New Delhi: The sooner Iran and Saudi Arabia return to normal relations, the better for the region and the world. This would appear standard and cliched advice. Trouble is no one is giving it, and pressing both parties to withdraw from confrontationist posturing. If their hostility escapes bounds and becomes a full-blown Shia-Sunni strife, all of the Middle East will go up in flames, and directly consume Muslim populations elsewhere. It would completely skew the campaign against the Islamic State terrorist organization.

The better way to contain the cleric Nimr al-Nimr’s anti-state activities was to deport him to Iran. Killing him was a provocative act whose likely consequences Saudi Arabia did not properly weigh or scorned outright. The Wahhabi monarchy has felt squeezed since the deposition of Saddam Hussein (with who it had awful relations) and the subsequent Shia ascendency in Iraq. It felt further encircled with the US-Iran nuclear deal which paves the way for a future nuclear Iran, never mind the statements and analyses to the contrary. President Barack Obama did not intend this. He could not continue to keep Iran in the doghouse against US strategic interests.

Where Saudi Arabia miscalculated is in playing the Sunni Wahhabi card. In the late Seventies and early Eighties, it worked. The world was terrified of the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. The chance for fomenting instability on its borders was provided by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where Saudi Arabia rushed Wahhabi warriors in the guise of the Mujahideen. In the same time, Iran was forced to a war on another front by Saddam Hussein, and this lasted nearly to the end of the Cold War.

It is close to incredible that Iran did not go down in that dreadful decade. The United States’ unremitting hostility for the loss of Iran and the hostage crisis and the later worldwide sanctions piled further, unbearable pressure on Iran. It somehow stayed afloat. Iranians are proud of those tough times when compelled to self-reliance and self-sufficiency. They found their friends, one of them India. This is not to excuse the horrors of the Iran regime or its implacable hostility to Israel on which the Arabs have turned the page and so should it. But Iran discovered nationhood and drew strength from its ancient civilization in more than 35 years of misery and deprivation.

Where it profoundly erred was in allowing emotions to get the better of rationality and judgement in the reaction to Nimr al-Nimr’s death. Whatever the provocation, foreign diplomatic assets must be protected. The attacks on Saudi missions in Iran were condemnable. The storming of the Saudi embassy in Teheran was horribly reminiscent of the 1979 hostage crisis though there was no actual repetition and the present moderate Iran government promptly intervened. The Saudis should have seen a silver lining there. Instead, they severed ties.

When national egos clash, rationality and pragmatism are the foremost casualties. Both must quickly reassert themselves with some assistance from the outside world. The United States has a line to both countries and Russia has rather good ties with Iran, collaborating with it against the Islamic State. Russia, the US and Europe should concertedly press both parties to see reason and call off the quarrel. Cleric Nimr al-Nimr is dead. His death will have long-term repercussions with or without Iran’s participation. There is no cause for Saudi Arabia and Iran to ruin the present for future troubles, which may well sort themselves.

The Islamic world needs unity. There is a deep crisis in its body politic. On one hand, it is unable to make the transition to democracy, the best system to administer masses of people with their willing consent. On the other hand, the rest of the world has grave and growing misgivings about political Islam. Its mutation to the barbarism of the Islamic State produces shock and revulsion everywhere, including among Muslim societies. In the circumstances, Saudi Arabia and Iran are grossly irresponsible to swagger along as apocalyptic custodians of two historically rivalrous sects of Islam. They must simmer down and reach mutual accommodation at the earliest.