivals maintain a presence. In Yemen, and despite the varying assessments of the situation and developments, it is a fact that Iranian influence is receding and Tehran is unable to back its allies in the country.
From a third and different perspective, the Iranian reaction has to do with Iran's domestic situation, which can be described as "unstable" due to the nature of the components of the regime. With increasing talk about the importance of a forthcoming election of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that will appoint the new Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei's successor will have to show his real stature and ability to lead the masses.
This was particularly clear from the Iranians' reaction prompted by Khamenei's speech in which he criticized Saudi Arabia's execution of al-Nimr. The recent mob action against the Saudi diplomatic posts was similar to the storming of the 1979 storming of U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where the famous hostage crisis erupted, and the 2011 attack on the British Embassy. It is a known fact that these attacks are perpetrated by the Basij, a paramilitary volunteer militia that acts on direct instructions from the Supreme Leader himself. Therefore the hard-line wing of the regime sought to prove themselves against the attempts of the pragmatic and conservative and so-called moderate wing, represented by President Rouhani, to promote its conclusion of the nuclear deal with the P5+1 group of world powers, and the following sanctions relief, as an achievement that the regime has long failed to make.
Based on the above, it is likely that the Iranian regime will continue its bid to systematically escalate against Saudi Arabia through statements by Iranian officials, despite the fact that other external regional and international parties, Turkey, and the United States, in particular, will intervene to contain any expected escalation from either party on the issue. The United States urged for talks. Talks are exactly what Iran wants: to negotiate a number of other issues. That is, the United States wants to first settle the prioritized issues of Syria and Yemen, and then the second most prioritized issues of Lebanon and Iraq, where the roles of Saudi Arabia and Iran intersect and overlap in a manner that makes it difficult to reach permanent settlements. This is particularly so because Washington considers this vitally important to undermine the rising role of Russia in the region, and in Syria in particular, which can become even deeper at the expense of the US influence in this region.