Iran has trouble letting go off sectarianism


Iran has trouble letting go off sectarianism

Tehran's divisive agenda is leading to tensions in the region and beyond.

By Mohammed Baharoon

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Published: Sun 10 Jan 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Mon 11 Jan 2016, 9:05 AM

The rapid turn down of events after Saudi Arabia announced the execution of 47 convicts on terrorism charges was not surprising. The so called "mass execution" of 45 Saudi citizens, and an Egyptian and a Canadian raised international concern, and the attention of human rights campaigners. However, links between the principal focus of media attention to the execution and subsequent regional relations requires further thought. It was perhaps inevitable that Iran focused on one particular execution, the Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimr, but this also poses questions regarding the geopolitical future of Gulf relations with the regime. The names of the other 46 were rarely mentioned. Indeed, very few media outlets indicated that among those executed was Al Qaeda leader in Saudi, Faris Al Zahrani. The other 46 executed, including three other Shias, attracted little attention; but the execution of Al Nimr trumped all others.
Iran has been agitating on the issue of Al Nimr for more than a year. Immediately after a Saudi Specialized Criminal Court (a non-sharia court) sentenced Al Nimr in October 15th 2014, the head of Iran's armed forces warned Saudi Arabia that it would "pay dearly" if the execution were to be carried out. The various threats by Iranian officials and clerics, against the Saudi court's decision, continued during the entire process of legal appeal and turned the verdict against Al Nimr into a political issue. It is therefore unsurprising that once the news of his execution on Saturday, January 2, was made public, a ferment of criticism started in Iran and continued across the region; from Iraq's foreign minister calling it a crime, to Hezbollah's leader in Lebanon and all the way to Yemen's embattled Houthis.
Iranian reactions to the verdict is revealing. The official position, expressed by both Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hussein Ansari and President Hassan Rouhani, both described the court verdict, and appeal process, as "a big crime".
However, the discourse of the religious elite in Iran is even more interesting. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei threatened Saudi leaders with a "divine revenge". Ahmed Khatami, a leading member of the Assembly of Experts, described the sentence as a "heinous crime" that would ignite a "holy movement against the Saudi regime." Another member of the Assembly of Experts, Hijat Al Islam Mohammad Taqi Vaezi, also said that this "crime will be the last of Al Saud's criminal activities." Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani insisted that the court sentence "will pave the way for the [Al Saud] regime's fall." Hassan Subhani Niya, a member of Iran Islamic Consultative Assembly, reiterated that Saudi will pay a high price. Qassem Jaafari, a member of Iran's Parliament, said that the execution "will bring God's wrath". The list goes on.
The subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad by angry mobs came after Iran's supreme leader threatened Saudi Arabia that it would face "quick consequences" for executing Nimr Al Nimr. Though President Rouhani and his minister of foreign affairs were quick to criticize the attack as "wrong and against the law", the zealous mobs would possibly be less attentive to the rule of international law than that of divine revenge. Saudi's reaction, though considered excessive by some, should be seen in the light of the threats before and after the execution as well the actual attacks. Thus Iran's sectarian treatment of an essentially national security and human rights issue seems deliberately intended to inflame future tension rather than cooperation in the Gulf.
Invoking God is not new to Iranian rhetoric. The US is still, albeit mutedly, the Great Satan. Portraying Saudi Arabia as the enemy of God, rather than an alleged abuser of capital punishment, arguably therefore serves Iranian interests that are not conducive to any improvement in regional relations; indeed quite the opposite Tactically, Iran avoids the sticky subject of human rights violations. But strategically, it seems to be trying to create a discourse than will galvanize all Shia communities across Arab world. While 44 of those executed were Al Qaeda affiliated, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson referred only to the Shia when he accused Saudi of "supporting terrorists and executing those who fight terrorism". He was clearly talking only about the Shias among the executed.
Iran has always accused Arab countries of pursuing sectarian policies against their Shia minorities. However, only Iran benefits from this perception of sectarian division. Nimr Al Nimr, who called for the secession of Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, was more important to Iran than any of the other 46 who were executed because of his political and sectarian symbolism. Iran's influence in the region depends on maintaining and supporting Shia dissidents in Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi and Bahrain. Accordingly, in Iran there seems to have been real concern that Al Nimr's execution may have sent other Shia dissidents a worrying message that Iran cannot completely protect them. This makes invoking 'divine wrath 'over Nimr's execution part of galvanizing Iran's Shia support base, particularly in places where Iran's hegemonic reach is weakest. Nimr was not an Iranian citizen, he was a Saudi and Iran has little argument to make when it comes to human rights violations. Therefore, religion and sectarianism are the only cards in play.
Nimr, regardless of what we think of the judicial process that led to his execution, was convicted for a serious crime that is subject to capital punishment in many countries including Iran. But Iran's religious agitation over the execution reveals the extent to which Shia religious discourse continues to shape political decision making in the Islamic Republic. Iran's threats to Saudi Arabia warrant much closer consideration of its ability to become a partner in regional security once the international nuclear deal is implemented.
- Mohammed Baharoon is the Vice President of b'huth, a public policy research centre in Dubai.

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