Tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran has long festered via regional proxy wars, but the execution of a prominent Saudi Shia cleric by Riyadh over the weekend and the subsequent reactions could affect the United States’ interests in the Middle East.
“The Saudi decision to execute this Shia cleric was a direct challenge to US policy in the region,” Middle East Scholar Vali Nasr, told NPR. “In fact it torpedoes America’s approach which has been that we should put other issues aside and focus on defeating ISIS and ending the war in Syria and that requires Iran and Saudi Arabia to get on the same page.”
Saudi’s foreign ministry announced the execution of Nimr al-Nimr and 47 others on Jan. 2. “Here was a prominent, outspoken cleric who articulated the feelings of those in the country’s Shia minority who feel marginalized and discriminated against,” the BBC’s Middle East editor Alan Johnston said. “This was a figure active on the sensitive Sunni-Shia sectarian fault line that creates tension in the Kingdom and far beyond.”
Nimr, described as a “thorn in [the] Saudi regime’s side” by the Guardian, was executed on terrorism charges. Nimr’s charges include “inciting sectarian strife and supporting rioting.” Human rights organization Amnesty International however said a review of Nimr’s sermons showed he was a proponent of peaceful activism. “When we see an armed person in a demonstration, we will tell him this is unacceptable. Go home, we don’t need you,” he said in one speech, according to Middle East Eye.
The execution of Nimr has already raised sectarian tensions in the Middle East between Iran, a country ruled by Shia Ayatollahs, and a few Sunni-majority states. The execution led to protests by Shia in Baghdad, Al Awamiyah in Saudi Arabia, Srinagar and Lucknow in India, and Tehran. A crowd stormed and torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran over the weekend, leading Sunni-ruled states Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Sudan, and Bahrain to suspend diplomatic ties with Iran.
Saudi-U.S. relations were strained with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. “Saudi were kicking and screaming every step of the way,” Dr. David Weinberg, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies specializing in the Gulf States, told ThinkProgress.
Despite the disintegration of Saudi-Iranian relations, U.S priorities in the Middle East — mainly fighting ISIS and maintaining the JCPOA — won’t be affected, Weinberg Says.
“It shouldn’t affect either,” Weinberg said. “The Saudis haven’t been doing much against the Islamic State [ISIS] because they are focused on the war in Yemen. With regard to the Iran deal, Iran committed to obligations under the deal and if they want to receive the benefits they’ll have to implement it.”
Weinberg also said that the U.S. could better deter aggressive behavior from the Iranians and convince allies like Saudi Arabia from inciting sectarian behavior through acts like the weekend’s execution.
“The big question at this point is whether the execution of al-Nimr and Iran’s failure to protect Saudi diplomatic facilities will ultimately spill over into significant violence by pro-Iranian terrorist proxies or by state armed forces in places like the Persian gulf,” Weinberg said.