With the civil war in Yemen grinding on, the UN Security Council passed a resolution yesterday slapping an arms embargo on the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Russia notably abstained from the vote. “The co-sponsors refused to include the requirements insisted upon by Russia addressed to all sides to the conflict to swiftly halt fire and to begin peace talks,” the Russia’s UN Ambassador remarked afterward. The Russian proposal directly echoes Iran’s line on the conflict, and comes hot on the heels of two announcements earlier this week—that an oil-for-grain deal has been signed between the two countries, and that Moscow intends to deliver S-300 missile batteries to Tehran.
Meanwhile, Cairo and Riyadh discussed holding a “major military maneuver” in Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf States in what is meant to be a show of force—and perhaps a prelude to a ground invasion of Yemen.
In a sign of just how badly relations in the Middle East are deteriorating, Iran suspended Umrah (a year-round pilgrimage to the holy sites, of lesser importance than the Hajj) on allegations that two Iranian young boys were sexually assaulted in Saudi Arabia last week. The Times of London:
“Umrah pilgrimage is suspended until the two criminals are tried and prosecuted. The dignity to the Iranian nation has been affronted,” Ali Jannati, the Iranian culture minister, said yesterday. The Saudi chargé d’affaires in Tehran has been summoned to the foreign ministry, and Iranian officials have demanded a full investigation and the death penalty for those responsible. “Saudi officials said they would hang these people but nothing has happened yet,” Mr Jannati said.
Several hundred people demonstrated outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran at the weekend as news of the incident spread. At Friday prayers in the Iranian capital, there were again calls for the death penalty.
“This is a bitter issue for the honour of Iran and a stain of shame for the state of Saudi Arabia,” an imam said. “They call themselves custodians of the House of God, but look at what they do with the pilgrims of the House of God.”
Beyond being a clear sign of how hotly tempers are flaring between Riyadh and Tehran, the decision also ensures that, in the event of a full-blown crisis, Iran will not have hundreds or even thousands of its citizens effectively stranded in enemy territory.
With every passing day, it feels like the chances are rising for a truly messy conflagration, in large part because of forces that any realist would quickly recognize: the region is falling into disequilibrium, with the Sunni coalition feeling greatly imperiled by the rise of Iran and its Shi’a proxies. President Obama’s push to permanently disentangle the United States from the Middle East appears to be coming up empty—and indeed could easily lead to a much greater commitment by the U.S. in the very near future.