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January 04, 2016 - Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday and gave all Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the kingdom, as escalating tensions over the execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia on Saturday marked a new low in relations between the two Middle Eastern powers. The announcement by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, during a televised news conference  followed harsh criticism by Iranian leaders of the Saudis’ execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and protesters' storming of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

  • The supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that Saudi Arabia would face divine vengeance for the execution of Sheikh Nimr, a day after protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.
  • Saudi Arabia, which put the cleric to death in a mass execution of 47 men accused of terrorism-related offenses, fired back, saying Iran had “revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran are historic foes. Saudi, being predominantly Sunni, and Iran, being the center of Shiite Islam, consider themselves as the champions of their own respective religions. While they have had no direct armed confrontations, they have engaged in numerous diplomatic squabbles. Diplomatic tensions deepened when Saudi openly gave its support to the rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria, a regime long considered Iran’s closest ally.

Iran has been undeterred by the economic and military isolation under US-led sanctions from becoming militarily independent, spending years developing ingenious weapons systems and raising an army almost three times the size of Saudi Arabia’s military. Iran's superficial military advantages are mitigated somewhat by Saudi's technological superiority.

  • The Iranian army is equipped with numerous locally-developed Zulfiqar tanks. Saudi Arabia’s tank arsenal is smaller but comprised mostly of the technologically-superior and battle-tested American M1 Abrams.
  • Iran's sizable air force is equipped with an ageing fleet of F-14 Tomcats. In contrast, Saudi Arabia's air force is among the most formidable countries in the Middle East with its arsenal of F-15s and Eurotyphoons and potential future addition of the coveted US F-35 Multi-Role Joint Strike Fighter. 
  • The Iranian navy also has numerical superiority. However, numerical superiority is hardly synonymous with overall power. Saudi Arabia’s navy, roughly one fifth of the size of Iran’s navy, is well equipped with technologically-advanced ships and naval aircraft.

Escalation of military tensions between the two countries could further undermine security throughout the region and spook global oil markets just as Iran is set to boost its oil production.

Sources: Global Firepower, 2015; JODI Oil Dataset, April 2017IMF World Economic Outlook (WEO), April 2017 

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