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Dangerous polarisation

Updated January 05, 2016

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THE assurance given to Austria by Iran and Saudi Arabia that they are not interested in heightening the tension is the only redeeming feature of the crisis touched off by the Saudi execution of 47 people on terrorism-related charges.

Those executed included Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shia cleric, who was a vocal critic of the Saudi royal family. His execution touched off violent demonstrations in Iran, where protesters attacked Saudi missions in Tehran and Mashhad, with spiritual leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani denouncing the executions in strong terms.

Also read: Pakistan calls for peaceful resolution to S. Arabia, Iran tensions

Saudi Arabia — followed by Sudan and Bahrain — retaliated by severing diplomatic relations. As was to be expected, the crisis could not remain bilateral and triggered sectarian vitriol, with Iraq’s Moqtada al-Sadr calling for demonstrations and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, chief of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, describing the Saudi executions as “a message of blood”.

Demonstrations have also begun in Pakistan and India, and obviously worse could follow if the principals do not demonstrate the wisdom necessary to contain what could be a deadly fire that could devastate a region already being devoured by the fanatic hordes of the militant Islamic State group.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran execute criminals, with Amnesty International recording nearly 700 hangings in Iran in the first half of 2015.

Those executed were mostly drug smugglers, while some belonged to minority communities. In Saudi Arabia, 2015 saw the highest number of executions, 151, after trials that fell far short of international standards.

What is extraordinary about the executions reported on Saturday was the timing, for Riyadh went ahead with them at a time when Iraq and the Levant are burning in sectarian strife.

While Iraq’s sectarian killings began in the aftermath of the US-led invasion, Syria’s Arab Spring degenerated years ago into a schismatic conflict after non-state actors and two of the Middle East’s major oil powers encouraged the chaos instead of controlling it.

Iran’s failure to protect the Saudi missions was most unfortunate, for the authorities should have foreseen the trouble that was inevitable after al-Nimr’s execution, but Riyadh clearly overreacted.

In September 1979, a furious mob burnt down the American embassy in Islamabad over a rumour, but Washington did not sever relations with Pakistan.

Will Riyadh and Tehran have the foresight and courage to rise above petty considerations and answer the question that is agitating the mind of many in the Muslim world?

Are they going to use their clout with their acolytes to throw the entire region into a big sectarian conflagration that would make the world recall Europe’s 30-year war when the continent was reduced to the worst kinds of atrocities?

Actors in today’s Middle Eastern drama will one day phase out, but the legacy of a Muslim re-enactment of the 30-year war will linger on, making history recall with shame those responsible for all that is happening or could happen in the Muslim heartland today.

Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2016