In a region already afflicted by multiple armed conflicts, a new source of tension erupted in the first week of the year that could upset global nuclear stability. On January 2, Saudi Arabia announced it had executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a top Shia cleric who had spent more than a decade in Iran, along with 46 other people convicted of terrorism. That evening, protesters attacked and trashed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. By January 3, Riyadh had announced it was cutting diplomatic ties with Tehran, giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the Kingdom and recalling its own ambassador. Other Sunni-majority states began to sever ties with Tehran as Iranian officials denounced both the storming of the embassy and the execution. With swaths of Syria and Iraq still under the control of the Islamic extremist group ISIS, Syria torn between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, and other rebel and terrorist groups, and Yemen in the midst of a conflict that has killed some 6,000 people since March, this formal break in Saudi-Iran relations could exacerbate many tensions.
It also comes in the midst of an event that many hope will have a long-term stabilizing effect on the region and the world: The Iranian nuclear deal. Last summer, Tehran and six world powers concluded an agreement to limit Iranian nuclear development in exchange for sanctions relief. In the fall, Iran began taking steps to meet the terms, and implementation of the deal is expected to occur in February. But it’s possible that this new rift could put more obstacles in the way. And it may be that that’s what Saudi Arabia hoped would happen all along. In fact, the Iranian nuclear deal, which Saudi Arabia vehemently objected to, may be a contributing factor in the existing crisis.
Saudi fear of a rising Iran. To understand why Saudi Arabia might want to see the Iranian nuclear deal derailed, it helps to understand the history of the two countries’ relationship with the United States. The Saudi-Iran rivalry is often oversimplified as a clash between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam, but in reality, while that sectarian divide plays a role, the two countries’ rivalry has much deeper roots, extending to ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic, and political issues. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran had one of the top militaries in the world and the backing of the United States. Riyadh couldn’t match Tehran’s influence in the region. Iran had so much clout, in fact, that it served as a moderator among Arab states when they had disagreements, even though it is not Arab itself. Neighbors also sought Iran’s military power—for example, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos asked Tehran to help it crush a rebellion in his country. Arab states both wanted Iran’s help and feared that it would meddle in their internal affairs, a concern that was weakened when Tehran recognized Bahrain’s independence in 1970. During those years, Saudi Arabia and Iran didn’t like each other but they tolerated one another.
With the fall of the Shah, Tehran and Washington cut diplomatic relations and Iraq invaded Iran, leading to a catastrophic eight-year war. Saudi-Iran relations began to sour. The Saudi establishment worried that the new Islamic Republic would try to export its revolutionary ideology, based on Shia Islam, to the Kingdom. Iran did little to assuage those fears, with various regime officials, including the founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Khomeini, making statements about the need to export the revolution and its values beyond the nation’s borders. By the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, though, Iran was becoming more isolated while Saudi Arabia prospered. Over the subsequent two decades, Saudi Arabia became an increasingly visible US ally and well-established player in the world oil market, as Iran’s political and economic isolation deepened because of its support for terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East, the belligerent rhetoric of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and its nuclear program.
Motivated at least in part by its desire to end its economic isolation, by 2013, Iran was sitting across the table from six world powers, including the United States, negotiating a deal that would limit its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief. Saudi Arabia was among the vocal critics of the deal. For Riyadh, ongoing conflict between Tehran and the rest of the world over nuclear issues had the benefit of keeping Iran isolated. Isolation, Saudi Arabia believed, would ensure that Iran remained weak and not in a position to pursue a serious agenda in the region. Iran’s political and economic isolation also gave the Kingdom a military advantage. As Iran’s conventional military equipment aged and became obsolete, Saudi Arabia stockpiled weapons, buying new aircraft and missiles from abroad.
As a nuclear deal with Iran began to look increasingly likely, the Saudi establishment looked for ways to derail the process to make sure Tehran didn’t find its way into Washington’s good graces. If it did, the Saudi establishment worried, the two former allies might renew their ties, leaving Riyadh out of the picture.
After the nuclear deal was concluded in July, Tehran and Washington did indeed maintain the channel created between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. But the rapprochement feared by the Saudis didn’t materialize, with hardliners in Tehran and Washington actively trying to undermine the deal. In December, Iran’s security establishment tested missiles—not technically a violation of the nuclear deal, but a provocative act—as Washington lawmakers worked on a bill that would exclude foreign nationals (including dual citizens) who had visited Iran in the past five years from visa waiver arrangements.
Nevertheless, a certain level of panic has characterized some of Riyadh’s decision-making since it became clear that the nuclear talks would be fruitful. In May, the Saudi establishment tried to deter the world powers—in particular Washington—from striking a deal by threatening to acquire for itself whatever level of enrichment capability Iran was allowed to retain. The Iran deal also contributed to Riyadh’s calculations in Yemen, where it militarily supports southern Sunni forces loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Saudi Arabia got away with some of its policies there because Washington desperately needed everyone on board to strike the deal that would become the flagship legacy of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.
With al-Nimr’s execution, though, Saudi authorities may have aimed higher than they could shoot. What looked like a decision to provoke Iran seems to have backfired and escalated out of Riyadh’s full control. In the United States, response to the events has been surprisingly critical of the Saudi leadership, with the State Department expressing concerns about the execution and calling on the country to “respect and protect human rights.” (European opinion, less surprisingly, also condemned Saudi Arabia.) Both The New York Times and The Washington Post ran editorials critical of Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute al-Nimr.
How will new tensions affect the nuclear deal? For the Iranian nuclear deal to be fully implemented, and thus bring the promised economic and political benefits, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani must be able to convince hardliners not to derail the process.
Fortunately, the small but vocal minority of opponents to the deal aren’t in a position to undertake nuclear-specific actions that would breach the terms. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran is in charge of implementing the nuclear measures, and it has been moving quickly: Iran has started dismantling centrifuges at both the Natanz and Fordow facilities, including more than 100 second-generation IR-2M centrifuges and a number of first-generation IR-1 centrifuges. It has also shipped some of its low-enriched uranium to Russia to get its stockpile down to 300 kilograms (kg) from roughly 10,000 kg.
The Iranian government wants to move quickly because the nuclear deal is the key to solving a number of problems, including economic troubles. But Iran has also officially entered election season, with the first televised debates airing this week in the contest to choose new members of parliament and the powerful Assembly of Experts. The new diplomatic crisis is feeding in to the domestic push and pull between moderates and reformists on one hand, and hardliners on the other. In order for the moderates who hold power to perform well, they must demonstrate that the Iranian people have gained, not lost, with the nuclear deal. But hardliners will continue to try to sabotage the implementation process by exercising pressure on the government and taking non-nuclear-related measures. As well as more missile tests, these could include shipping military equipment to some of Iran’s proxy groups and other entities in the region.
Regional reverberations. Regional security is very much at stake. In the months leading to the nuclear deal, Iranian officials highlighted the importance of concluding an agreement in order to move on to other pressing issues, among them tackling terrorism, dealing with regional security, and challenging the rise of Sunni extremism. With ISIS making progress in Iraq, the civil war continuing in Syria, and Riyadh bombing Yemen, these remain urgent problems. To help try to solve them, the pro-engagement team surrounding Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif went to great lengths to sell the idea of dialogue with Saudi Arabia to Iranian conservatives. But with the recent break in diplomatic relations, no such dialogue is likely to occur.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are, of course, both intimately involved in conflicts throughout the region; they are on opposing sides in Syria and Yemen. With outcomes to these challenges at stake, this most recent episode could have grave consequences for the region unless Riyadh and Tehran manage to de-escalate quickly. Much of the former’s Iran policy has been driven by fear that with the nuclear deal, Tehran is expanding its influence in the region and renewing its ties with the United States. But instead of hurting Iran, the events of the past week seem to have made it look better in comparison to what many have described as a reckless regime in Riyadh.
It doesn’t look as though Saudi Arabia can torpedo the deal or undermine Tehran’s influence in the region with its current policies. Iran’s bigger concern should be containing its own hardliners, who could further damage Saudi-Iran relations and derail the success of a historic nuclear agreement.