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Foreign Policy Analysis
How does the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict affect Mideast diplomacy?

How does the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict affect Mideast diplomacy?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we return to the tensions
between Saudi Arabia and Iran. I’m joined by Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns
Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Randa Slim of the Middle East institute.
And we welcome you both. Randa Slim, to you first, why did the Saudis
execute this cleric whom they had imprisoned already for several years? RANDA SLIM, Middle East Institute: This is
a crisis that needs to be looked at through the context of an ongoing rivalry for power
between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And this execution is a message from the Saudis
to Iran, but also it’s a message to its own domestic constituency. But I think the crisis
that has been caused by this execution is primarily driven by domestic factors. We have two regimes in this case in Saudi
Arabia and Iran that are acting out of fear and out of feelings of insecurity about the
long-term stability of the regime. And they are using this crisis as a way to consolidate
power and support internally and to send messages also regionally. JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Vali Nasr, the Saudis had
to know that this would inflame and anger Iran. VALI NASR, School of Advanced International
Studies, Johns Hopkins University: Yes, they did. And this came after another crisis which followed
the death of several hundred Iranian pilgrims during a tragedy in Mecca last year. The relations
got very tense. Both sides accused one another of bad intentions. And Iran had also warned
about the killing of this cleric, and so had the United States. And the killing of a cleric, particularly
Shia Islam, is not a trivial matter. And the Saudis knew that this — killing a Shia cleric
is not like killing any other Shia activist. And I think Randa is absolutely correct that
there was a domestic factor. This execution case came a few days after the Saudis announced
their first austerity package internally as a consequence of reduction of oil prices. It also came regionally right after the United
States first included Iran in the Vienna process. And then the Shia government in Iraq, with
American and Iranian support, recaptured Ramadi. It looked like the Iranians were actually
on much of an upswing in the region than the Saudis were. So, it’s also a signal. In addition
to the domestic policy, it’s a signal to the United States as well. JUDY WOODRUFF: Randa Slim, fair to say there
is more animosity on the part of the Saudis toward Iran than the other way around? RANDA SLIM: I think, look, the Iranian threat
has all been prioritized by the Saudi political establishment. And anti-Iran feelings, anti-Shia feelings
are also prevalent among large segments of the Saudi population. But I hate to disagree
with my friend Vali, but there is also — on the Iranian side, there are certain hard-liners
inside the Iranian regime that have approved of the attacks against the Saudi Embassy and
the Saudi Consulate. And these are the members of the Iranian regime
that are feeling very, how to say, concerned, scared about the consequences of the Iran
deal, about Iran opening to the outside world, and how this is going to affect their own
hold on political and economic power. And they are using this crisis as a way to ramp
up support and consolidate their camp ahead of the upcoming elections in Iran in February. JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Vali, some elements in
Iran using this to bolster their own case against normalizing or even coming close to
normalizing relations with the U.S.? VALI NASR: No, actually, I agree with Randa.
There is a faction in Iran which is not happy with the nuclear deal, is not happy with a
change of Iran’s status in the global affairs, and also wants to defeat President Rouhani
and his moderates in the upcoming elections. And I think the Saudi action is much like
when Republicans in Congress posture with new sanctions against Iran. The conservatives
immediately take advantage of it in order to muddy the water, embarrass the president
and try to prove that opening to the West has actually been a mistake and that Iran
would do a lot better by taking a hard-line position. JUDY WOODRUFF: Having all said this, Randa
Slim, what are the consequences? We know there is the war in Syria. There is the nuclear
deal between the Iran and the U.S. What happens to that nuclear deal going forward? RANDA SLIM: Look, this is happening at a time
when tensions, especially sectarian tensions in the region, as they are, are already at
a high pitch. So it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. And the fallout, for example, in terms of
the implications for the negotiations in Syria or the U.N.-sponsored negotiations that were
to be launched at the end of the month in Syria, as well as the U.N. attempts to establish
a permanent defense in Yemen, I think we can say that these efforts have now been dealt
a very severe blow. They’re on life support. And I don’t know
whether the upcoming negotiations in Syria will take place now. Neither Saudi Arabia
nor Iran are incentivized to make concessions, to pressure their Syrian proxies to make concessions.
But then there is also broader regional fallout. I’m very concerned about whether Bahrain will
follow Saudi Arabia too and ramp up its security approach in dealing with its own Shia opposition,
the fallout with the security in Lebanon, where, if Iran or Saudi Arabia tries to pressure
their respective proxies in Lebanon to take sides, how this will impact already high regional
sectarian tension. JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Vali Nasr, how do you
see the repercussions going forward? VALI NASR: Well, I agree with everything that
Randa said, but also it’s important to know that the United States and its international
allies have their own interests in the region, which is fighting ISIS, ending the war in
Syria, making the Iranian nuclear deal successful. It’s very clear that the hard-liners in Iran
and the Saudi regime have a different agenda here. And sectarianism serves that agenda.
Saudi Arabia didn’t want Iran to be included in the regional processes. It doesn’t want
Iran to normalize relations with the West. From the very early on, it rejected the nuclear
deal and it tied the nuclear deal to regional issues. And, also, Saudi Arabia is much more interested
in saying the problem in the Middle East is Iran, not ISIS, whereas, for the West, it’s
now ISIS. Going forward, in 2016, if the United States
wants to get ahead of the ISIS issue, if it wants to find a way to end the war in Syria,
which, I agree with Randa, it’s now very difficult to see how the Vienna process will get us
there — it has to essentially be very clear about what it expects of both sides in terms
of cooperation. JUDY WOODRUFF: Serious repercussions everywhere
you look. Vali Nasr, Randa Slim, we thank you both.

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