War Stories

Why Saudi Arabia and Iran May Be Seeking a New Crisis

The Saudi royal family and Iranian hard-liners both could benefit from the tensions.    

Saudi Arabia embassy in Tehran
Flames rise from the Saudi Arabian Embassy during a demonstration in Tehran, Iran, over the weekend.

Photo by Mehdi Ghasemi/ISNA via Reuters

The thing to keep in mind, when following reports of the mutual hissing between Iran and Saudi Arabia, is that both countries—or at least factions of both governments—want to stoke the flames engulfing Middle Eastern politics.

It’s unclear whether the Saudis executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the prominent Shiite cleric, in order to ratchet up the tensions. But U.S. officials with expertise in the region say the kingdom’s leaders certainly knew Iran would loudly protest—and that was fine with them.

Still, the execution on Saturday was an unusually provocative move. Though Nimr has long called for an end to the Saudi monarchy, he was never known to advocate violence. In the past, advocates of his ilk were routinely harassed and imprisoned but, in the end, let go. As Marc Lynch notes in Monday’s Washington Post, “No Shiite cleric of comparable stature has been executed [by the Saudis] in years.”

The subsequent torching and ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran also went beyond the normal back-and-forth. Nor is it clear who, if anyone, ordered the action. An intriguing dispatch in IranWire.com reports that, soon after the execution, a propaganda website run by supporters of Iran’s hard-line factions called on its followers to rally at the Saudi Embassy the next day. Iran’s diplomatic police corps broke up the demonstration and surrounded the now-deserted embassy with three layers of protection. Then, five hours later, after the police had left the scene, a large group of young protesters, carrying posters of Nimr, launched a new attack on the embassy, breaking through its gates, wrecking some offices, then torching the building with Molotov cocktails. An hour passed before the diplomatic police arrived and pushed back the protesters, arresting 40 of them. One officer was quoted on social media as saying, “We have been told not to obstruct them too much.”

As with much in Iranian politics, the regime’s involvement in the embassy attack is unclear. President Hassan Rouhani denounced the wilding, saying, “We do not allow rogue groups to commit illegal actions and damage the holy reputation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The question is just how “rogue” those groups were. The timing of the retreat and the renewed assault suggests some higher-up coordination—but how high up? Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, condemned the Saudi royal family, likening its executions to those of ISIS, but he said nothing about the embassy sacking—and some of his ideological allies were downright critical. Ahmad Khatami, a hard-line prayer leader, was quoted by the Iranian Students News Agency as saying, “We condemn the crimes of al-Saud, but we don’t consider attacking the Saudi Embassy … an appropriate act.”

Saudi Arabia responded to the attack by cutting off diplomatic relations with Iran. Bahrain followed, while the kingdom’s other key Sunni ally, the United Arab Emirates, recalled its ambassador from Tehran.

The Saudi and Iranian moves were probably both driven, in large part, by their domestic politics—which doesn’t make the escalation in tensions less dangerous. The Saudi royals, feeling constantly threatened by Shiite dissidents from within, are fighting a losing war against what they perceive as Iranian proxies in neighboring Yemen. They fear that the international talks over Syria might leave their bitter foe, Bashar al-Assad, in power. They are deeply anxious about President Obama’s apparent leanings in that direction and, even more, about the signs of an American rapprochement with Iran, seen most potently in the Iran nuclear deal. Many critics of the Saudi kingdom believe its rulers would gladly torpedo the Iran deal, the Syrian cease-fire talks, and every other glimmer of hope for peace and diplomacy in the region—if it meant the United States would once again side unequivocally with Riyadh and against Tehran. What the royal family resents most about Obama is that he’s proved unwilling to join their war against the Shiites. (A favorite quip, among those who have watched these politics for too long: “The Saudis will fight to the last drop of American blood.”)

Meanwhile, hard-liners in Tehran are no less anxious about their president’s diplomatic overtures, especially the nuclear deal and the subsequent lifting of sanctions—and for much the same reason: They don’t want the Islamic Republic of Iran to integrate too deeply with the West. The Saudis (like the Israelis and many American politicians) fear the expansion of Iranian influence and muscle; the Iranian hard-liners fear the infiltration of Western ideas and products.

The danger in all this isn’t that Iran and Saudi Arabia might go to war (their borders are far apart, and neither has the means to invade the other), but rather that the proxy wars they’ve been waging are woven so intricately into the region’s myriad conflicts, to the point where the two countries’ cooperation is essential to any political solution. Their cooperation—or at least their diplomats’ willingness to sit at the same table—is certainly a prerequisite to defeat ISIS and to achieve a cease-fire in Syria, goals that are difficult enough in the warmest of climates. In short, if the latest escalation in Saudi–Iranian tensions isn’t dialed back, the region’s two most politically destabilizing and humanly horrific problems might be beyond repair.

What can Obama, or for that matter any Western leaders, do to reverse this newest spiral? Probably not much. The key thing is not to buy into the Iranian or Saudi habit of viewing everything that happens in the region as a spark in the Sunni-Shiite conflict—and, above all, when it comes to this particular spark, not to take sides, both of which are grisly. Encourage Bahrain and the UAE in their restraint, so far, from cutting off ties with Iran altogether. Urge them to persuade the Saudis to backpedal their termination of relations to a mere “suspension.” Put Secretary of State John Kerry on a plane for another round of shuttle diplomacy. Meanwhile, proceed with the coalition against ISIS and the diplomatic forum for Syria, as if nothing had happened. So much about the Middle East is theater that it might just work.

Then again, the roots of the Saudi-Iran cold war are very real and run very deep, so the more plausible takeaway from the weekend’s events is that they reveal, in high-pitched form, just how unlikely a durable settlement is—and always was.