Somalia’s Diplomat News Agency reported upon what it said was a carefully considered severing of ties by the East African country, which is home to many of the same Sunni-Shiite tensions that trouble the Middle East and influence the rivalry between the Iranian mullahs and the Saudi royal family. These tensions have been extensively discussed by analysts as they detail the underlying power-struggle of which this week’s events are just the latest escalation.
Somalia’s official statement recalling its diplomats from Iran seems to underscore this broader context. Although it is clearly part of the same chain of events that led to withdrawal of so many other ambassadors to Iran, the statement does not specifically cite the Saudi embassy attack as the reason for that move. Rather, it claims that the severance of ties is a previously-delayed response to Iran’s ongoing and continuous interference in Somalia’s internal affairs.
Iran has previously seen diminished ties with other African Muslim nations including the Sudan, over Tehran’s alleged contribution to local Shiite militancy and challenges to the Sunni majorities. In December, tensions emerged between Iran and Nigeria after a Shiite leader was killed in apparent retaliation for an attempted assassination of the Nigerian Army’s Chief of Staff. Tehran summoned the Nigerian ambassador over the incident and publicly condemned the killing. Critics in turn described the response as a transparent attempt to stir up sectarian sentiment.
Naturally, the sacking of the Saudi embassy, which came in response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of anti-government Shiite cleric, has led to similar accusations of deliberate fostering of sectarian discord. Indeed, the outpouring of condemnation from Saudi allies may be providing formerly silent parties with incentive to speak out.
On Thursday, the Jerusalem Post pointed out that a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority had sharply criticized Tehran for its role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Iranian leaders have frequently called for the destruction of Israel and have used support for Palestine as a rallying point for the international Muslim community, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei even calling for all Muslims to help arm the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in the wake of last year’s Summer War.
But Bassem al-Agah, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia said on Thursday that Iran has not made any concrete contribution to the welfare of the Palestinian people. “They have not built any schools for Palestinian children nor have they provided medical services for injured Palestinians,” said, adding that the Iranian role in the Palestine has largely been limited to one of political grandstanding.
This sort of outpouring of criticism against Iran seems to further support claims made in some reports earlier this week, which indicated that Iran was losing the current political conflict as more and more international voices agreed that the Islamic Republic is in the wrong. In response, Tehran has made considerable effort to paint itself as the victim, with Iranian officials blaming sectarian tensions on the Saudis and distancing themselves from the actions of the protesters who set fire to the embassy.
These claims of innocence were met with skepticism on Wednesday when Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty pointed out that the protesters showed no fear of being identified, suggesting that they believed they had the support of local authorities. What’s more, hardline Iranian politicians including the supreme leader specifically threatened vengeance for the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr.
On Thursday, Iran apparently adopted a strategy for attempting to win international sympathy by matching the events it had perpetrated to events supposedly perpetrated against it. According to the Associated Press, Iranian state media claimed that the Saudi coalition fighting against Houthi rebels in Yemen had launched a missile attack on the Iranian embassy in Sanaa. But an AP reporter who arrived on the scene soon after the broadcast found that the embassy appeared to be undamaged.
For the time being, the conflict emerging from the Tehran embassy attack is largely a conflict of propaganda. And early indicators are that Iran is losing. It remains to be seen what other dimensions this conflict might take on, although Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was careful to point out that no one “in their right mind” is interested in a violent confrontation, according to another report by the AP.
But the same report points out that Iran has now banned imports of Saudi-made goods, thus contribution to speculation about a possible economic war. While Iran has arguably struck the first blow in such a conflict, it was suggested on Wednesday that the Saudis would have a strong advantage over the long term and could potentially keep oil prices to a level that is half that of what Iran based its most recent budget on.
However the two sides attempt to prosecute this conflict, it seems clear that without mediation from outside of the Arab and Muslim world, the overall relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to degrade. And while this may not lead to direct war between the two, it will almost certainly contribute to escalation of proxy wars like those currently raging in Yemen and Syria.
A Reuters blog post on Thursday went so far as to say that it will be impossible to stop those wars unless Iran and Saudi Arabia can be brought to some sort of agreement. The article went on to say that that is unlikely as long as the two sides see their conflict as a zero-sum game, with unilateral dominance of the region as the only outcome. And that perception is only upheld by the increase in overall sectarian tensions spanning not only these two countries but also their allies.