On January 2, 2016, 47 convicts, including the prominent Saudi-born Shia Islam cleric Nimr al-Nimr, were executed in several Saudi cities, setting the Middle East ablaze.
The execution prompted condemnation in the Shiite Arab World, the European Union and the United Nations, protests being carried out in cities in Iran, Iraq, India, Lebanon, Pakistan and Turkey.
The Saudi Embassy in Tehran was set ablaze and on January 4, 2016 Saudi Arabia announced that it would cut diplomatic ties with Iran and Iranian diplomats are to leave the country within 48 hours.
The diplomatic rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran seems to spiral out of control, entangling other Muslim countries: Bahrain severs diplomatic ties with Iran, the United Arab Emirates reduces its diplomats in Teheran and Sudan expelles the entire Iranian diplomatic mission in the country.
Western analysts fear that a more direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran could erupt. The Syrian crisis and the conflict in Yemen are more than ever growing far away from a diplomatic solution, now that the two pivot Muslim states of the Middle East are waging an open confrontation.
Over the time, the relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been strained by sectarianism and differences in the interpretation of Islam, as well as by their different geopolitical agendas targeting the leadership in the Islamic World, energy policy, relations with the US and the West.
Saudi Arabia is a conservative “Wahhabi” Sunni Islamic kingdom, with traditionally close ties with the United States and United Kingdom, while Iran is a Twelver Shia Islamic Republic, founded in an anti-Western revolution.
Both countries have aspirations for leadership of Islam and have different visions of stability and regional order. After the Islamic Revolution, relations deteriorated considerably, after Iran accused Saudi Arabia of representing US interests in the Persian Gulf region. At the same time, Saudi Arabia accused Iran of desire to export its revolution and expand its influence within the Persian Gulf region.
The difference of political ideologies and governance has also divided the two countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran is based on the principle of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, stating that a faqīh (Islamic jurist) has custodianship over all Muslim followers, including their governance and regardless of nationality. In Iran the Supreme Leader is a Shia faqīh. Saudi Arabia is a conservative monarchy, considered un-Islamic by Iran, and is politically committed to age-old religious leaders of the tribes who support the king (namely the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques), to whom absolute obedience is given according to the Islamic Sharia Law.
Both countries are major oil and gas exporters and they have clashed over energy policy. Saudi Arabia, with its large oil reserves and smaller population, has a greater interest in considering a long-term view of the global oil market and tends to moderate prices. In contrast, Iran is obliged to focus on high prices in the short term due to its low standard of living, given the period of sanction it faced.