On March 10, 2023, five days of discussions between Riyadh and Tehran, brokered by Beijing, were concluded. The discussions resulted in the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two regional powers, a move that shocked the region.
Such restoration is a strategic political move between the two powers that have been playing against each other for an unsettling amount of time. The ties were officially cut after the attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in 2016, and the two have been fighting ever since through proxy wars. Through such, each country has supported a rebel group and their militias exacerbating pre-existing tensions.
From Syria’s involvement in Yemen and their attempts to gain control and power over the region’s oil and promote religious extremism, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s political history has been turbulent. The constant fluctuation of relations between Riyadh and Tehran has left citizens in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and their proxy countries in a state of constant turmoil. The victims that are caught in the crossfire are innocent bystanders who often have their basic human rights violated or ignored by the repressive regimes and the international community.
A deliberately vague deal
The act of leaving policies vague and issues unanswered in diplomatic deals is a method used by political actors to leave space for speculation and freedom in order to manoeuvre in the pursuit of their own political and economic interests.
The deal between the two hostile powers, Tehran and Riyadh, has been left deliberately vague, especially concerning their military involvement in Yemen and Syria. The ambiguity in the deal between the two countries has severe repercussions for innocent civilians whose rights are not taken into consideration. By leaving their conflicting ideals on the war in Yemen and Syria unresolved, Tehran and Riyadh are intentionally staying silent about the indiscriminate killing of civilians.
Although the two countries agreed on a six-month truce as a step toward resolving the war in Yemen, the details of the topic remain largely conflicted with little confirmation on how the war in Yemen would be resolved.
The Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, made it clear after the talks that the deal does not include the conflict in Yemen, emphasising that the Yemeni crisis is primarily a Yemeni affair. This raises questions about their involvement in the conflict, leaving the issue unresolved, thereby showing no signs of the peace and religious acceptance that the deal is meant to promote.
It can be stated that Saudi Arabia and Iran are, to a great extent, unwilling to reduce or accept their religious indifference, rather they both continue to exploit conflict risen situations to their advantage in hopes to expand influence in the region.
Religious acceptance on paper
Whilst the deal between the two countries implies that there is acceptance of Shia practices in Saudi Arabia and Sunni faith in Iran, does this reality of religious tolerance and interfaith spread to the citizens at home and abroad?
The majority of Saudi Arabia’s population practice Sunni Islam, whilst the majority in Iran practice Shia Islam. The two countries have been in an extended period of conflict due to their religious differences, and their pursuit to promote their own Islamic sects in the region.
It can be perplexing to believe that decades’ worth of religiously motivated tension will disappear in the face of one deal. Tehran and Riyadh may have signed a deal to ‘protect peace and security’ in the region, yet for citizens in Iran and Saudi Arabia, life will continue to remain unjust, unequal, and unsafe.
Such a trend of religious acceptance has been one that has taken waves through the Middle East over the last decade, yet society remains unchanged and the reality for people on the ground is quite different.
It can be stated that this may be a tool to provide the international community with the illusion that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are open to differing religious ideals, presenting the image that they are respecting their minority populations and other sects of Islam.
Sunni repression in Iran
Whilst the Sunni population in Iran is the largest minority group, making up approximately 10% of the population, they remain largely marginalised, restricted, and excluded from civil and political institutions. Sunnis mainly come from Baluchi, Turkmen, Arab, and Kurdish ethnic backgrounds all of which have their rights diminished severely by the Iranian regime.
Concern over Sunni marginalisation has been amplified since the inauguration of President Ebrahim Raisi, who tightened restrictions further on the minority, making life increasingly difficult for those caught in the middle.
Political disenfranchisement is the daily reality that Sunnis in Iran must deal with leaving them unable to hold high government positions such as the Guardian Council, Assembly of Experts, and the monetary council. 12 out of the 277 members of the Assembly of Religious Experts are Sunni, with only 6% of the elected Members of Parliament being Sunni which has had negative effects on the representation in Iran.
Article 12 of the Iranian constitution declares that the official religion of Iran is Islam, stating that the Sunni population is at liberty to perform the religious practices they choose with no interference. However, like the deal between Saudi and Iran, this is not the reality as Sunnis are treated as second-class citizens in their own country.
Tensions heightened further on September 16, 2022, after the killing of a Kurdish 22-year-old, Mahsa Amini. Since that day, nationwide protests have taken full-scale action leaving most of the country’s Sunni regions feeling the biggest impact of the regime crackdown. The city of Zahedan and the Kurdish city of Mahabad, mainly home to the Sunni population, have been prone to regime terror which has increased since these protests.
As mentioned by Amnesty International, 66 innocent civilians in Zahedan, Sistan, and Baluchistan provinces had been killed by state police. This day has been labelled as ‘Bloody Friday’ as it was the deadliest day since the beginning of the Mahsa Amini protests.
Discrimination, disenfranchisement, and disregard for human life is a concerning trend that has been lingering across Iran’s Sunni provinces since the beginning of the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Until state-backed discrimination is addressed in Iran, hopes for successful peace talks between Iran and its neighbouring countries will only go so far.
Shia minority in Saudi Arabia
The Shia population makes up approximately 12% of the overall population in Saudi Arabia where they mainly reside in the country’s eastern province. The eastern province has suffered from a long history of oppression and resistance by the ruling monarchs, the House of Suad.
Like Sunni disenfranchisement in Iran, the Shia population is unable to exercise the same rights as their fellow Sunni citizens in Saudi Arabia, such as the right to hold posts in the national guards, government ministries, and the royal court. Thus, religiously motivated violations will continue to take place as long as the Shia population remains largely underrepresented in government bodies.
The Shia community is targeted by security forces and often faces baseless trials in court which either leads to execution or imprisonment. It is not rare to see Shia clerics or activists being sentenced to death or facing harsh punishment due to their religious affiliation and activism. Often, Shia inmates will face harsher treatment than Sunni inmates.
Those who choose to speak up against the dire human rights violations get immediately persecuted and imprisoned. In 2016, renowned Shia cleric and critic of the House of Saud, Nimr al-Nimr, was executed alongside 47 Shia activists on the vague charge of terrorism.
In addition to this, much of the Shia population in eastern cities, like Dammam, are unable to practice in their places of worship due to their inability to obtain permits to open Shia mosques. Additionally, they are widely prevented from economically benefiting from the eastern region's wide oil reserve. Annual Shia celebrations, most commonly Ashura, are a fertile ground for government repression and marginalisation.
Repression of differing Islamic sects is solidified in Saudi Arabia’s 1992 Basic Law of Governance, which states that religious freedom is not provided under the law. Throughout all levels of the schooling system, students are taught according to the religious instructions of Sunni Islam, specifically in the Hanbali School.
This deal is not a new tool used by the Saudi Arabian Government, rather we have seen a plethora of examples over the past couple of years where Saudi Arabia has worked tirelessly to enhance its international image through concerts, sporting events, and cultural shows. The enhancement of such serves to deviate attention from the reality that major human rights violations have and continue to take place daily.
Deviation from the reality of religious repression
The deal between the two countries is one that veers the international community from the true issues that exist at home, by creating an image of collaboration and acceptance. This deal is merely a soft power move serving to enhance both Iran and Saudi Arabia’s credibility in the eyes of the West.
For Iran, this deal serves as a strategic tool to adjust their international image moving away from their radical reputation to one of cooperation and modernisation. Whilst for Saudi Arabia, this deal serves as an opportunity to extract itself from the Yemen war by engaging in peace talks and ceasefire.
This is a cause for concern, seeing as minority groups are still being persecuted daily, prevented from receiving their basic human rights freedom, and the right to practice their chosen religion.
The international community should not be distracted by glamourous political deals, rather these normalisation deals should serve as a starting point to inspect the true reality of living standards at home. If the international community continues to ignore these clear signs of diversion, religious minorities will continue to be persecuted at the hand of vicious regimes and intolerant politicians.
Ultimately, citizens do not receive the benefits of these drastic political deals, instead they continue to get harmed in the political playground which they have involuntarily been placed in.
The path to sustainable peace and religious acceptance for Iran and Saudi Arabia remains long and unresolved. For the layers of normalisation to take their essence effectively, both Iran and Saudi Arabia must address their core societal issues domestically before attempting to create an international façade that serves to cover up gross human rights violations.