Saudi Arabia’s Gruesome Provocation

Saudi Arabia’s execution of a prominent political leader of the monarchy’s Shiite minority has worsened Mideast tensions and is forcing the Obama administration to decide if there are any limits to the outrages that the longtime U.S. “ally” may commit, as Trita Parsi explains.

By Trita Parsi

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 protesters 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.

President Barack Obama walks past a military honor guard formation during an arrival ceremony at King Khalid International airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014 (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

President Barack Obama walks past a military honor guard formation during an arrival ceremony at King Khalid International airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 28, 2014 (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

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 Arabia 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 the Islamic State and other jihadist movements, then a balancing act between an Iran that ferociously opposes the Islamic State and a Saudi Arabia that has played an undeniable role in promoting jihadi extremism may not be the right answer.

Trita Parsi is the President of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Role of the Dice Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press). [This article originally appeared as a blog post at

13 comments for “Saudi Arabia’s Gruesome Provocation

  1. Zachary Smith
    January 5, 2016 at 13:05

    I wonder if any of this is going to alter Bernie Sanders view of Saudi Arabia as the salvation of the Middle East?

    Somehow, I doubt that it will.

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 5, 2016 at 15:52

      The salvation of the middle east was secular Libya, not Saudi Islamic Monarchy.

      I insist.

      • Rob Roy
        January 6, 2016 at 13:08


  2. Tom Welsh
    January 5, 2016 at 11:19

    “…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”.

    This looks to me more like a desperate gamble – perhaps “double or quits” – that has every possibility of rebounding violently on the heads of its perpetrators. The Saudis are either desperate or desperately rash. Triggering extreme violence against Shia in general and Iran in particular is very, very foolish indeed – especially at a time when the unprovoked war of aggression against Yemen has every likelihood of spreading back into Saudi Arabia itself. The big question, for me, is whether the Sunni terrorists of Daesh and its offshoots overthrow the Saudi regime before the Shia get around to it. And even if neither of those things happens for a while, the war the Saudis have started will inexorably bankrupt them.

  3. J'hon Doe II
    January 5, 2016 at 09:39

    All in all, Sunni-Shia conflicts, actual or potential, will weaken the Muslim Ummah (community) to such an extent that the solidarity and cohesiveness that the community yearns for will become an even more distant mirage. In such a situation, it will be vulnerable to all sorts of manipulations and machinations by external forces abetted by internal elements. The Ummah would be at its nadir, much to the delight of its enemies.

    While all this may manifest itself in the medium and long-term, the immediate consequence of the execution of the 47 could be a more determined push by the Saudi rulers, in collusion with the Israeli elite, to thwart the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal. Since both the Saudis and the Israelis realize that the nuclear deal could change the power balance in the region, their aim would be to exploit the deterioration in ties with Iran to keep Iran in perpetual isolation. There may even be lobbies in Washington working with the Saudis and Israelis to achieve this, given some recent US moves against Tehran.

    This is why the situation that is unfolding from the execution of the 47 may generate much more upheaval in the most conflict prone region of the world that is already drenched in the blood of millions of innocent human beings.

    Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

  4. Michael
    January 4, 2016 at 22:34

    I think that Saudi royal family is worried, a rising power block is emerging– BRICS– which is not as structurally dependent on their oil and is rapidly forging new alliances and moving forward with plans for gas and oil pipelines along with stronger economic, finance and trade ties that will leave them out. Couple that with a growing consensus among Saudi “allies “that Isis is not acceptable and they are likely desperate to attempt to get the western powers fighting with brics which would also include Iran, their perceived mortal enemy. Look for Saudis to reach out to Israel more overtly in coming weeks.

    • J'hon Doe II
      January 5, 2016 at 10:38

      Michael >>” Look for Saudis to reach out to Israel more overtly in coming weeks.”
      FYI – The patriarch Abraham is the progenitor of the Saudi and Israeli peoples. Namely, Ismael and Isaac. The two are genetically related – half brothers… .

      Genesis 16:11-12
      And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

      Genesis 16:15
      And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael.

      Genesis 17:20
      As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation (Oil Wealth)

      Genesis 28:9
      Esau went to Ishmael and took as his wife, besides the wives he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, the sister of Nebaioth.

      • Rob Roy
        January 6, 2016 at 13:00

        People who use biblical texts to prove anything, can’t prove anything at all. The myths are written by men who created some higher being, a god, to credit with their writings. In other words, people using these excuses that a higher being handed down inviolate edicts are ridiculous, to say the least. Such texts are used to premit any horrible act they can think up against other people…to start a war, to steal land, water and other resourcs, to murder, main, torture and orphan children who get caught in the path of this arrogance. In fact, people who “preach” the “word of god” are hopelessly egotistic. Can’t think of anything more arrogant.

  5. JWalters
    January 4, 2016 at 21:29

    Who does this Saudi king think he is anyway, the Israeli prime minister? Does he think he can just have someone killed who disagrees with his policies, or who disagrees with his reading of a particular holy book? Does he too think HIS people are God’s chosen people, and HE is God’s instrument? My God, what is this world coming to?

  6. Frank Lee
    January 4, 2016 at 19:50

    ”Washington is clearly better off being able to play a balancing role between Saudi Arabia and Iran rather than being obligated to fully support Saudi Arabia’s regional escapades.”

    Give me a break! Since when has the US been interested in a playing a ‘balancing role’ anywhere? If the Saudis are trying to stir up a confrontation with Iran is it because the US is backing, if not encouraging them. US proxies do not have an independent policy, they just do whatever their Washington masters tell them to do. This latest episode is designed to destabilise any agreements on the future outcome in Syria.

    • January 5, 2016 at 14:16

      Frank Lee is spot on in my opinion.
      it is an opinion only because there is no written or recorded evidence to prove that washington ordered saudi rulers to execute as many people, including a Shi’ite cleric. even with out the evidence it is not a difficult leap to take …

  7. Abe
    January 4, 2016 at 19:44

    That the Western political establishment and the media monopolies that serve as its voice, selectively report on and exploit perceived human rights abuses in some nations, while intentionally muting, spinning, or otherwise covering up very real abuses by other nations, illustrates perfectly the West’s selective enforcement of what it claims are its central organizing principles – democracy, freedom, and the defense of human rights.

    Mass Executions at Home, War Upon its Neighbors

    It should be noted that the West – and the United States in particular – used military force to topple the government in Libya in 2011 on “humanitarian” grounds and that the West’s involvement in Syria has been predicated on similar grounds. Why then, has the West not moved against Saudi Arabia, who is openly declaring war on not only its own people, but on its neighbors, including most notably Yemen?

    Indeed, the West’s hypocrisy goes far beyond this more recent mass execution. This same complicit silence accompanies Saudi Arabia’s US-European-backed war waged against neighboring Yemen. It is a war that has laid waste to many of Yemen’s largest and most important cities, destroying its infrastructure, and cutting off the Yemeni people from economic and humanitarian resources beyond their borders through the seizure of their ports and a coordinated naval blockade.

    It is a war fought using Western weapons. The US recently sold over a billion dollars worth of ordnance to Saudi Arabia to help it continue with its operations in Yemen. The BBC in its article, “US State Department approves Saudi Arabia arms sale,” would report:

    “The US State Department has approved the sale of $1.29 billion (£848.6m) worth of bombs to Saudi Arabia, as its military carries out air strikes in neighbouring Yemen.”

    It is American tanks, both M-60 Pattons and M1 Abrams, as well as French Leclerc main battle tanks leading armored charges into Yemen from across the Saudi-Yemeni border in the north, and from the port city of Aden in the south. And it is American aircraft Saudi Arabia is flying above Yemen, raining destruction down upon populated areas, killing thousands, injuring tens of thousands, and displacing or otherwise effecting many more.

    In other words, between brutal, armed crackdowns and mass executions at home, and a war of aggression abroad, Saudi Arabia is in every sense as real a threat to human rights, freedom, and democracy as the US claimed the government in Libya was in 2011 before intervening and toppling the government there, and as much so a threat as the US claims the Syrian government currently is amid an increasingly convoluted attempt to topple the government there.

    Yet, instead of confronting Saudi Arabia – one of the West’s oldest and most stalwart allies in the region for decades – the US has continued propping it up, defending it, and covering up for its numerous and ever-multiplying crimes against humanity.

    Saudi Arabia’s Growing Body Count
    By Tony Cartalucci

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