On the issue of executions, Iran has as much moral authority as the U.S. has on gun control

Sharif Nashashibi writes: There are several grounds on which to oppose the Saudi execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. One can do so due to a principled opposition to capital punishment in general. One can criticise the country’s judicial system – Human Rights Watch said this week that it “has documented longstanding due process violations in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system that make it difficult for a defendant to get a fair trial even in capital cases.”

One can criticise Nimr’s trial in particular, which Amnesty International called “grossly unfair”. One can argue that he should not have been arrested in the first place – HRW cited “vague charges that do not resemble recognisable crimes”.

One can oppose his execution because of the repercussions it will have regionally and beyond. One can even do so out of concern for Saudi Arabia itself, not just in terms of domestic unrest among its Shia population, but also its foreign interests.

However, in any situation, condemnation is meaningless when based on hypocrisy. As such, Iran – which has arguably been most vocal about Nimr’s execution – does not have a leg to stand on. “It is perhaps surprising that a regime which imprisons journalists, censors cartoonists and holds activists without charge for years on end should be in any position to moralise against another,” wrote Evan Bartlett, news editor at The Independent newspaper.

It is galling – almost comical – for the world’s second-biggest executioner after China to criticise the third-biggest on the subject of executions. It carries the same moral authority as the US lecturing others about gun control, or Japan discouraging other countries from whale-hunting. [Continue reading…]

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Iran won’t surrender militias that conduct Assad’s war

Hassan Hassan writes: Not long before the Riyadh-Tehran diplomatic row that followed the execution of Saudi Shia cleric Nimr Al Nimr, a showdown between the two countries unfolded in New York. While it is difficult to draw a direct correlation between the two events, the incident can help us understand the depth of the continuing crisis.

On December 18, heated debate ensued between representatives of the two countries at a meeting in New York over the listing of armed groups operating in Syria for possible determination as terrorist organisations. The list, which Jordan was asked to develop, would name extremist groups that must be defeated as part of the UN-sponsored political process for Syria.

A month earlier in Vienna, Saudi Arabia had insisted on including in the list foreign Shia militias fighting on the side of president Bashar Al Assad. Riyadh argued that all foreign fighters must leave Syria, regardless of which side they supported. In New York, Iran, joined by Russia, strongly objected to the demand and the standoff caused a deeper rift between the two countries.

For now, the designation of terror groups in Syria has been referred to a committee comprising several European and regional countries. They first determined indicators and criteria of what constitutes a terrorist organisation, then named armed groups currently fighting in Syria. There is a preliminary list of more than 160 Sunni and Shia organisations.

Iran categorically rejects including any Shia groups in the list. For Tehran, the fate of the Assad regime it supports is critically tied to the presence of those Shia militias. It is a fact that adds to the many issues that compound the conflict in Syria – issues that the international community would seemingly rather sweep under the carpet instead of deal with head on. [Continue reading…]

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Ten ways on how not to think about the Iran/Saudi conflict

Omid Safi writes: In order to understand this conflict, do not start with Sunni/Shi‘a seventh century succession disputes to Prophet. This is a modern dispute, not one whose answers you are going to find in pre-modern books of religious history and theology. Think about how absurd it would be if we were discussing a political conflict between the U.S. and Russia, and instead of having political scientists we brought on people to talk about the historical genesis of the Greek Orthodox Church.

Probably the most succinct elaboration of this point came from Marc Lynch:

“The idea of an unending, primordial conflict between Sunnis and Shiites explains little about the ebbs and flows of regional politics. This is not a resurgence of a 1,400-year-old conflict.”

The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.) Watch this four-part series by the late, great Edward Said on how Orientalism operates (skip the introduction):

There is no disputing that religion is a factor in understanding the Middle East. In some conflicts, it might even be a primary factor. But it is never, ever the only factor. Most often it is the other factors (history, economics, ideology, demographics) that are much more important.

Religion, religious traditions, and human societies never stay static and unchanging. There is no such thing as an eternal, unchanging human tradition. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq faces take-over by Iran-backed militias if ISIS is defeated, coalition commanders fear

The Telegraph reports: Coalition commanders in Iraq fear that Iran-backed Shia militias may stage an armed takeover of the country if Isil is defeated, a new report has warned.

Senior figures in the US-led mission believe there is a high likelihood of a “war after the war” because of the Iraqi government’s reliance on Shia militias in its fight against Isil.

The move has hugely boosted the strength of such militias, to the point where they are now in a position to challenge the elected government for control of the country.

The warnings are revealed in research compiled by one Britain’s foremost experts on Iraq, Professor Toby Dodge, who served as an adviser to General David Petraeus, America’s former top commander in Baghdad.

Prof Dodge’s findings are based on meetings with high-level coalition commanders and Iraqi politicians conducted during a recent study trip to Iraq for the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

They told him that recent defeats against Isil in Ramadi and Sinjar had shifted “the balance of power” to the Shia militias, who lead around 70 per cent of all military operations.

“Against a background of positive military news, there was near unanimity amongst the senior Iraqi political figures and the military commanders of the American-led, multilateral coalition that that the military defeat of (Isil) in Iraq would trigger another military conflict, which would in effect, mark the country’s return to civil war,” said the report. [Continue reading…]

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In pursuit of a nuclear deal, Obama shunned Iran’s democracy movement

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The Wall Street Journal reports: Iranian opposition leaders secretly reached out to the White House in the summer of 2009 to gauge Mr. Obama’s support for their “green revolution,” which drew millions of people to protest the allegedly fraudulent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The demonstrations caught the White House off guard, said current and former U.S. officials who worked on Iran in the Obama administration.

Some U.S. officials pressed Mr. Obama to publicly back the fledgling Green Movement, arguing in Oval Office meetings that it marked the most important democratic opening since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Obama wasn’t convinced. “‘Let’s give it a few days,’ was the answer,” said a senior U.S. official present at some of the White House meetings. “It was made clear: ‘We should monitor, but do nothing.’ ”

The president was invested heavily in developing a secret diplomatic outreach to Mr. Khamenei that year, sending two letters to the supreme leader in the months before the disputed election of Mr. Ahmadinejad, said current and former U.S. officials.

Obama administration officials at the time were working behind the scenes with the Sultan of Oman to open a channel to Tehran. The potential for talks with Iran — and with Mr. Khamenei as the ultimate arbiter of any nuclear agreement — influenced Mr. Obama’s thinking, current and former U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials said the White House also was getting conflicting messages from Green Movement leaders. Some wanted Mr. Obama to publicly warn Mr. Khamenei against using force. Others said such a declaration would give Iran’s supreme leader an excuse to paint the opposition as American lackeys.

Mr. Obama and his advisers decided to maintain silence in the early days of the 2009 uprising. The Central Intelligence Agency was ordered away from any covert work to support the Green Movement either inside Iran or overseas, said current and former U.S. officials involved in the discussions.

“If you were working on the nuclear deal, you were saying, ‘Don’t do too much,’ ” said Michael McFaul, who served as a senior National Security Council official at the White House before becoming ambassador to Russia in 2012.

After a week of demonstrations, Iran’s security forces went on to kill as many as 150 people and jail thousands of others over the following months, according to opposition and human rights groups. Mr. Khamenei accused the U.S. of instigating the uprising. Iran denied killing protesters.

Some of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in retrospect the U.S. should have backed the Green Movement. “If we could do it again, I would give different counsel,” said Dennis Ross, Mr. Obama’s top Mideast adviser during his first term. At the time, he said, he argued against embracing the protests.

A senior U.S. official said this week that the Obama administration argued against covert support for the Green Movement because it risked undermining its credibility domestically, not out of fear of Mr. Khamenei’s reaction. “We did not want to tar the movement,” the official said. [Continue reading…]

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The Saudi–Iran rift over Syria

Syria Deeply sought the opinion of several experts. Nader Hashemi said: In broad terms, the recent fallout only serves to entrench existing positions. These positions have long solidified over the course of the past five years. The recent deterioration of relations and antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran do not, in my reading, fundamentally change this dynamic.

The fallout at this stage does not completely undermine the Vienna Peace Process. Both Saudi and Iran, over a series of several meetings, basically agreed to a broad framework that was enshrined in a U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254 on December 18. Now the ball is out of the court of the Iranians and Saudis and is in the court of the Syrian actors and Staffan de Mistura. That’s the next stage of the Vienna process – to try and bring Syrians from both the Assad regime and the opposition around the table. Thus, at this stage, Iran and Saudi Arabia really don’t have much to contribute. Perhaps, as a result of recent events, they might decide to take a more hardline stance when it comes to determining which Syrian rebel groups are terrorists and can have a seat at the table and which cannot.

I’m very skeptical about the Vienna Process. I think it was essentially dead on arrival because it assumes that after five years of a neo-genocidal war, and having already gone down this road before in Switzerland in January 2014 with Lakhdar Brahimi, that somehow something substantial has changed. Why should anyone assume that just because the regional and international powers have agreed to a broad framework, all of the Syrian participants in this conflict are going to meet in Geneva at the end of January, kiss and make up, and agree to some unity government and peace plan? There is little room for optimism on this point. [Continue reading…]

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Divisions in the Middle East are driven more by regional rivalries than religion

TSG IntelBrief: In a region beset with chronic and widespread problems, ranging from poor governance, war, violent extremism, and resource scarcity, one threat stands above the rest in terms of potential for destruction and cost in opportunity: the use of sectarianism as a geopolitical weapon. Sectarianism encourages extremist rhetoric and violence and serves to distract a populations from economic and social concerns by providing a convenient enemy on which to focus. While the Sunni-Shi’a divide is as old as Islam, current divisions are driven far more by regional rivalries and political gamesmanship than by religion, though the latter remains a primary factor.

While sectarianism as a geopolitical weapon is nothing new, its use is reaching new heights while its consequences find new lows. The current era of sectarianism stems, in part, from the 2003 Iraq War. The shift in Sunni-Shi’a power dynamics in Iraq triggered regional quakes that are still being felt today. It is difficult to overstate how Saudi Arabia’s fears of an ascendent Iran—now, with an Iraqi ally—have led to more than a decade of Saudi maneuvers driven by sectarian concerns. The sectarian war wanted so badly by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi—founder of the group that would become the so-called Islamic State—has metastasized far from Anbar and Baghdad, and morphed into both direct and proxy warfare. [Continue reading…]

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Deciphering the Saudi-Iranian crisis

Isaac Chotiner interviewed Karim Sadjadpour on Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Iran:

Chotiner: Some analysts have suggested that Saudi Arabia and Iran are in a sense seeking out this crisis because it is helpful for hard-liners in both countries. Do you agree with that analysis?

Sadjadpour: I sometimes think we ascribe too much strategic forethought to governments in the Middle East. I don’t share the view that Saudi Arabia had a sophisticated regional strategy in executing Sheikh Nimr. They were executing about four dozen Sunni radicals, which was going to alienate some segment of society. So they executed a few prominent Shia at the same time.

So there was no broader strategic thinking? It was a pretty big decision.

I think when you look at the arenas where Saudi Arabia and Iran are in conflict, whether Syria or Bahrain or Lebanon or Yemen or Iraq, Iran has an upper hand. When you look at it in a broader regional context, the increasing prevalence of sectarianism benefits Saudi Arabia because they have more numbers. Eighty-five percent of the region’s Muslims are Sunni. For the Saudis, if sectarian politics outweigh anti-imperialist politics, that is beneficial. But at the same time, we are not talking about a Saudi government run by Wahhabi Kissingers or Brzezinskis. This government does not have a deep bench of strategic thinkers. They are not playing a game of chess. [Continue reading…]

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Gulf states guarding their interests in Saudi-Iran rift

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The New York Times reports: For all the diplomatic dominoes that have fallen across the Middle East in recent days, with ambassadors from different countries flying home as a result of the explosive rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the map of allegiances has not significantly altered.

Certainly, several countries offered muscular shows of solidarity to Saudi Arabia after an Iranian mob attacked its embassy in Tehran over the weekend, prompting a crisis that has put the United States in a bind and has threatened to set back the prospects for a resolution to the conflict in Syria.

By Tuesday, Kuwait had recalled its ambassador to Iran, the United Arab Emirates had downgraded its diplomatic relationship, and Bahrain and Sudan had joined Saudi Arabia in severing its relationship with Tehran entirely.

Yet many other Sunni Muslim countries signaled that they intended to take a more measured approach to the argument — sympathizing with Saudi Arabia, a rich and powerful ally, but also determined to avoid getting sucked into a harmful conflict with Iran, a country governed by Shiite clerics, with potentially grave costs.

“The smaller Gulf states are worried they will get caught in the middle,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It worries them greatly that things could go badly.”

Some countries, like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, are already battling their own domestic insurgencies. Others are keen to guard their strategic interests or to keep the door open to trade with Iran while there is a prospect of American sanctions being lifted.

Qatar, which shares with Iran access to the world’s largest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, has yet to declare its hand. Oman has also been quiet, sticking to its longstanding position of neutrality on Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In Turkey, where senior officials have warned about the impact of the crisis on a “powder keg” region, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered his country’s services to help resolve the conflict peacefully. [Continue reading…]

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Iran and its allies vowed to avenge Sheikh Nimr if he was executed

Phillip Smyth writes: Ever since Tehran started beating the drum over Nimr, its Shiite Islamist proxies across the Middle East have followed suit.

In early January 2015, Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia and Iran proxy group listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, released a propaganda song that threatened the Saudis with an attack if they carried out the sentenced execution. The tune also included the rare addition of English translations and was likely aimed at Western, particularly American, audiences. The song blared, “The enemies of God will not be safe.… Ali’s [Shiite Islam’s first imam’s] enemies fear him [Nimr].… We will avenge Sheikh Nimr if he is executed.… Our brigades will roar like a lion.”

It wasn’t the only time that Kataib Hezbollah would threaten Saudi Arabia over Nimr’s fate. In March, the Iraqi militia posted another video showing trucks loaded with rockets and balaclava-wearing armed militiamen driving up to the Iraqi-Saudi border.

Iran’s other proxies in the region have adopted a similar stance. Starting in July, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, another Iranian-sponsored Shiite militia in Iraq, ran a promotional video to show support for Nimr, and Lebanese Hezbollah pushed solidarity campaigns for the Saudi cleric.

Following Nimr’s execution, Iran’s allies in the region issued nearly matching statements condemning Saudi Arabia and at times blaming the United States for the cleric’s death. Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraq’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Organization, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Kataib Hezbollah, and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada are just some of the Iranian-backed and ideologically loyal Shiite militias that toed Iran’s line on the issue.

The Iraqi Shiite militias loyal to Iran claimed they would retaliate against Saudi Arabia at a time and place of their choosing. Kataib Hezbollah later announced that the execution had given it the “green light” to target Saudi interests in Iraq. These Iran proxies also amplified threats by shadowy organizations: Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shiite militia and Iran proxy active in Iraq and Syria, for instance, claimed that an otherwise unspecified “Resistance in Qatif” had threatened to attack the Ras Tanura refinery, an important oil port in Saudi Arabia’s majority Shiite Eastern Province.

The campaign has not simply been limited to mere threats. In mid-December, around 26 Qatari hunters — some of whom are members of the Qatari royal family — were kidnapped by some 100 armed men on the Iraq-Saudi border. While nine were released, the rest are still being held by the gunmen. One of the conditions for the detained Qataris’ release had been the Saudi government’s release of Nimr. (Kataib Hezbollah has been accused of kidnapping the Qataris, but has denied it.)

These messages are part and parcel of Tehran’s geopolitical strategy — a way of asserting that it can and will protect its Shiite coreligionists. The fact that the factions of the Shiite “Islamic Resistance” across the Middle East acted as one further demonstrates Iranian power and the Islamic Resistance’s ability and willingness to project power on behalf of Iran’s regional goals. [Continue reading…]

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What now for Lebanon and Syria?

Alex Rowell writes: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam may have declared himself hopeful for positive change in 2016, but if the year continues in the vein of its first five days, he appears destined for disappointment. The execution by Saudi Arabia of leading Shiite cleric and opposition activist, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the subsequent torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which in turn led Riyadh and a number of its allies to sever or downgrade diplomatic relations with Iran, had by Tuesday escalated into bloodshed, with Sunni mosques bombed and a muezzin gunned down by suspected Shiite militants in Iraq; a Shiite resident of Saudi’s eastern province also fatally shot; and a reported intensification of Saudi air strikes on Shiite rebel targets in Yemen.

In Lebanon, no violence has yet broken out, but the political atmosphere has been considerably poisoned. On Sunday, Tehran ally Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah gave an extraordinarily foul-tempered speech, going far further in criticisms of Saudi Arabia than he ever has previously. Likening the “takfiri and terrorist” state to both ISIS and Israel, he accused the ruling family of being a mass-murdering agent of Western imperialism and Zionism, drawing multiple outbursts of “Death to the Saud family!” chants from the crowd. In an unabashedly sectarian analogy, he compared Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to the Prophet’s granddaughter, Zainab bint Ali, “speaking truth to Ibn Ziad and Yazid bin Mu`awiya,” thereby overtly tying the controversy into a 1,300-year-old Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, officials from Hezbollah’s main Lebanese rival, the Saudi-backed Future Movement, told NOW the new state of affairs would complicate the resolution of various pressing matters, including the twenty-month-long presidential vacuum. [Continue reading…]

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The story behind the ‘spontaneous’ torching of the Saudi embassy in Tehran

IranWire reports: Following the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, January 2, a one-line notice appeared on an Iranian website called Officers of the Soft War. Posted at 5:00 PM, it read, “At 15:00 on Sunday all gather in front of the Al-Zion Stable in Tehran.” The “Al-Zion Stable” was the site’s pejorative term for the Saudi embassy.

The website is an important news and propaganda site for hardline supporters of Iran’s political system. The notice followed its publication of pictures of protests that led to an attack on the Saudi consulate in Mashhad.

But according to another Iranian site, the Tasnim News Agency, some protesters had already gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran by the time the notice went online. They were calling the Saudi royal family “jackals of the Zionists.”

Iran’s Diplomatic Police, who are responsible for protecting diplomatic missions, ended that round of protests. Some of them began to paint over the anti-Saudi graffiti on the embassy walls. Pictures show that by 5:00 PM, at least three layers of Diplomatic Police were protecting the embassy.

But five hours later, the embassy was deserted. It seems embassy staff had predicted that another attack was on its way. But the Diplomatic Police either had no inkling of this, or did not want to show that it knew what would happen next.

At 10:00 PM demonstrators launched a new attack.

Most of the protesters were young, and many carried posters of al-Nimr, one of 47 men executed by the Saudi government on Saturday. Some were armed with stones or bows and arrows, and had covered their faces with Arabic keffiyehs—patterned cloths often associated with Palestinian protestors.

Members of the crowd then set the embassy alight with Molotov cocktails. Photographs from the scene show no shortage of the Diplomatic Police, but one policeman was quoted on social media saying, “we have been told not to obstruct them too much.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times adds: “What group here in Iran benefits politically from storming an embassy?” a former member of the Iranian National Security Council, Aziz Shahmohammadi, asked rhetorically. He was suggesting that the answer lay with the hard-liners — a loose alliance of clerics, ideologues and military commanders. “Such people are even against foreign soccer coaches to train our teams.”

The embassy attack played into their agenda of opposition to President Rouhani, whom Mr. Shahmohammadi said was clearly blindsided by the riot.

“For them, this might lead to electoral gains, an example that Iran is better off isolated. But they are missing the big picture here: We need and want peace and calm,” he said.

The act of cutting ties seems a simple one, but the consequences can be far-reaching. “We are moving increasingly towards conflict,” Mr. Shahmohammadi said.

“This is bad for the entire region — in Syria, in Yemen, and to a lesser extent in Lebanon and Iraq as well,” he added. “Cutting ties is fanning the flames in a region already on fire.” [Continue reading…]

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The danger in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing sectarian and anti-Iranian incitement is that it is uncontrollable

Toby Craig Jones writes: After the 2003 invasion of Iraq unleashed a new wave of Sunni-Shiite tension across the Middle East, Riyadh started to shift course. But in 2011, as the Arab world exploded in popular protests, the Saudi government cemented its commitment to sectarian confrontation. The Shiite majority population in neighboring Bahrain rose up against the Sunni-dominated monarchy. The Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia also took to the streets, protesting for political reform.

Invoking Iran and Shiites as a terrifying menace, Saudi rulers framed everything from domestic protests to intervention in Yemen in sectarian terms and in the process sought not only to demonize a minority group, but also to undermine the appeal of political reform and protest.

Sheikh Nimr had a long history of challenging the Saudi ruling family, but it was his post-2011 activism that led to his execution. After speaking defiantly about anti-Shiite discrimination, he was chased and arrested by Saudi police in July 2012. The police who apprehended him claimed that he had fired on them. Officially, Sheikh Nimr was executed for sedition and other charges. More likely, he was executed for being critical of power. He was not a liberal, but he gave voice to the kinds of criticisms the Saudi royals fear most and tolerate least.

Still, Sheikh Nimr’s execution was more important for what it communicated to the kingdom’s domestic allies and to potential future dissidents. The emergence of anti-Shiite sentiment over the past decade has not only been used to stamp out efforts by the Shiite minority to gain more political rights. In quashing calls for democracy originating from the Shiite community, Riyadh has also undermined broader demands for political reform by casting protesters as un-Islamic. Many Sunni reformers who cooperated with Shiites in the past have since stopped.

The Saudi authorities have good reason to be concerned about new calls for reform. About a week before Sheikh Nimr’s execution, the kingdom announced that it was facing an almost $100 billion deficit for its 2016 national budget. Declining oil revenues may soon force the kingdom to slash spending on social welfare programs, subsidized water, gasoline and jobs — the very social contract that informally binds ruler and ruled in Saudi Arabia. The killing of a prominent member of a loathed religious minority deflects attention from impending economic pressure.

The danger in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing sectarian and anti-Iranian incitement — of which Sheikh Nimr’s execution is just one part — is that it is uncontrollable. As is clear in Syria, Iraq and even further afield, sectarian hostility has taken on a life beyond what the kingdom’s architects are able to manage. [Continue reading…]

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Can the U.S. avoid taking sides in the Saudi-Iran conflict?

Trita Parsi writes: from the U.S. perspective, Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing activities are a vindication of the nuclear deal it struck with Iran in 2015. One critical benefit of that deal, left unstated by Obama administration officials, is that it helped reduce U.S. dependency on Saudi Arabia.

By resolving the nuclear standoff and getting back on talking terms with Iran, Washington increased its options in the region.

As Admiral Mike Mullen wrote in Politico last year in regards to the benefits of the nuclear deal: “It would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide.”

Mindful of the deliberate manner Saudi Arabia is driving matters towards a crisis in the region – partly motivated by a desire to trap the United States in Riyadh’s own enmity with Iran – Washington is clearly better off being able to play a balancing role between Saudi and Iran rather than being obligated to fully support Saudi Arabia’s regional escapades. [Continue reading…]

Laura Rozen reports: Saudi Arabia, in carrying out the execution and severing relations with Iran, may have been trying to send messages to both domestic and international audiences about its resolve against what Riyadh perceives as Iranian expansionism in the region, but it may have miscalculated how the messages would be received, [Philip Gordon, former Obama White House top Middle East adviser] said.

“It is a sign of insecurity,” Gordon, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said. “I do worry that it is a miscalculation.”

“One of the things the Saudis worry about is that people [including in the US administration] come to the conclusion that Iran, while we have problems with it, could be a partner … [and] we should start working with them,” he said. “With this, the Saudis are saying, that won’t work — choose sides.” [Continue reading…]

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Will Hassan Khomeini shape the future of Iran?

Hassan-Khomeini

A special correspondent for Foreign Policy reports: Hassan Khomeini, the best-known grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, registered on Dec. 18 as a candidate in next year’s elections for the Assembly of Experts. The 88-member committee is charged with selecting Iran’s next supreme leader when the incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76 years old and is said to be ailing, dies. The young Khomeini is the first member of his family to seek public office since the death in 1989 of his feted grandfather, who founded the Islamic Republic and served as its first supreme leader. The only question is whether the 43-year-old will be allowed to embark on a path that could eventually lead to the very top of Iran’s complex power structure.

Hassan was born in Qom, the center of religious education in Iran, and home to the country’s clerical political establishment. Hassan’s father, Ahmad, was involved only peripherally in government, having played an influential role in assisting his own father after the long-exiled ayatollah’s triumphant return to Tehran in February 1979. Had he not died of a heart attack in 1995, Ahmad might have preceded his son’s entry to electoral politics.

But now it is Hassan who is moving to center stage.

Having studied and taught in Qom, his main job has been running the mausoleum in Tehran where his father and grandfather are interred, considered a hallowed task by many in Iran. He first started stirring notice in political circles in 2008, when he implicitly criticized Iran’s new political and military elite, which has filled its pockets even while preaching loyalty to the revolution’s founder and the Iranian people.

The IRGC, established by the first supreme leader to protect Iran from foreign and domestic threats, proved its worth during the Iran-Iraq war — but has since earned the enmity of many Iranians by engaging in widespread cronyism and throwing its weight behind the most hard-line figures in the Islamic Republic.

“Those who claim to be loyal to Imam Khomeini should follow his order that the military must stay out of politics,” the younger Khomeini said in an explosive speech when the IRGC was flexing its muscles in 2008 by supporting then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Khomeini met with reformists before the election the following year and then spoke out in support of the movement’s two defeated candidates, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who claimed the presidential ballot was rigged.

Keeping such company earned Khomeini some credit among moderates. He also shunned Ahmadinejad’s inauguration ceremony, depriving the event of the legitimacy of his family’s endorsement.

Supporters have long wanted Khomeini to enter the public arena. He is markedly younger than the current crop of top Iranian politicians and has already shown something of a youthful, common touch: He’s known to be a fan of Iran’s soccer league and has appeared as a guest on a popular television fanzine. On the show, he said he thought he could have had a career in the game if his grandfather had not ordered him to deepen his religious studies when he was 21 years old.

Khomeini’s 18-year-old son, Ahmad, is another asset. He has 188,000 followers on Instagram, which unlike Facebook or Twitter is not blocked in Iran and offers his father a unique platform to connect with young voters. The Instagram feed provides an insight into the societal change that Khamenei shows no willingness to acknowledge: Photos show Ahmad in Nike sports clothes at a time when Khamenei says American brands should be banned. Yet the teenager is also reverent toward his ancestors, posting pictures of his great-grandfather (who famously branded America “the Great Satan”) and he has taken part in religious ceremonies himself, seamlessly inhabiting both the old and new Iran. [Continue reading…]

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