Iranian officials were outraged by Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric—and that may be exactly the response the Saudi monarchy was hoping for.
Former U.S. officials and Middle East analysts told The Daily Beast that it’s inconceivable that Riyadh could not have known that killing Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent critic of the royal family and an icon to Shiite protesters across the Persian Gulf region during the Arab Spring uprisings, would not draw condemnation and potentially a violent response.
“The Saudis certainly were aware this was going to have some degree of reaction,” Matthew McInnis, a former Pentagon analyst and now a Middle East expert and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Beast.
Nimr’s death prompted protesters to storm the Saudi embassy in Tehran, which led to Saudi Arabia severing diplomatic ties with their Persian rivals.
Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and interior minister and a close ally of Washington, oversaw the execution, so it couldn’t have come as much of a surprise to the Obama administration. But the Saudis had threatened to kill Nimr before, accusing him of promoting Iranian meddling in the country, and had always backed down. So, why follow through now?
The decision comes at a moment when the Saudis have several reasons to feel vulnerable to rising Iranian influence—both in their country and across the region—and may not think the U.S. is doing enough to curb it.
It’s not just that Iran has approached more normal relations with Europe and the United States following a landmark deal to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. In Yemen, Saudi forces are fighting Iranian-backed militants in what is frequently seen as a proxy war.
And in Iraq and Syria, the Iranians are also playing an important role in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS. Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been a key fighting force in several key battles in Iraq. Tehran has forged an alliance with Moscow that is likely to help shape the political future of Syria and its embattled president, Bashar al-Assad.
The Saudis see no good coming from the rise of Iran as a regional power.
“They’re in this very insecure period,” McCinnis said. Viewed through that lens, the execution of Nimr, after years of threats, could be read as a “demonstration of strength.”
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the execution of Nimr was meant in part to send a signal to Tehran.
“I suspect they wanted an Iranian reaction. Salman is a risk taker,” Riedel said, referring to the Saudi king. Riedel noted that the Saudi monarchy was also making clear to its own citizens that it wouldn’t tolerate any internal political dissent fomented by Iran.
Inciting a diplomatic rift also may play into Riyadh’s long-term strategy of undermining Tehran.
“Saudi has long opposed diplomatic initiatives—be it in Syria or on the nuclear issue—that Iran participated in and that risked normalizing Iran’s regional role and influence,” Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, told The Daily Beast. “From the Saudi perspective, geopolitical trends in the region have gone against its interest for more than a decade now, and the rise of Iran—and the U.S. decision to negotiate and compromise with Iran over its nuclear program—has only added to the Saudi panic.”
Parsi noted that Saudi Arabia’s severing of diplomatic ties with Iran gives the monarchy “the perfect excuse to slow down, undermine, and possibly completely scuttle” U.S.-led talks planned in Geneva later this month aimed at reaching a political settlement in the Syrian civil war. Saudi Arabia has been a reluctant partner in that effort and only joined, after threatening a boycott, if Iran was excluded, Parsi said.
Another unanswered question is what, if anything, the Obama administration may have done to deter the Saudis from executing Nimr and setting off a regional crisis.
Washington hadn’t made a strong, public push to stop the execution. And the State Department hasn’t condemned it, despite the fact that some European countries have done so.
On Saturday, State Department spokesperson John Kirby issued a statement that the United States was “particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”
If Washington tried more forcefully in private to get the Saudis to change course, that effort obviously failed.
The Saudis may also have been playing to a domestic audience. Nimr was just one of 47 men put to death, a fact that has been overshadowed in the dispute over him. Nearly all of them were Sunni jihadists, including a group that had plotted to overthrow the monarchy, on the orders of Osama bin Laden.
“This was more for internal political reasons, it seems to me,” Henri Barkey the director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, told The Daily Beast. Killing Nimr provoked Iran, but it may also have placated supporters of those Sunni jihadists, who continue to pose a significant threat to internal security.
“If [the Saudis] were trying to distract domestic attention from them by sacrificing a few Sh’ia, including Nimr, they’ve done a good job,” Barkey said. “They are more worried about Salafists [jihadists] at home than anything the Iranians can throw at them.”