A number of analysts have suggested that the execution of Nimr was a provocation designed to escalate tensions and rally support. Trita Parsi, of the National Iranian American Council, even suggested that the goal of such an escalation would be to force the U.S. back onside with its longstanding ally, Saudi Arabia, and limit rapprochement with Iran.
According to Lynch, “There seems little question that this was an intentional escalation by the Saudi leadership, which could not have been surprised by the regional and international backlash.” He summarized Riyadh’s calculations as such: “the new sectarian escalation is driven by Riyadh’s curious, and dangerous, mixture of perceived threat and opportunity, strength and weakness.” On the one hand, he argued, “Saudi Arabia is uniquely strong within Arab politics at the moment,” as evidenced by its strengthened partnerships with fellow Sunni powers that have joined Riyadh in the Yemen campaign and a new, “Islamic” anti-ISIL coalition that was announced last month.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia “clearly feels vulnerable as well,” Lynch said, both domestically and regionally. In the backdrop of its proxy wars against Iran, the historic nuclear deal brokered by Western powers to curtail Iran’s nuclear program has shaken Saudi confidence in Washington, its traditional ally against Tehran. Saudi Arabia and Israel, key U.S. allies in the region, have protested the deal, arguing it will make it easier for Iran to develop a bomb — though most analysts say their objection stems more from existential fears the deal will lead to a wider rapprochement with their virulent enemy.
“Its floundering wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of the Islamic State and the Iran nuclear deal have left it feeling profoundly vulnerable,” Lynch wrote. “This combination of strength and vulnerability has made for erratic foreign policy — especially with an aggressive new leadership eager to make its mark.”
Many regional observers had expected Saudi-Iran tensions to boil over sooner or later.
The question, now, is whether this escalation can be tamped down by urgent diplomacy. If not, the implications of a widening rift between Riyadh and Tehran could be far-reaching for the Middle East. Already, there are signs the crisis could disrupt the fragile peace in Yemen. On Saturday, the same day Nimr’s execution was announced, Saudi Arabia formally declared an end to the ceasefire in Yemen, citing Houthi “violations” of its terms.
But the timing is particularly unfortunate for Syria: Saudi Arabia and Iran only recently agreed to sit at the same table in Vienna to kick-start the stalled peace process — for the first time in Syria’s nearly five-year war. Western officials moderating those talks have raised the alarm about the burgeoning tensions, with Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telling Foreign Policy that the UN would work to keep “this crisis as separated as possible from harming the planned Syrian political process.”
Saudi officials on Tuesday said the diplomatic crisis would not affect the Kingdom’s peace efforts in Syria or Yemen, although the statement also blamed Iran’s positions for the lack of progress in those efforts. The real impact of the latest diplomatic spat remains to be seen, but many around the region and internationally continue to brace for the worst.