Middle East: Powder Keg Politics

iranWith the lifting of Western sanctions against Iran imminent, JANE GREEN considers the implications of recent developments in the region for the Iranian people


THE reintegration of the Islamic Republic of Iran into the world economic community moved a step closer this weekend with the clean bill of health given to the Iranian nuclear programme by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The IAEA statement opens the way for the removal of financial and economic sanctions imposed upon Iran by the West four years ago.

While the sanctions have been crippling the Iranian economy, the leadership of the Islamic Republic has been moving towards a rapprochement with the United States since the initiation of secret talks in 2010, held in Oman.

As far as the West is concerned, lifting sanctions will mean that Iran is “open for business” and the regime’s leadership, desperate to shore up its credibility with a restive population, will do all it can to encourage further investment in the flagging economy.

The West’s relationship with Iran is by no means straightforward, however.

In the current conflict in Syria, the Islamic Republic has made no secret of its support for President Bashar al-Assad, while Western support has been channelled towards the so-called Free Syrian Army and assorted other groups opposed to the Assad government.

It is against this background that the recent breakdown in diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia must be considered.

The Saudis have long been regarded as allies of the West, being the recipients of major arms shipments from Britain and the United States, and they are seen as a safe pair of hands in the Middle East by Nato.

The situation in Syria has resulted in a more ambivalent attitude towards the Saudis, however.

The Arab dictatorship has consistently denied that it has provided any military hardware to Isis but it is widely accepted that Saudi weaponry has made it into the hands of Isis, either directly or indirectly.

In the wider context of the Middle East split between supporters of the Shi’ite and Sunni branches of Islam, the latter, supported by the Saudis, is more consistent with the Isis position.

With both Syria and Iraq being more inclined to the Shi’ite camp, of which Iran is the widely acknowledged leader, it is not difficult to see where Saudi allegiances lie.

There is no doubt that following the execution of Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, the Saudi dissident Shi’ite cleric, by the Saudi authorities relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have become critical and increased the possibility of dangerous conflict between the two countries.

The execution prompted groups associated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and security forces to raid the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Tehran and the Saudi consulate building in the city of Mashhad.

It came as little surprise that Saudi Arabia announced that, following the attacks on the buildings of the Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran, it had severed its diplomatic ties with Iran and asked that Iranian diplomats leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours.

The escalation of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia stems from the serious disputes between the two regimes about the domestic wars in Syria and Yemen.

In February 2015, the Saudi regime officially invaded Yemen to prevent the victory of Houthi forces and their allies who, as alleged by the Saudis, are supported by Iran.

This action by Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Persian Gulf Co-operation Council was to prevent the fall of the previous Yemeni president, supported by Riyadh, and to control the political developments in Yemen in favour of the reactionary policies of the Saudi regime.

In relation to the domestic war in Syria, Saudi Arabia and the reactionary monarchists of the Persian Gulf, in alliance with Turkey and the United States and Nato states, want to transfer power from Assad, Syria’s elected president, to Wahhabi and Salafi groups which they support.

It is no coincidence that on December 28 Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a trip to Saudi Arabia just days before the executions which have resulted in the escalation of tensions in the region.

During his official talks with Saudi authorities, Erdogan spoke about the common vision of the two countries regarding the future of Syria.

He spoke of shaping the developments in other conflict areas in the region, including Yemen, stating: “It is clear that steps that are taken without considering the dynamism, sociology and the history of the region will only end in savagery and brutality.”

During the trip, Erdogan officially announced the joining of Turkey to the reactionary alliance of Sunni states engaged in Syria.

Reactionary pressure groups associated with the Revolutionary Guards inside Iran have taken the opportunity to pour fuel on the fire and have talked of “seeking revenge” for the execution of Sheikh Nimr.

Such statements will do nothing to calm tensions between the two states and the opposition inside Iran has called for both sides to step back from such provocative positions.

Any rise in tensions, or new military conflict in the region, could have potentially disastrous consequences for the Middle East as a whole.

In Britain, the Committee for the Defence of the Iranian People’s Rights (Codir), has pointed out the contradiction in Iran condemning the execution of Sheikh Nimr, when Iran leads the world league table of countries which employ capital punishment.

Iran executed almost 1,000 people in 2015. The record in previous years has not been less catastrophic.

Codir has, however, acknowledged that the execution of Sheikh Nimr was clearly an act of provocation on the part of the Saudis, while calling upon the Iranian government not to take the bait and increase tensions in the region any further.

The Iranian progressive and pro-democracy forces have characterised the situation in the Middle East as like a barrel of gunpowder that, in the event of any new military conflict, could lead to blood, fire and catastrophe for its already hard-hit people.

Codir will continue to support the call of the Iranian opposition to defend peace and support a peaceful solution based on the United Nations Charter.

  • Jane Green is national organiser for Codir.
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