By Telegraph View-
The most obvious casualty of the deepening rift between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim royal family and their bitter Shia Muslim rivals in Iran will be the diplomatic initiative to resolve Syria’s five-year-old civil war, which has so far claimed around 250,000 lives and caused the biggest migration crisis Europe has faced since the end of the Second World War.
Saudi officials continue to insist that they were justified in carrying out the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric renowned for his attacks on the Saudi royal family, whom they claim was responsible for instigating acts of terrorism in the kingdom. But Nimr’s execution at the weekend, together with 46 other convicted terrorists (including the al-Qaeda gunman responsible for seriously wounding BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner and killing his cameraman), has now resulted in the biggest crisis between Riyadh and Tehran since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Gulf state of Bahrain yesterday joined the Saudis in cutting all diplomatic ties with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates and Sudan said they would downgrade their relations with the Shia superpower.
While the Saudis defend their right to execute convicted terrorists, it is clear their decision to do so on such a scale could not have come at a worse time. So far as Britain and other countries involved in the US-led coalition to defeat Islamic State (Isil) are concerned, one of the main priorities is to end the fighting in Syria’s brutal civil war. To that end intense diplomatic efforts were made last year during peace talks in Vienna to persuade Saudi Arabia and Iran to cooperate on arranging a ceasefire between the warring parties. But the prospect of the talks making any progress must now be non-existent, with Iran, which has invested heavily in propping up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, declaring it seeks “divine revenge” against Saudi Arabia for executing Nimr.
Indeed, the diplomatic fallout may well result in a further escalation in hostilities between rival Sunni and Shia factions in the Middle East. The two regional superpowers are already fighting on opposite sides in Yemen’s civil war, and any further deterioration in relations could see them intensify their support for rival factions across a swathe of the Middle East. It is imperative that the two countries, helped by the international community, find a way to calm the situation as soon as possible.