And now it’s Washington’s job to make sure it doesn’t spin out of control.
- By Kim GhattasKim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is the author of The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power. Follow her on Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas.
The United States cannot ignore or choose to stay out of the brewing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is not a purely religious feud, and it is not someone else’s civil war — it’s a hornet’s nest in which Washington poked its finger by pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran.
The merits of the agreement as an effort to stop nuclear proliferation stand on their own, and the deal’s potential to help Iran on its long-term journey to moderation remain. But the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is known, was never going to be just about Iran’s nuclear program, no matter how much the administration insisted it was. It is this shifting regional context caused by the JCPOA that explains not only Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive stance in recent months, but also its decision to execute Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2.
The kingdom could have chosen a different time to execute Nimr. It could have postponed his execution indefinitely. There was no specific reason to include him in the mass execution of 47 political opponents and militants on Jan. 2, the largest such mass execution since the kingdom put 63 militants to death after the 1979 siege of Mecca. Nimr had lost all his appeals, but there was no deadline to carry out the sentence. He was executed with al Qaeda-linked militants who had been on death row for many more years than he had been.
When Nimr was sentenced in October 2014, the Iranians immediately warned against his execution. For a while, there was the expectation of a pardon under King Abdullah or at least the probability that the sentence would not be carried out. But when King Salman came to power in January 2015 and later installed his 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister, he ushered in a much more hard-line mood in the kingdom.
The Saudis knew that going ahead with the death sentence would provoke the Iranians and worry the Americans. So why did they choose this moment to do it? It was time to send a clear message to U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration that Riyadh is sufficiently antagonized by Washington that it no longer feels obligated to go along with American efforts to tiptoe around Iran.
The Saudis felt deeply betrayed by the back channel that the Obama administration opened with Iran in 2012 without their knowledge, and they clearly expressed their concerns about the nuclear agreement. Saudi Arabia’s then foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, warned that Tehran should not get deals it didn’t deserve, while former intelligence official Turki al-Faisal said that the kingdom could start its own uranium-enrichment program if Iran’s program were legitimized.
Although Riyadh and its Persian Gulf allies eventually accepted the agreement in public, they made clear that they would be watching how the United States handled Iran’s aggressive behavior in the region. Before the nuclear deal was signed, one Gulf official told me that they were so worried about Iran’s asymmetric warfare in the region that he almost preferred that the Iranians be allowed a nuclear program so long as there were forceful U.S. actions to stop Iran’s meddling in Iraq, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon.
The administration worked hard to convince its allies in the Gulf that the nuclear deal wasn’t a rapprochement with Iran. As a goodwill gesture to the United States, the Saudis even reluctantly agreed to sit at the table with the Iranians in Vienna in October as part of Syria peace talks. Washington pledged more military cooperation and hardware, but this hasn’t made up for what Riyadh perceives as a soft U.S. stance against Iran. To fill what the Saudis see as a power vacuum that the Obama administration left in the region, they went to war in Yemen against Houthi rebels, whom they accuse of receiving Iranian backing.
Although the war has proved disastrous and never-ending, Riyadh has refused to relent — recently announcing another counterterrorism coalition of Muslim countries that excludes Iran. The kingdom has also hired Western consultants to help revamp and modernize its armed forces and develop the Sunni coalition.
In recent weeks, Gulf countries grew increasingly alarmed by a series of events, including Washington’s muted reaction to Iran’s ballistic-missile testing. They were dismayed when Obama balked at imposing sanctions on Iran for its missile program. In December, the head of a powerful Islamist Syrian rebel group, Zahran Alloush, was killed in an airstrike that rebels blamed on Russia. He was no moderate and no friend of the West, but he was a powerful rebel leader and his death was a blow to Syrian peace efforts. His group had joined a conference in Riyadh in December as the kingdom tried to organize the opposition ahead of planned talks with the Syrian government later this month.
In the eyes of Riyadh, Washington’s muted reaction to Alloush’s killing was worse than the strike itself. It was a sign that the United States is still not willing to tip the balance in favor of the Syrian opposition and the regional Sunni camp.
The Saudis feel that Tehran and Moscow are undermining Saudi interests at every turn — and that Riyadh’s longtime ally, Washington, is doing nothing about it, ostensibly to avoid endangering the prized nuclear deal.
For the kingdom, this has become a pattern with the Obama administration — and it has left them rattled. What Obama sees as an effort to achieve a healthier balance in Washington’s relationship with its Gulf allies, the Saudis view as a betrayal and American disengagement from the region. They are openly calling for a more aggressive U.S. posture in the Middle East: In an interview with the Economist published on Jan. 6, the deputy crown prince and son of the king, Mohammed bin Salman, said, “The United States must realize that they are the number one in the world and they have to act like it.”
U.S. officials don’t understand the Saudis’ insecurity vis-à-vis Iran: They’re the wealthier country with bigger, more modern guns. Sunnis are also the overwhelming majority of the world’s 1 billion Muslims, though in the Saudis’ immediate neighborhood, they are surrounded by the Shiite-majority countries of Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain.
Whether justified or not, the Saudis have felt threatened by Iran’s behavior, and Washington belittles those concerns at its own peril. Saudi Arabia will likely harden its position on every front in the region, from Lebanon to Yemen to Syria — and every Saudi reaction will engender a further hardening of positions in Tehran ahead of key Iranian legislative elections in February. None of this is helpful in building a stable environment in which the nuclear deal can be implemented.
The implementation of the JCPOA will come on Jan. 16, but the rise in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia risks hollowing out whatever regional benefits were expected from the agreement.
These two countries could not be more different historically, culturally, and politically, but in the years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, their rivalry and the toxic dynamic they’ve produced in the region have made them two sides of the same coin.
When the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979, he tried to position himself as the leader of all Muslims across nations, regardless of their denomination. By doing so, he challenged the legitimacy of the Sunni royal family in Saudi Arabia and called into question the royal family’s ability to be the guardian of Islam’s two holy sites, Mecca and Medina.
The Saudis fired the first sectarian shot in this conflict. To undermine Khomeini’s message, they started depicting the revolution as purely Shiite — an upheaval of heretics. Iran then moved to weaponize sectarianism by creating the Shiite militant group Hezbollah — a policy that has continued today with the rise of Shiite militias in Iraq. Over the course of the last four decades, both countries have fed sectarian identities in the region, drawing battle lines over religious identity that have helped tear the Middle East apart.
After Nimr’s execution, Hezbollah issued a virulent statement that blamed the United States for the Shiite cleric’s death, saying that Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia enables the kingdom to get away with its “crimes against its people and the people in the region.”
Saudi Arabia believes it is Iran that has been allowed to get away with nefarious behavior. In the Saudi mindset, the American president’s hands-off approach has empowered Iran, and Washington’s obsession with the nuclear deal has convinced Tehran that there’s no price to pay for its destructive behavior in the region.
Obama could be tempted to downplay this rivalry or dismiss it with a flick of the hand as a centuries-old schism between Sunnis and Shiites that the United States shouldn’t get involved in. But he did get the United States involved — with the nuclear deal. If the 2003-2011 Iraq War and the removal of Sunni strongman Saddam Hussein inadvertently unshackled Iran and its pursuit of power in Iraq, the nuclear agreement, no matter its merits, unleashed a newly muscular Saudi foreign policy.
After decades of demonizing Iran, the Western media’s new favorite pastime is Saudi-bashing. There is plenty to write about Saudi Arabia’s shortcomings, but it’s essential to understand the regional context in which Saudi attitudes and policies have evolved and understand how the rivalry with Iran has propelled Saudi Arabia forward. As long as Iran remains a theocracy with regional ambitions, Saudi Arabia will continue to uphold the Sunni flag and try to rally Sunnis around it, from Egypt to Pakistan. As long as Saudi Arabia remains a monarchy with an austere Sunni creed at its heart, the hard-liners in Iran will continue poking it and laying claim unto Shiite communities across the region.
A never-ending debate over which country is worse isn’t going to help steady the region. The fact is that Obama is losing an ally in Riyadh, but has yet to find a friend in Tehran. He urgently needs to find a way to balance his dealings with both the Sunni world and Iran, a mechanism to help manage the Saudi-Iran rivalry. If he doesn’t, it could undermine his most prized achievement so far — the nuclear agreement with Iran.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images