On Jan. 2, Saudi Arabia executed 47 Shiite Muslims accused of sedition, terrorism and plotting to overthrow the ruling royal family. One was prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr, an outspoken Shiite rights advocate and critic of the regime. The mass killings immediately drew global criticism from humanitarian groups, with an Amnesty International director characterizing the events as a “monstrous and irreversible injustice.”
While Saudi actions constituted a frightening violation of human rights, their most alarming consequence concerns the future of already tense relations between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran and the precarious Shiite-Sunni political dynamic. Counterproductive Saudi behavior, if not addressed promptly, could jeopardize diplomatic progress on a number of fronts and exacerbate hostilities gripping the volatile region. As a result, the Obama administration must reexamine its Saudi policy in order to balance the continuation of integral strategic collaboration and minimize unneeded provocation.
The fallout from Nimr al-Nimr’s execution rapidly escalated to a full-scale international crisis. After receiving news of his death, protesters ransacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, prompting the kingdom to sever all diplomatic and economic relations with Iran. Bahrain, Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti quickly followed suit by cutting ties with Iran, while the United Arab Emirates recalled its ambassador but retained trade rights.
This domino effect further heightened tensions between the Sunni bloc, comprised of the Persian gulf states, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, and the “Shiite crescent,” of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the embattled Syrian regime of Bashar Assad. Strategic competition between the sects previously manifested itself in Yemen, where the Iranian-backed Houthis are rebelling against the Saudi-backed government, and in Syria, where Iran and Hezbollah directly aid Assad against Sunni insurgent groups backed by Gulf donors. The recent nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers — the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany — also became a Shiite-Sunni political battleground, as Saudi Arabia and its partners lobbied against easing sanctions on their regional adversary.
Traditionally, the United States has consistently aided the Saudis and their allies, seen in the Obama administration’s $46 billion in new arms export agreements with the kingdom. Nevertheless, the United States cannot afford now to ignore the necessity of engagement with Iran as a means of addressing critical Middle Eastern challenges. Primarily, the recent diplomatic spat could jeopardize the Dec. 18 UN Security Council resolution setting the stage for a ceasefire and negotiations to determine a framework for peace in Syria. Hopes for these talks were already dim, but unless the adversarial hegemons work to prevent animosities from hindering cooperation, the international community’s best hope of alleviating the crisis will be doomed before it even begins.
The U.S. position is even further complicated by its determination to preserve the landmark Iran nuclear accord. The Islamic Republic carried out several ballistic missile tests in late 2015, acts that, while not prohibited by the nuclear agreement, did violate UNSC Resolution 1929, which bans “any activity related to ballistic missiles.” Hesitant at first to levy sanctions for fear of angering Tehran, the Obama administration caved to domestic criticism and now plans to impose appropriate economic penalties. Iran, however, declared that new sanctions would scuttle the agreement, and while such threats are likely hyperbolic, the incident reflects the necessity of proceeding cautiously if the United States wishes to secure its hard-fought objective.
Conscious of stumbling blocks that could potentially derail the controversial accord, the United States has sought to minimize tensions with Iran through all possible means. Specifically, this entails adopting a more balanced position on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, including urging both sides to refrain from provocative actions and condemning the executions and the attacks on the Saudi embassy in a similar manner. Whereas in the past, the U.S. would have offered near-unconditional support to its Saudi allies, post-nuclear deal dynamics stipulate that tempering hostilities, rather than bolstering the strategic superiority of the Sunni Gulf states, will remain the foremost U.S. ambition in the region.
Alleviating Saudi-Iranian tensions necessitates the Obama administration’s finding an effective means of steering Saudi policy toward more conciliatory practices. Primarily, it must assure Saudi King Salman that the kingdom’s security will always supersede that of Iran in terms of U.S. prioritization. Reaffirming American partnerships with Persian Gulf nations, potentially through new arms agreements, while undertaking an expanded role in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts could contribute to demonstrating this intent. Furthermore, reassuring the Saudis of the U.S. commitment to Assad’s ouster as the final consequence of negotiations in Syria could assuage Saudi fears of encirclement by pro-Iranian regimes.
Concurrently, the United States must explicate that continued Saudi provocations, including overtly aggressive rhetoric and oppression of the minority Shiite population, will not be tolerated. The kingdom must be reminded that spoiling Syrian peace talks due to disagreements with Iran would incur the disfavor of the entire international community and could jeopardize future military and economic collaboration. Moreover, the United States should promise to respect the Saudi position on the situations in Yemen and Bahrain, but emphasize that expanded strategic assistance is contingent upon mitigating unnecessary animosity with Iran. Saudi Arabia will unquestionably remain a crucial partner in the Middle East, a fact of which its leadership should be consistently reminded. However, the Saudis possess the spark that could ignite a broader Shiite-Sunni war, and the United States must affirm that it will not stand by as Riyadh plays with fire in a powder keg of a region.
Matt Gregory is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Sense of the Middle East appears every other Friday.