The international political fallout from the killing of a “dissident” Saudi cleric, Nimr Al Nimr, echoes several years of rising sectarian tensions, driven by geopolitical competition in the Middle East. Beyond today’s war of words between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a deeper, long term worry is that a whole generation of people in the Middle East, where the majority of the population is under 30 years old, is growing up with the assumption that the sectarian divide is the main issue in politics. It is largely the failures of many states in the region to provide equal protection or prosperity for the different groups they govern, which has encouraged people to seek refuge in pre-state identities.
These regional contentions are also contributing to a gradual sectarian polarization in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are backing different sides in a conflict that originally had very little to do with identity politics. The exploitation of identity politics by some in Saudi Arabia and Iran is already deeply troubling, and it could poison the region for decades to come.
There is a problem when Riyadh portrays minors and reformers as terrorists it allows Saudi Arabia to justify the inhumane punishment of its own citizens. The worry, then, is that when Riyadh pronounces the impending execution of terrorists, that decision also includes political activists and nonviolent government opponents. Some might oppose these executions because of the ramifications they will have regionally and beyond. Some individuals might even do so out of concern for Saudi Arabia itself, not just in terms of domestic unrest among its Shia population, but also its international interests.
Nevertheless, condemnation is meaningless when based on hypocrisy. As such Iran has also committed similar crimes, imprisonment of journalist and they have no leg to stand on. It carries the same moral authority as the United States lecturing the world about gun control and reducing incarceration rates. Nonetheless, when Saudi Arabia does awful things, criticize Saudi, not Iran. When Iran does awful things, criticize Iran, not Saudi. It's not difficult. To that end, the brutal executions of non-violent activist by Saudi government was politically and morally inexcusable. This was straight from Assad’s playbook lumping nonviolent activists with terrorists.
Sunni-Shia sectarianism is indeed tearing apart the Middle East, but is largely driven by the very modern and very political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran and Riyadh conflict is not primarily a religious issue. It is a political struggle for regional hegemony and influence.
However exacerbating sectarianism is a way for Saudi regime to distract public from failures in Syria/Yemen, Budget deficits & reduced subsidies. Riyadh considers Iran’s reintegration into the world order and its evolving relationship with Washington as an intense threat to its own hegemonic ambitions. The sectarian intensification possibly is meant to demoralize Washington’s strategic interests in the region, the Iran deal and an end to the Syria war by aggravating tensions in ways that make political progress impossible. Saudi Arabia clearly feels vulnerable as well. Its flapping wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of the Islamic State and the Iran nuclear deal have left it feeling deeply vulnerable.
It's time for Iran and Saudi Arabia to relax rigidities and work on their various connections instead of denigrating each other in public. A blame game and condemning each other of the crimes won’t help settle differences. Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of sponsoring and financing ISIS in Syria, and the Saudis retaliate by accusing Iran of fanning the fire of sectarian conflict in the Middle East. This kind of exchange and blame game is very selfish and won’t help to come up with solutions that will help to realize strategic balancing in the region.