Middle East/North Africa

Tensions rise with Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric is roiling the Middle East and threatening the Obama administration’s precarious balancing act in the region.

The execution over the weekend of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has brought into focus the fraying relationship between the United States and what has long been a crucial ally.

{mosads}Saudi Arabia has seen its clout diminished by the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, its arch foe, and appears to be pushing back, with the cleric’s death largely seen as a warning to opponents both at home and abroad.

“Actions like this certainly don’t do anything to help with stability in the region,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday when asked about the execution.

“That said, Saudi Arabia is, as I’ve said earlier, an important friend in the region, an important partner in the region.” 

“Even the best of friends don’t always agree on everything,” he added. “We’re going to continue to make those concerns known.

“But … bilaterally, you keep working through these problems in a relationship and you keep trying to find peaceful diplomatic solutions to tough problems.”

Saudi Arabia holds strategic importance to the United States because of its regional influence, vast oil resources and ability to provide a bulwark against Iran.

But the U.S. has occasionally butted heads with the Saudi royal family, including after the 9/11 attacks, when it was discovered that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. The leader of al Qaeda at the time, Osama bin Laden, came from a wealthy Saudi family.

Tensions also flared over the U.S. response to the Arab Spring protests, which were greeted with mixed reactions in the Saudi kingdom, according to Robert Jordan, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003.

More recently, the U.S. has watched Saudi Arabia engage in proxy skirmishes with Iran that have deepened the chaos in Yemen and Syria.

The regional power struggle has distracted from the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), according to observers and prominent figures such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The distrust between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia appeared to reach new heights last summer with the announcement of a diplomatic deal designed to limit Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

“The Saudis have lost faith in the United States to protect them and to be a counterweight against Iran’s influence,” said Jordan, who recently wrote a book about his experience. “They, over the last couple of years especially, started going their own way.”

Last May, Saudi King Salman pointedly declined an invitation to a summit at Camp David, which was widely seen as a snub as negotiators worked to finish the Iran deal.

“The Iran nuclear deal really capped it off,” Jordan said. “It’s one thing to say that we want to make the world safe from nuclear weapons, but another to say that we hope it opened up a new generation of relations with Iran.

“The Saudis saw that as the U.S. turning its back on the Saudis.”

Critics in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab nations warn that the lifting of international sanctions under the accord is only going to empower Shiite-dominated Iran to flex its muscle across the region.

In private, Saudi Arabia appears to have confirmed speculation that the weekend execution was an attempt to take matters with Iran into its own hands.

“Enough is enough,” an anonymous source familiar with the kingdom’s thinking said to both Reuters and The Washington Post.

“Every time the Iranians do something, the United States backs off. The Saudis are actually doing something.”

After the Saturday execution of al-Nimr and 46 others on terrorism-related charges in Saudi Arabia, Iranians stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and a consulate in the second-largest city of Mashhad. 

In response, Saudi Arabia cut its diplomatic ties with Iran and suspended flights to and from the country. Bahrain and Sudan followed suit by cutting off diplomatic ties, and the United Arab Emirates downgraded its relationship by recalling its ambassador from

“It was a war below the headlines between Iran and Saudi Arabia [that] is now overt,” said Henri Barkey, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “So we are now going to see both sides doing their utmost to undermine the other.”

U.S. diplomats have been racing to tamp down the budding conflict.

Secretary of State John Kerry and other top State Department officials have been in touch with diplomats from both countries.

Yet the administration has struggled to assert a firm line, seemingly nervous about the delicate balance it is keeping across the Middle East.

Spokesmen at the White House and State Department declined to vigorously condemn the execution of al-Nimr, even while criticizing abuses in the Saudi justice system.

That response is likely to fuel the conservative criticism that President Obama has turned his back on American allies, as imperfect as they may be, in pursuit of misguided diplomacy.

The U.S. may have few options, however. 

With limited influence in both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Obama administration may be forced to watch from the sidelines. Should the administration come down too strongly on either side, it could threaten the broader effort to halt the civil war in Syria and defeat ISIS. 

“We’ve got a very difficult situation that we’re trying to navigate in terms of reaching a political resolution to the situation inside of Syria,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday. 

“It was very difficult to get everybody around the table. It certainly is going to be even more difficult to get everybody back around the table if you have the Saudis and the Iranians trading public barbs and public expressions of antagonism between the two countries.”

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