Will the U.S. fall for Saudi Arabia’s deliberate provocation in killing of Shi’ite cleric?

January 4, 2016
Protesters holding pictures of Shi'ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr are pushed back by Iranian riot police during a demonstration against the execution of Nimr in Saudi Arabia, outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tehran January, 3, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX20VG3

Protesters holding pictures of Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr are pushed back by Iranian riot police outside the Saudi  Embassy in Tehran, January, 3, 2016. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi/TIMA

There should be little doubt that Saudi Arabia wanted to escalate regional tensions into a crisis by executing Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr. On the same day, Riyadh also unilaterally withdrew from the ceasefire agreement in Yemen. By allowing protestors to torch the Saudi embassy in Tehran in response, Iran seems to have walked right into the Saudi trap. If Saudi Arabia succeeds in forcing the United States into the conflict by siding with the kingdom, then its objectives will have been met.

It is difficult to see that Saudi Arabia did not know that its decision to execute Nimr would not cause uproar in the region and wouldn’t put additional strains on its already tense relations with Iran. The inexcusable torching of the Saudi embassy in Iran — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned it and called it “totally unjustifiable,” though footage shows that Iranian security forces did little to prevent the attack — in turn provided Riyadh with the perfect pretext to cut diplomatic ties with Tehran. With that, Riyadh significantly undermined U.S.-led regional diplomacy on both Syria and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has long opposed diplomatic initiatives that Iran participated in– be it in Syria or on the nuclear issue — and that risked normalizing Tehran’s regional role and influence. Earlier, Riyadh had successfully ensured Iran’s exclusion from Syria talks in Geneva by threatening to boycott them if Iran was present, U.S. officials have told me. In fact, according to White House sources, President Barack Obama had to personally call King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to force the Saudis to take part in the Vienna talks on Syria this past fall.

Now, by having cut its diplomatic relations with Iran, the Saudis have the perfect excuse to slow down, undermine and possibly completely scuttle these U.S.-led negotiations, if they should choose to do so.

From the Saudi perspective, geopolitical trends in the region have gone against its interests for more than a decade now. The rise of Iran – and Washington’s decision to negotiate and compromise with Tehran over its nuclear program – has only added to the Saudi panic.

To follow through on this way of thinking, Riyadh’s calculation with the deliberate provocation of executing Nimr may have been to manufacture a crisis — perhaps even war — that it hopes can change the geopolitical trajectory of the region back to the Saudi’s advantage.

The prize would be to force the United States to side with Saudi Arabia and thwart its slow but critical warm-up in relations with Tehran. As a person close to the Saudi government told the Wall Street Journal: “At some point, the U.S. may be forced to take sides [between Saudi Arabia and Iran]… This could potentially threaten the nuclear deal.”

Washington should not repeat Tehran’s mistake and walk into this Saudi trap. In fact, from the U.S. perspective, Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing activities are a vindication of the nuclear deal it struck with Iran in 2015. One critical benefit of that deal, left unstated by Obama administration officials, is that it helped reduce U.S. dependency on Saudi Arabia.

By resolving the nuclear standoff and getting back on talking terms with Iran, Washington increased its options in the region.

As Admiral Mike Mullen wrote in Politico last year in regards to the benefits of the nuclear deal: “It would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide.”

Mindful of the deliberate manner Saudi Arabia is driving matters towards a crisis in the region – partly motivated by a desire to trap the United States in Riyadh’s own enmity with Iran – Washington is clearly better off being able to play a balancing role between Saudi and Iran rather than being obligated to fully support Saudi Arabia’s regional escapades.

The question is, however, if Washington’s desire to stay out of this fight is tenable. Obama administration officials have already expressed concern over how this Saudi-initiated crisis is affecting the fight against Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and diplomacy over Syria.

“This is a dangerous game [the Saudis] are playing,” an unnamed U.S. official told the Washington Post. “There are larger repercussions than just the reaction to these executions,” including damage to “counter-ISIL initiatives as well as the Syrian peace process.

If Washington’s priority is the defeat of IS and other jihadist movements, then a balancing act between an Iran that ferociously opposes IS and a Saudi Arabia that has played an undeniable role in promoting jihadi extremism may not be the right answer.

16 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

The lack of democracy is the true cause of all this. It is time for the United States to insist on reform and push the countries towards democracy. Iranian democracy is on its way but unfortunately every single one of the GCC states is a monarchy with very little democracy and/or freedom of expression. AlNimr was executed for the very things we celebrate many freedom fighters of the past, people like Ghandi, Mandela and Martin Luther King. The region needs democracies.

Posted by JustSaying007 | Report as abusive

Sorry is Reuters receiving money from the Islamic Republic of Iran?! Why on earth does this Iranian lobbyist and lackey of the Iranian regime writing for Reuters?!!

Posted by SiamakN | Report as abusive

Saudi Arabia is a Sunni toilet. They support Al Qaeda and Daesh. They are not a real U.S. Ally. We should bomb them.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Or just quit buying their oil.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

SA pretty much committed suicide. US will not side with them this time, unless Obama and democrats want the presidency lost for sure in 2016. Even sunni Pakistan stayed absolutely noiseless this time.
Better US policy is to trade with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia, the Kurds, etc and simply “democratize” UA, and essentially US companies “re-poses” Arabic capital assets. It is a WAY more profitable approach, and I am not the first person realizing that. :)

Posted by Ananke | Report as abusive

Mmmmmmm, let me ask you this, if the US did the same (executing “an american” convict as per the local law), does Iran have any right to consider that a deliberate provocation?. To me, and after reading this article by someone obviously taking side, its not whether the the US falls for the saudi deliberate provocation or not. Its more like an article by someone already fell for Iran

Posted by Nooonie | Report as abusive

Middle east muslims want another war because the 22 wars they are fighting now isn’t enough.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

We got the Oil Export ban lifted now we can let the Saudis down the ravine.
Time to make some money to power our green revolution.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Actually there was another comment I put which Reuters censored asking why an Iranian troll was getting leading articles deliberately side stepping that Iran’s support for puppet Maliki driving Sunni into ISIS’s arms as he did previously Al Quaeda’s and Assad in barrel bombing Sunni out of Syria not to mention Herzbollah inviting the Isreali devastation of Lebanon and continuing instability as well as the Houthi lead civil war in Yemen.
Iran seems to play the same role in weakening , destabilizing and causing chaos in Arab lands that Russia does in Eastern Europe.
But Iranian like Russian trolls ignore their state’s attacks and focus ‘shock’ , ‘horror’ on the response. This sections should be called propaganda corner.

Posted by compass2k | Report as abusive

since this is the only kind of comment that is going to be allowed, i might as well post one of these

yea saudis are the enemy. they paid for the pakistani nuke and are now funding ISIS. we need to sanction saudi oil so that american producers can make money again. usa should invest in iran, they are the future kings in the middle east. bomb arabia

Posted by yobro_yobro88 | Report as abusive

satanists of Reuters, you deserve an exemplary punishment

Posted by 2222 | Report as abusive

Parsi is guilty of simplifying complex multilateral relational issues to the lowest, dumbest denominator.

The United States is not so naive as to fall for and Saudi Arabia is not so clever as to orchestrate the version of events Parsi believes to be the correct interpretation of an otherwise “to be expected” series of executions in this part of the world.

Posted by RanaSahib | Report as abusive

Where is my comment? I was assured by Reuters that I was a trusted poster on these boards!
Why bother to participate?

Posted by RanaSahib | Report as abusive

Definitely an attempt by Saudi to provoke matters further & force the US & the UK to choose sides – They and Erdogan are worried that the UK & US might finally see that our interests are more closely aligned with the non terrorist Shiites & the Russian/Syrian Govt who promise an imperfect but secular & multi/non faith solution in Syria

Erdogan & Turkey are single handedly responsible for flooding the EU with refugees – No attempt to stop the flood which is being used as a threat & a weapon to keep the West onside with the Turkish/Saudi/Sunni islamist alliance

Why is the EU not threatening the Turks with economic sanctions & possibly Nato suspension over this? – What are they going to do? – Side with the Russians?!!!!

Methinks not – Time this Islamic Erdogan character was sorted out – See how long he stays president if the Turkish p[eople start suffering because of his Islamic & anti EU practises

Posted by pcjoe | Report as abusive

Parsi’s bias is evident when referring to the current Iran reaction as “this Saudi-initiated crisis.” Nimr al-Nimr was convicted of inciting the overthrow of the Saudi Government, and, therefore, the cleric, not S.A., deserves his criticism. Parsi’s attempt to justify Iran’s reactions just don’t work with this current Iranian government behaving disrespectfully not only to foreign embassies, but also disregarding ballistic test treaties in the same week.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

Saudi Arabia is the central banker of terrorism throughout the world.
They executed the Shiite cleric only because he was a Shiite.
And they would execute Jews, Christians, and any other followers of non-sunni religions for not following the sunni religion.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive