The Telegraph
Thursday , January 7 , 2016

Slippery terrain

West Asia appears to have leapt straight from the frying pan into the fire following Saudi Arabia's execution of the dissident Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. Although several other dissidents were executed by Saudi Arabia at the same time, Iran, which sees itself as the protector State for Shia populations worldwide, has interpreted Saudi Arabia's action as the latest in a series of provocative stances. Saudi Arabia has made its displeasure known over the nuclear deal with Iran and has also struck hard at Iran's perceived interests in Yemen and Syria. Iran's official reaction to the Shia cleric's beheading has naturally been unequivocal. Following the burning down of Saudi Arabia's embassy in Tehran, daggers are now sharply drawn in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia and its satellite nations - such as Sudan and Bahrain - have cut off diplomatic ties with Iran. Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are close to doing so. In the coming days, other Islamic nations may have to choose which side they are on.

The trouble is that it is not only West Asian oil-producing or Islamic nations that are caught in this sectarian cleft. The spill-over effect of the unbridled power struggle in West Asia can be expected to spread far and wide. Its immediate fall-out may be a stalemate over Syria, an issue long caught in a limbo over the sectarian spat that has also dragged Russia and America into confrontation. It will also mean the fizz going out of the international coalitions against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, which cannot be contained without resolving the larger issue of Syria. There can be other unseen dangers on this collision course. Afghanistan, an area that has long been Iran's backyard, will feel its impact at a crucial time of drawdown. Pakistan, already under intense pressure to show proof of its allegiance to Saudi Arabia, may make more unenviable choices that will degrade regional security. That could only mean more worry for India, which, in any case, walks a tightrope in balancing its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran - prime oil-suppliers and home to a diaspora whose remittances keep the economy afloat. With Russia compromised by its position in Syria, India will have to turn to China and Japan, both dependent on the same oil sources, to help it navigate the slippery diplomatic terrain and cool temperatures in West Asia.

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