The execution Saturday of Saudi Shiite firebrand cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was certainly meant to provoke Iran into some sort of reaction which could then be used as an excuse by al-Saud to do what it did yesterday -- cut diplomatic ties and give Iranian ambassadors 48 hours to get out of Saudi Arabia. Ben Hubbard provides a useful summary of the Iran vs. House of Saud conflict in today's "Saudi Arabia Cuts Ties With Iran Amid Fallout From Cleric’s Execution":
. . . Saudi Arabia and Iran follow separate strands of Islam and have long been rivals for influence across the Middle East and beyond. That has accelerated in recent years as the Iraq war and the Arab Spring uprisings upturned the regional order and gave both nations new ways to extend their reach.
That put them on opposite sides of various conflicts, often divided by sect. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia sent tanks to support the Sunni monarchy against protesters led by the island nation’s Shiite majority. In Syria, Iran has bankrolled the government of President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia has supported Sunni rebels seeking his ouster. And in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has led an air campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels.
Further straining tensions are Saudi concerns that the Iranian nuclear agreement could increase Tehran’s ability to spread its influence. And Iran remains angry over Saudi Arabia’s handling of a stampede during the hajj in September that left more than 2,400 pilgrims dead, including more than 450 Iranians, according to a count by The Associated Press.
But setting off the war of words that finally broke relations was Saudi Arabia’s execution on Saturday of Sheikh Nimr, who had called for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family and served as a spiritual leader for protesters from the kingdom’s Shiite minority. The Saudi government accused him of inciting violence and executed him with 46 others, most of them said to be members of Al Qaeda.
The reaction in the region generally broke cleanly along sectarian lines, with Shiite leaders criticizing the Saudis for killing a man they called a peaceful dissident, while Saudi Arabia’s Sunni allies applauded what they called the country’s efforts to fight terrorism.
Then late Saturday, protesters in Tehran ransacked the Saudi Embassy, and Iranian leaders turned up the rhetoric. “God’s hand of retaliation will grip the neck of Saudi politicians,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in comments reported on his official website.
The Iranians did, however, appear to take steps to prevent the dispute from escalating further, arresting 40 Iranians in the anti-Saudi mayhem.Hubbard quotes a couple think-tankers saying that the execution of Sheikh Nimr is bad news for the peace process on Syria and that it likely signals an increase in proxy warfare in the region.
Moon of Alabama posts that "This was exactly what the Saudis rulers wanted and need," the idea being that things are going badly for al-Saud in Yemen (the war there is unwinnable and all the Kingdom is accomplishing is the destruction of the country) and in Syria (where momentum is increasing for some sort of negotiated settlement), and this diplomatic breach provides cover to "double down" and in time honored neocon power-mad fashion "make the problem bigger."
The problem for the Saudis and the other sheikhdoms of the Gulf is that the Iranians are not jejune poltroons who can be stampeded into an overreaction. The Iranians have already won this exchange in the eyes of the Obama administration. According to Hubbard:
That risks derailing a new round of international peace talks aimed at ending the civil war in Syria, a process that Mr. Kerry has worked hard to get going.
The talks, meant to begin this month, were to be the first to bring together the Syrian government, the opposition and a range of countries that include Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“We’re obviously concerned this could blow up the process,” one senior Obama administration official said. “But it’s too early to say what the impact could be.”
Saudi officials have long said they think that Mr. Kerry’s effort is doomed to failure, and that was before Sunday’s diplomatic breach with Iran.The Sheikh Nimr execution is the latest attempt to scuttle the rapprochement between Iran and the United States that came with signing the P5+1 accord on Iran's nuclear program. Last month Congress passed a new law targeting Iran, Iraq, Syria and Sudan, which Kerry promptly walked back. Then there was the announcement of new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missiles, which the Obama administration then said would take more time to implement.
Still, Obama administration officials noted Iran’s efforts over the weekend to keep the situation on the streets from spinning out of control. “The Iranians, in this case, acted responsibly,” Michael Morell, the former deputy director of the C.I.A., said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “The police showed up very quickly. They made a number of arrests.”
Despite that, officials believe that the Sunni-Shiite proxy war that was already underway in Syria and Yemen may only grow more intense, at least for a while. And in coming weeks the United States and its negotiating partners in the Iran deal are preparing to carry out that accord, including an end to sanctions that have tied up more than $100 billion in Iranian assets frozen in overseas bank accounts. Critics are already arguing that will give Iran more money to fund the conflict in Syria and beyond.
Shortly after announcing the execution of Sheikh Nimr on Saturday, Saudi Arabia said it was ending a two-and-a-half-week-old cease-fire in Yemen that had never really taken hold.
The advantage that the Saudis have is that while the players on Team Obama might not be jejune they are poltroons in that they will not directly confront the Saudi-neocon-Israeli axis that has so much say in how the U.S. warfare state conducts itself.
The correct thing for the Obama administration to do after the Saudi provocation of Sheikh Nimr's execution would be to announce -- publicly would be best but privately would do too -- that it was bowing out of the air war on Yemen. The Saudis can refuel and traffic their own war planes.
This of course won't happen because al-Saud has correctly seized up Obama as someone who knows his limits, a leader who has shown time after time that he is not willing to restructure the self-destructive institutions of American hegemony, whether it is the Pentagon or Wall Street.
The Saudis are making the problem bigger because they are scared that the region might be moving towards peace. They are terrified of peace.