In 1987, hundreds of thousands of Muslims of different nationalities, skin colours and sects gathered in Makkah for worship during the hajj season. Suddenly, a group of men chanting political slogans and brandishing knives, broken glass and bludgeons began rioting - 400 lives were lost as a result.
The instigators were believed to be members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who allegedly sought to hijack the pilgrimage to score political points against Saudi Arabia. In response, Riyadh banned Iranians from entering the kingdom. Rioters in Tehran then ransacked the Saudi embassy to protest the ban.
Saudi Arabia consequently severed all diplomatic ties with Iran. Ties resumed four years later, in 1991. Last week, Riyadh again severed diplomatic ties with Iran for the same reason. Contrary to widespread postulations, the move was simply a similar response to a similar scenario.
Three decades later, Iran’s behavior has not changed much. The Saudi consulate in Mashhad and embassy in Tehran were ransacked and looted by angry mobs believed to be affiliated with the Basij forces of the IRGC. This happened with the government ostensibly looking the other way, if not giving its tacit blessing.
The pretext for the attacks was the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi preacher convicted of terrorism charges. Nimr was apprehended by security forces following a shootout with the police in 2012. During the judicial process leading to his conviction, his case was scrutinized by 13 judges in three courts.
In 1987, the spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran came as the Iran-Iraq war was entering its last phase. During the war, Iran in its desperation engaged in risky brinkmanship by attacking oil tankers navigating the Hormuz Straits. Luckily, its attempt to destabilize the world economy came to naught. In a show of leadership and decisiveness, the United States stepped in and provided protection to the oil tankers, thus quashing Iran’s irresponsible behaviour.
Iran has sponsored proxy militias and non-state actors for so long that it no longer seems capable of maintaining healthy state-level relations with its neighborsMohammed Alyahya
The 2016 incident has sparked a regional outcry, with Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti joining Saudi Arabia in severing all diplomatic ties. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) downgraded its diplomatic representation in Iran to the level of charge d’affairs, and reduced the number of Iranian diplomats in Abu Dhabi. Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan recalled their ambassadors.
Turkey summoned the Iranian ambassador to Ankara and submitted a memorandum of protest, while almost all Arab countries issued harsh condemnations of the attacks. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Arab League, U.N. Security Council and many governments worldwide also registered their protest.
In 1987, the Arab states were powerful and functional despite regional conflicts. In 2016 the reality is far different, with state failure and non-state actors on the rise simultaneously. Regional players realize that containing Iranian interference is more important than ever, and have turned to Saudi Arabia as the bulwark against Iranian expansionism because it has proved itself a steadfast investor in Middle East stability via its partnership with responsible state actors.
Iran has sponsored proxy militias and non-state actors for so long that it no longer seems capable of maintaining healthy state-level relations with its neighbors. Virtually every country in the Middle East has been affected by Iran’s expansionism and meddling in their internal affairs, either through proxy militias or the deployment of IRGC and Basij forces.
In Iraq, Shiite militias have terrorized Sunnis for years since the U.S. invasion. Hezbollah and Iranian forces have propped up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aided him in slaughtering more than 250,000 of his own people. In Yemen and Bahrain, Iran has gone to great lengths to undermine legitimate governments. It is sowing chaos to alter the natural regional order to its advantage, and seems ready to use any tool at its disposal to do so.
The region’s current security architecture, ridden with instability and state failure, requires a unified position from rational players. Saudi Arabia has stepped up to take the lead by establishing a Muslim coalition to counter terrorism in all its forms, with the two main threats to the region today being the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the IRGC and its clients.
Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently said the kingdom would not allow war to break out with Iran because that would be “the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region, and it will reflect very strongly on the rest of the world.” Integral to this vision of peace and stability in the Middle East is regional unity against all forms of terrorism.
Meanwhile, Iran does not seem willing to renounce support for terrorism, honor its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, or respect the national sovereignty of its neighbors. It appears stuck in its old habits.
Mohammed Alyahya is a Saudi Arabian political analyst.
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