RIYADH: The last time Saudi Arabia broke off ties with Iran, after its embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters in 1988, it took a swing in the regional power balance in the form of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait to heal the rift.
It is hard to see how any lesser development could resolve the region’s most bitter rivalry, which has underpinned wars and political tussles across the Middle East as Riyadh and Tehran backed opposing sides.
Riyadh’s expulsion of Iran’s envoy after another storming of its Tehran embassy, this time in response to the Saudi execution of Shi’ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr, raised the heat again, making the region’s underlying conflict even harder to resolve.
At the heart of the new crisis is Saudi Arabia’s growing willingness to confront Iran and its allies militarily since King Salman took power a year ago, say diplomats, choosing with his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to abandon years of backroom politics.
Last year, Riyadh began a war in Yemen to stop an Iran-allied militia seizing power in its southern neighbor and boosted support to Syrian rebels against Tehran’s ally President Bashar al-Assad. Its execution of Nimr, while mainly driven by domestic politics, was also part of that open confrontation with Iran, according to political analysts.
The interventions followed years of Riyadh complaining about what it regarded as unchecked Iranian aggression in the region. It has pointed to Iran’s support for Shi’ite militias and accused the country of smuggling arms to groups in Gulf countries – which Iran denies.
“We will not allow Iran to destabilize our region. We will not allow Iran to do harm to our citizens or those of our allies and so we will react,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters on Monday, signaling Riyadh would not back down.
The Saudi decisions in Syria and Yemen were also partly a response to Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, which lifted sanctions on Tehran, theoretically giving it more money and political room to pursue its regional activities.
The new crisis has had the effect of hardening a wider confrontation between the loose-knit coalitions of allies each can call upon in the region; some of Riyadh’s allies also cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after the embassy attack, while Iran’s warned of repercussions.
That chain reaction may now complicate complex political talks over the formation of a government in Lebanon, efforts to bring Syria’s warring parties to talks, stalled negotiations to end Yemen’s civil war and Riyadh’s rapprochement with Baghdad.