January 4, 2016 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Regional Isolation Deepens

January 4, 2016 | Policy Brief

Iran’s Regional Isolation Deepens

Bahrain and Sudan severed diplomatic relations with Iran on Monday, one day after Saudi Arabia did the same over Tehran's failure to protect Saudi diplomatic facilities from angry Iranian mobs. Also Monday, the United Arab Emirates downgraded its representation in Tehran to the level of chargé d'affaires and required Iran to reduce its own mission in the country. Although the mob attacks came in response to Riyadh’s controversial execution of a prominent domestic Shiite critic, the net outcome so far seems to be Iran’s deepening regional isolation.

Bahrain and Sudan were already scaling back ties with Iran, but Monday's announcements represented a new low in their relations with Tehran, and Saudi influence over both countries likely played a role in their decisions.

Bahrain relies heavily on Saudi Arabia’s financial, diplomatic, and military support to bolster its regime against Shiite opposition forces, much of which it characterizes as pawns of Iran.  Shiite terrorist groups in the country appear to be the beneficiaries of material support from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Bahrain withdrew its ambassador from Tehran in protest over one plot in October.

Sudan agreed in 2015 to contribute ground troops to the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite insurgents, and Khartoum reportedly also closed some of Iran's offices in its territory.  Saudi Arabia reportedly demonstrated its gratitude last year by depositing $1 billion in Sudan's central bank, pledged further investment and efforts to roll back international sanctions against the country, and repeatedly hosted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in spite of an international warrant for his arrest on charges of genocide in Darfur.

In turn, Iran pursued a charm offensive in the Gulf to isolate Saudi Arabia from its neighbors and reap economic benefits without rolling back the IRGC’s regional aggression. However, Tehran is now on the defensive after ignoring repeated Saudi requests to protect diplomatic facilities for more than twelve hours before the embassy was ransacked.

Nevertheless, Riyadh’s execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr – along with dozens of Sunni citizens convicted of terrorism – was a miscalculation. Although Nimr was an anti-regime provocateur, the Saudis never made a convincing case that he was a terrorist. Nimr symbolized the aspirations of many Saudi Shiites for equal citizenship. Pro-Iranian militias in Bahrain and Iraq previously threatened to carry out terrorist attacks if the cleric was executed.

Just last week, Iran sought to paper over its differences with Saudi Arabia, hinting at secret talks behind the scenes and insisting that if Riyadh is “serious,” it would be ready to change the “current climate … so that it meets the interests of both countries.” The reality, however, is that the two Gulf powerhouses have barely communicated for years as their regional proxies continue battling each other from Syria to Yemen. However, the Saudi-Iran rupture could mark a new, even bloodier phase of that turf war if Tehran chooses – as it has in the past – to deploy its terrorist proxies against Saudi-linked targets in the region and beyond.

David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWeinberg