If history is anything to go by then Saudi Arabia's executions of thirty-seven Saudis, most believed to be Shia, could incite anger in the region and a response from Iran.

Yesterday, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia beheaded 37 of its citizens on “terrorism” charges in what was the country’s largest mass execution since January 2016. Among the convicted, 11 were found guilty of espionage for Iran, and 14 were beheaded for violent crimes linked to alleged participation in anti-regime protests in the Eastern Province during 2011 and 2012.

According to the Saudi Interior Ministry, those executed promoted extremist ideologies and established terrorist cells to provoke sectarian strife across the kingdom. The interior ministry also stated that Khaled bin Abdel Karim al Tuwaijri’s body was pinned to a pole in an unspecified location for a couple of hours, a gruesome act that is rarely carried out even in Saudi Arabia.

Most of those executed were Shia, leading to harsh condemnation by human rights organisations which accuse authorities in the kingdom of using the death penalty to silence Shia dissent.

The beheading of 37 Saudi nationals yesterday put the number of people whom the Saudi authorities have executed in 2019 at 104, which, already in April, is approaching the number executed last year, 149. That three of those who were beheaded yesterday were minors when they committed their alleged crimes and that the executed made confessions in custody,  likely after being tortured, further contributed to the outcry from human rights organisations which were quick to condemn this mass execution.

From the standpoint of regional security, there is reason to be concerned about the potentially destabilising impact given that sectarian temperatures are already high in the Persian Gulf and Levant.

Many have interpreted yesterday’s beheadings as a powerful message from Riyadh to Tehran about the kingdom’s determination to remain steadfast in its efforts to counter Iranian, or Shia, influence in the region against the backdrop of the kingdom’s failed attempts to achieve victory in Yemen and the Iran-allied Syrian regime’s gradual reintegration into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold.

How will the governments in Iran and Iraq—as well as various non-state actors related to these countries—respond to this latest wave of beheadings?

The kingdom's mass execution of 47 people (mainly Saudi nationals) in early 2016 triggered a crisis in Riyadh-Tehran relations with Saudi Arabia and several of the kingdom’s regional allies cutting off diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic. Because Sheikh Nimr Baqir al Nimr was among those executed in 2016, his death met a furious and emotive response from Shia Muslims throughout the Middle East and other regions.

If authorities in Tehran and Baghdad respond to Saudi Arabia in any manner that could fuel a tit-for-tat escalation, such a development would quickly dim any prospects for an Iraqi-brokered detente in the Saudi-Iranian standoff.

Although perhaps difficult for many to imagine, some regional observers grew more optimistic on this front following the gathering of officials from all of Iraq’s neighbours—including Saudi Arabia and Iran—earlier this month in Baghdad.

At this conference, which marked a rare meeting of representatives of the Saudi and Iranian governments, all parties agreed to work to preserve Iraq’s cohesion and stability. Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s recent visits to both Saudi Arabia and Iran in the lead up to this conference signalled Baghdad’s keenness to, at least, try to drive both countries closer to a badly-needed dialogue that has been absent for years.

An escalation in friction between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic would put greater pressure on Iraq’s government, which seeks to emerge as a mediator between both Iran and Syria on one side and the Arab Persian Gulf monarchies, chiefly Saudi Arabia, on the other.

Another sign of a potential Saudi-Iranian rapprochement came only several days before this latest mass execution when the kingdom along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced their donations of 95 tons of grain to flood-struck Iran. The gesture served to purchase Riyadh and Abu Dhabi considerable goodwill against the backdrop of the war in Yemen resulting in more voices in governments and civil society organisations worldwide placing blame for the world’s worst humanitarian disaster on both Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s doorsteps.

Without question, an inflammatory Iranian response to yesterday’s executions risks further raising the region’s sectarian temperatures while severely eroding any basis for optimism regarding a detente between the Persian Gulf’s two central powers.

Cynically, the executions in Saudi Arabia were possibly aimed at provoking Iran into taking actions that could give the US administration of Donald Trump the pretext for launching military operations against Iran or the country’s military forces/proxies in the region.

With the US ending Iran waivers, the Iranian economy is on the verge of facing the newest phase of the Trump White House’s campaign of “maximum pressure”, which is aimed at choking Tehran into capitulating into the administration’s demands, yet has notably failed to do so thus far.

Tehran’s overall restrained response to the US government’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization suggests that Iran’s leadership is fully aware of the dangers of being baited into escalation. But it is worth asking how much longer Iran will continue with restraint, especially given the influence of hardliners in Tehran who are the political benefactors of Trump’s “maximum pressure” agenda.

Diako Hosseini, the director of the World Studies Program at the Center for Strategic Studies, put it bluntly. “There is no guarantee to end this warmongering in 2020. As Rouhani said Iran has been patient so far just because give an opportunity to the Trump administration to change the malicious policy against Iran. The fact is, only maximum pressure can stop maximum pressure.”

Doubtless, within this context of tension dangerously mounting in US-Iran relations, yesterday’s executions risk provoking a significant escalation in the region that could unleash a level of outright hostility in Saudi-Iranian relations not seen since the Iran-Iraq war.

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