The heated verbal battle between Tehran and Riyadh over Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shiite cleric escalated Sunday night, Jan 3, with the severance of diplomatic relations. On the broader front, the repercussions from the quarrel between the two leaders of the Muslim world’s Shia-Sunni split are widely seen in Middle East military and intelligence circles as spurring a fast-track Hizballah attack on Israel.
Among the 47 people executed by Saudi Arabia Saturday on terrorism charges was Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, Saudi Shiite leader and a prominent Shiite cleric in the region. Put to death with him were several Saudi Shiite and Sunni activists, which enraged Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to the point of threatening the Saudi royal family with “divine revenge.”
From Iran’s perspective, the Saudis committed the unpardonable act of executing Shiites together with Sunni Al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists. This made the House of Saud the first ruling power ever to treat Shiite and Sunni terrorists alike. This, more than anything, incensed Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hizballah, who are deep in a bloody war against the Sunni Islamic State and the Nusra Front terrorists in Syria. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are additionally locked in a bitter conflict with ISIS in Iraq.
The Iranian war effort is backed by the US in Iraq and by Russia in Syria.
By the mass executions of both classes of terrorist at the same time, Riyadh issued four messages:
1. Washington and Moscow are wrong. The Iranians and the forces they back in the Persian Gulf, Syria and Iraq are just as much terrorists as ISIS and Al Qaeda.
2. The House of Saud is determined to fight both with equal resolve and severity
3. Riyadh has already taken Tehran on in Yemen, and indirectly in Syria, and is now ready to take the fight against Tehran all the way to the war on terror.
4. Taking off the diplomatic gloves, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir Monday night severed relations with Iran and ordered all Iranian diplomats to leave the kingdom within 48 hours. The foreign ministry said that by condemning the Nimr execution, Iran was supporting terrorism.
Saudi diplomats were already gone after protesters in Tehran torched and ransacked the Saudi embassy Saturday.
Amid all the sound and fury, Tehran’s attention was drawn to comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the light of a major terrorist attack in Tel Aviv. He pointed out that, in addition to the Palestinians, Israel is threatened by two streams of radical Islam, the Shiites and the Sunnis.
He was clearly referring to Iran and its terrorist arm, Hizballah, on the one hand, and ISIS and Al Qaeda, on the other, inspired less by the Tel Aviv outrage than by the gathering clouds of terror darkening the region, which place the Saudi royal family and Israel on the same side, sharing a similar perception of the two foes facing both countries.
Policymakers in Jerusalem noted the odd statement by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to reporters on Saturday, January 1 on the way home from a visit to Riyadh. After years of reviling the Jewish state, he said, “Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region. We have to admit that we also need Israel.”
He sounded as though he was urging the resumption of the old political and military alliance binding the two countries years ago.
DEBKAfile’s Middle Eastern sources point out that, since his comment came directly after his talks with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, it appeared to open a path toward the possible creation of a new Middle East bloc consisting of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, perhaps Egypt, and Israel, bound by the same enemies. This grouping could serve as a counterweight against the Sunni-Shiite bloc of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizballah, which has the backing of the US and Russia on one hand, and fights ISIS on the other.
Iran’s leaders may curse the House of Saud without restraint, but they are canny enough not to go from words to deeds, knowing they would be on their own if they attacked the oil kingdom and earn no backing from either Washington or Moscow.
However, it might be easier for Tehran to take advantage of Netanyahu’s tough predicament in his war on terror, by sending Hizballah to strike Israel and, meanwhile, pre-empt the formation of a new anti-Tehran alliance. Speeding up Hassan Nasrallah’s promised revenge for the assassination of its master terrorist Samir Quntar would serve this purpose.
This possibility has prompted the IDF to keep artillery units pounding areas bordering on Israel during the past few days. The IDF says this action is necessary to stop Hizballah exploiting the stormy, snowy winter weather to attack Israel. Its military chiefs appear to be acting on information received of an approaching Hizballah operation as its leader has threatened.