Saudi Arabia's Wedge

The United States’ favorite “ally without portfolio,” Saudi Arabia, reacted coolly to news of the US-Iranian nuclear deal, with a combination of official tepid praise and private indignation.[1] Many wondered at the time what the long term fallout from the deal might be, and it looks like Saudi Arabia is finally giving the world their answer: they aren’t giving up on wrecking the deal just yet.

Many wondered at the time what the long term fallout from the deal might be, and it looks like Saudi Arabia is finally giving the world their answer....

Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr

When Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr on January 2nd, it sent a clear message to the US, and to Iran--while the US and Iran may be trying to patch up their historical differences, the Kingdom isn’t having any of it.  An Iranian crowd, whether seized by religious indignation or incited by quasi-government figures in the Revolutionary Guard, obliged the Saudi’s wildest dreams by burning down the Saudi embassy.  There was quick international indignation, and the Saudis cut diplomatic ties with Iran.[2] 

Despite the indignation and outrage from official Saudi channels, the embassy attack was the best possible outcome for Saudi Arabia.  The Iranians took the bait.  Footage of the Saudi embassy on fire has been the headline on Gulf media networks for days and has overshadowed the execution that spawned the reaction in the first place on most Sunni news outlets.  No doubt US politicians in an election year seeking to damage the President and his party will use the footage along with reminders about the 1979 Hostage Crisis to make the point that the Iranians haven’t changed--never mind the fact that unlike 1979, the Iranian government made swift arrests of upwards of 40 people.[3]

It is no coincidence that autocratic Saudi Arabia would choose to execute an inflammatory Shia cleric when a life sentence would do just as well...

The Saudi Embassy in Tehran after protesters set it on fire, Jan. 2, 2016. (  Mehdi Ghasemi, Reuters)

The Saudi Embassy in Tehran after protesters set it on fire, Jan. 2, 2016. (Mehdi Ghasemi, Reuters)

Now, Saudi Arabia has made Nimr al-Nimr’s death and the subsequent Iranian response an excellent wedge to use to divide its biggest patron, the US, and its biggest enemy, Iran.  The Kingdom can now play the victim, because it is their embassy on fire on television and no US candidate, representative, or news agency is likely to ask Saudi Arabia what Nimr al-Nimr’s actual crimes are purported to be.  Instead, they hope to get an appearance on the US Sunday talk show circuit where senators and congressmen can use the embassy attack to score points against US policy towards Iran and by extension Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.  If Saudi Arabia could get some questions about the attack in the next Republican debate, they would no doubt be thrilled.  No doubt a certain celebrity-cum-politician will say something along the lines of “and the Iranians--let me tell you, they’ve never changed” and vow to make the Iranians pay for every embassy that’s ever caught fire, and then some.    

Since no American politician has ever scored any points being sympathetic with the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is doubtful politicians of either party will stick their necks out to point out the executed Shia cleric earned his death sentence attempting to stand up for a historically-marginalized Shia minority, to say nothing of raising the idea that all of this was done for the specific reason of keeping regional tensions high.  Nevertheless, this is the most likely scenario.  

It is no coincidence that autocratic Saudi Arabia would choose to execute an inflammatory Shia cleric when a life sentence would do just as well, nor that they would do so at a time when President Obama and his former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are vulnerable on the subject of Iran. Saudi Arabia knew the response from Iran and Iraq would be outrage and possible violence. The Kingdom also knew it would raise the temperature in the region several degrees towards boiling, and that’s exactly why the Saudis executed Nimr al-Nimr.  They are not shocked by the regional unrest--they welcome it.    

Saudi Arabia wants to get politicians on both sides of the aisle on record with tough rhetoric on Iran, which will increase the chances that the next President and Congress walk back the deal the Obama administration made with Iran--which in turn ensures the regional detente dies a quick death before too much damage can be done to the Kingdom’s interests.  The Saudis have their wedge and they hope the US will drive it into place for them.

Iran recognizes this.[4]  Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif’s op-ed in the New York Times correctly addresses the underlying rationale behind the Saudi decision, although whether such a traditional enemy of the US will be able to make headway by pointing out our traditional ally’s willingness to act in direct contravention to stated US aims remains to be seen.  Unfortunately for him, valid questions remain as to whether the Iranian security agencies were caught flat-footed by their own citizenry’s willingness to sack the embassy or whether the attack was orchestrated by hard liners within Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.  Either way, and while the Foreign Minister now recognizes it as a mistake, the Iranians played right into Saudi hands with the overreaction.  

If the US follows along, overreacts the same way, and undoes the fragile and cautious progress made in American-Iranian relations, the only winners at the table will be Saudi Arabia. Saudia Arabia will have ensured that we remain their biggest patrons. Furthermore, they keep their cherished status as America’s “must-have” ally in the region, all without having to answer some very uncomfortable questions about just how the Wahabbi Kingdom does business and whose side it is really on.  

David Dixon is a former active duty Armor officer who now serves in the South Carolina Army National Guard. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do nto reflect the official  policy or position of the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

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Header image: Iranian security forces stand guard as protesters demonstrate outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran. The crowd was decrying the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Saudi Shiite cleric, by Saudi authorities — an execution that has heightened sectarian tensions in the region |
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images


[1] Guzansky, Yoel. "Saudi Arabia and the Nuclear Agreement with Iran"

[2] Bacon, John. "Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran." USA Today, January 4, 2016.

[3] Bacon, John. "Saudi Arabia severs ties with Iran." USA Today, January 4, 2016.

[4] Mohammad Javad Zarif. "Saudi Arabia's Reckless Extremism." New York Times, January 10, 2016.