European Sympathies Lean Toward Iran in Conflict with Saudi Arabia

by Sewell Chan
New York Times
JAN. 4, 2016

LONDON — In the days since Saudi Arabia inflamed tensions with Iran by executing 47 people, including a Shiite cleric, European observers have been quick to condemn the action, reflecting broader concern across the Continent about Saudi policy and its role in the tumult rolling through the Middle East.

Opposition in Europe to the death penalty — and harsh corporal punishment, including the flogging of a Saudi blogger who has become something of a cause célèbre in Europe — is just one element of the criticism of the Saudi monarchy. Even as European governments continue to view Saudi Arabia as a vital if problematic stabilizing force in the region, as well as a rich market for European arms and other products, European opinion has grown increasingly critical of Saudi support and financing for Wahhabist and Salafist preachers who have contributed to the Sunni extremist ideology that has fueled Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

In addition, the European Union and six major world powers reached a deal in Vienna over the summer to contain Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran is seen as essential to ending the five-year-old civil war in Syria, which has fueled a surge of migrants to the Continent, the highest number since World War II.

So for many Europeans, Iran — long a pariah because of its anti-Western rhetoric and its nuclear program — has suddenly become, at least in comparison with Saudi Arabia, an object of sympathy.

“As long as Saudi Arabia is lead by its obsession to put Iran in its place, all attempts at peace in the Middle East will fail,” Rainer Hermann, a Middle East expert in Germany, wrote in a column in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, warning that Saudi Arabia might destroy the carefully wrought attempt to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

While it was difficult to gauge broad public attitudes, a review of elite opinion — as expressed by political leaders on social media, commentators in major publications, and a few experts in interviews — suggests that many Europeans blame Saudi Arabia for instigating the latest dispute by executing the cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. The crisis quickly escalated with the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on Saturday and with the decision of Saudi Arabia and several of its allies to sever diplomatic ties with Iran.

Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister who was a central player in resolving the Balkans conflicts in the 1990s, warned on Twitter that the decision to execute the cleric “doesn’t bode well for the stability of the Kingdom” and called Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut ties to Iran “a distinctly bad move.” (He added, “It goes without saying that Iran gravely neglected its duties to protect Saudi diplomatic premises.”)

European governments were more circumspect in their criticism — but not much more. The French Foreign Ministry said it deplored the executions. The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherlini, said they had the “potential of inflaming further the sectarian tensions that already bring so much damage to the entire region.”

Britain, a major supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia, was the most cautious in its criticism of the executions. Its government’s statement on the situation came from a junior minister, Tobias Ellwood, not from the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond. Mr. Ellwood said that Britain was “firmly opposed to the death penalty” but also chastised Iran for failing to prevent the attack on the Saudi Embassy.

Reprieve, a leading human rights organization in Britain, criticized Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative government as too tepid toward the Saudi executions, saying it should “not turn a blind eye to such atrocities.”

In an editorial, Le Monde noted that France supplies arms to Saudi Arabia but also that it has improved relations with Iran — whose president, Hassan Rouhani, had planned a state visit to France that had to be delayed because of the Paris terrorist attacks in November.

The newspaper, noting “centuries-old confrontation between Arabs and Persians,” compared the clash of Iran and Saudi Arabia to that of Europe’s great powers in the period leading up to the World War I.

In an interview, Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and an authority on the Sunni-Shiite regional conflict, said that Western opinion in this case was weighted in Iran’s favor — in part because of the European Union’s desire for rapprochement with Iran.

“Europeans think the dispute is serious but they think — and so does the White House — that Saudis don’t want reconciliation with Iran, want to exclude Iran from all regional discussions and want to provoke Iran into an action that would then derail engagement with West,” Dr. Nasr said. “This crisis was started by Saudi, and Riyadh was quick to use it to break ties, which means end to any broad regional engagement like the Vienna talks.”

Guillaume Xavier-Bender, a trans-Atlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said in an interview that “Europeans are worried that this will escalate and keep on escalating.”

He also expressed alarm that countries with mixed populations — Syria and Yemen, where civil wars are raging, and Bahrain, where a Shiite population is governed by a Sunni monarchy — could fall into even further chaos.

For average Europeans, “it’s the executions themselves that are revolting to the general public.” Policy makers, he said, were more focused on not losing the momentum of the European détente with Iran.

“Iran has been, relatively, good in implementing the nuclear deal so far, and elections are coming next month,” Mr. Xavier-Bender said. “The normalization of relations with Iran is almost going too well. So Saudi Arabia is now making a show of force.”

Claire Barthelemy contributed reporting.

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