Last week, Saudi Arabia, in an effort to send a clear message that it is serious about fighting terrorism, executed 47 people suspected of terroristic activities in Saudi Arabia in one day. On a purely human rights level, this act is to be condemned but in a world where more innocent civilians are killed daily by terrorists and by the people fighting terror (such as in Syria), the answer to the question of what is moral or efficient in the fight against terror is getting murkier.
Whether or not the Saudis’ message convinced the terrorists to desist from carrying out terrorist acts in the kingdom remains to be seen. But the Saudis’ message was minimized by the uproar over the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by all Shiites and especially by most of Iran’s leaders and the selfie-taking mob which subsequently stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
The fact that only 3 out of the 47 people executed were Shiites while the rest were Sunnis did nothing to appease Tehran and al-Nimr, a Saudi civilian who was convicted in a Saudi court for instigating terrorist activities, quickly became another “innocent” Shiite martyr. A terrorist or a martyr? The question is irrelevant since, for all intents and purposes, he is both.
But what is certain is that the reactions from Tehran were a gross political mistake for the Rouhani administration which led to the severing or downgrading of diplomatic ties with its regional enemy, Saudi Arabia followed by Bahrain, Kuwait, the UAE and Sudan at a time when Tehran is calling for Islamic unity.
Tehran continues to meddle…
Was al-Nimr innocent of the crimes he was convicted for? It is hard to know but the Saudi court found him guilty of inciting his followers to “pursue armed opposition” against the government, for helping a wanted murderer to escape by ramming his car into a police vehicle, of recruiting terrorists who are responsible for the deaths of at least 6 Saudi policemen, three civilians and of attempting to kill two German diplomats. Terrorist? Perhaps, but he is, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei thinks, first and foremost a Shiite and a “pious innocent scholar“, and this fact alone is supposed to give him special privileges over the other 43 Sunnis who were executed for similar reasons and this has led to what the Saudis believe is a “blatant interference” in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs.
This is not a new accusation against Tehran: spy rings and terrorist cells with ties to Iran have been busted in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain and Yemen for trying to incite local Shiites to overthrow their governments. The only country where Tehran was successful in doing so was in Yemen through Shiite Houthi rebels which led to the Saudis open war there.
Whether he admits it or not, Khamenei’s reaction to the execution of al-Nimr is another verbal version of meddling: “The unjustly spilled blood of this oppressed martyr will no doubt soon show its effect and divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians“. The fact that he was convicted for instigating terror is meaningless to Khamenei since the terror was focused on Tehran’s arch-enemies in Riyadh.
On terrorism and diplomacy
Tehran’s redefining of terrorism is a testament to irony: By coming to Bashar al-Assad’s aid in fighting ISIS and repeatedly calling for a global fight against terrorism (Rouhani’s WAVE initiative), Tehran, which supported and continues to support terrorist militias all over the world, repositioned itself as a champion against terrorism. Following the execution of al-Nimr, Tehran took this redefinition one step further by not only negating al-Nimr’s ties to terrorism but also by equating the Saudi government as a “White ISIS” on behalf of the “Zionist regime“.
The Saudis were quick to point out that “Iran is the last country to talk about terrorism” since Iran is it is “a state that sponsors terror, and is condemned by the United Nations and many countries” and of sponsoring “blind sectarianism” . Of course, the Saudis themselves have been accused of sponsoring terrorists themselves and such a war of words only increases the slippery nature of the word “terrorism”.
But what makes matters worst is that Iran’s denouncing of the execution of al-Nimr exemplifies the saying “the pot calling the kettle black”: Iran is notorious for its oppression of Iranian Sunnis and Iranian Christians, of closed-door trials and public executions. Iran hasn’t bowed to any international pressure for convicting WaPo’s Jason Rezaian of spying in a mock trial, a conviction which can send him to the gallows. In view of Tehran’s attitude to courts and executions, the reaction to al-Nimr’s execution simply stinks of hypocrisy.
Internal politics meet regional diplomacy
It’s no secret that Rouhani is striving to live up to his promises to his voters to implement change away from the hardline policies of his predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The JCPoA is a concrete example of such a change and his open efforts to gain enough political momentum in the upcoming elections to the Iranian parliament and the Assembly of Experts is another.
The storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran is seen by many as an effort by hardliners to show Rouhani and his supporters that it is they, and not Rouhani, who control the streets. To his credit, Rouhani was quick to condemn the attack on the embassy as “unjustifiable” but he then attempted to minimize the damage by passing on the blame to a “group of radicals” and by justifying their acts since it was “only natural that a crime against Islamic and human rights will be met with reaction from public opinion“. A crime against human rights? Definitely yes but the president of a country which has executed over 1,000 people in one year has no right to place judgement on capital punishment. A crime against Islamic rights? If al-Nimr really was found guilty of instigating murder, should he not, according to Islamic law pay for his crimes with his life?
Khamenei, who was quick to condemn the execution of al-Nimr, has yet to condemn the storming of the embassy and faces a very tight situation: if he doesn’t condemn the riot, he is placing all of his political weight with the hardliners against Rouhani and against extricating Iran out of its isolation while if he denounces it, he will be seen by hardliners as weak in a critical time when talk about his succession is already on the lips of many in view of the upcoming elections to the Assembly of Experts, the body in charge of choosing, overseeing and firing the Supreme Leader.