As the West, Europe in particular, weighs the risks emerging from the diplomatic escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the possibility of an actual—armed—confrontation between the two countries is among the spectres that seem increasingly hard to dispel.
Saudi Arabia is already bogged down militarily in Yemen, along with some of the more enthusiastic partners in its coalition, and has faced charges of crimes against humanity. The diplomatic severance between Tehran and Riyadh closes, at least for now, many channels of direct communication between the two sides.
Coming soon after the warming of diplomatic and trade ties between Europe and Iran, the Iran-Saudi diplomatic escalation confronts both the NATO military alliance and the European Union with some difficult choices.
What will EU/NATO do if the escalation gets worse and leads to war? This is a question foremost in the minds of analysts and certainly not distant from the thought processes of decision-makers likely to be called upon to act.
Iran’s moderate elite says Saudi Arabia’s killing of its moderate opposition leaders, both Sunni and Shia, is a mistake that Riyadh may live to regret. The more radical Iranian official opinion, however, has invited divine retribution. The killing of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in particular has galvanised opinion against the Saudi kingdom, and not just in religious communities of Shia persuasion.
Amnesty International, the advocacy group, said the killing of al-Nimr and 46 others in a single day demonstrated Saudi Arabia’s disregard for human rights and life.
“Saudi Arabia’s authorities have indicated that the executions were carried out to fight terror and safeguard security. However, the killing of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in particular suggests they are also using the death penalty in the name of counter-terror to settle scores and crush dissidents,” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme.
Sheikh Nimr was convicted after a political and grossly unfair trial, said Amnesty. With the exception of the Sheikh and three Shia Muslim activists, the others were convicted of involvement with al-Qa’ida.
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr had been a vocal critic of the Saudi Arabian government and was among seven activists whose death sentences were upheld in early 2015. They had all been arrested for participating in protests in the kingdom’s Eastern Province in 2011, and for calling for political reform.Also sentenced to death following their participation in the protests were Ali al-Nimr, the Sheikh’s nephew, Abdullah al-Zaher and Dawood Hussein al-Maroon, all of whom were under 18 at the time of their arrest. All three remain at risk of execution, after being convicted in deeply unfair trials and claiming to have suffered torture and other ill-treatment, Amnesty said.
“Carrying out a death sentence when there are serious questions about the fairness of the trial is a monstrous and irreversible injustice. The Saudi Arabian authorities must heed the growing chorus of international criticism and put an end to their execution spree,” said Philip Luther.
“A first step would be for them to remove the threat of execution currently hanging over individuals sentenced for ‘crimes’ they committed while they were children,” added Luther.