The Sunni-Shi'a War
Iranians Storm Saudi Embassy in Tehran

A crowd of Iranian protesters has stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran, ransacked it, and lit it on fire. The protest came in response to the Saudi execution this morning of a Shi’a cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. Pictures via Twitter:

Nimr al-Nimr was executed along with 47 others, including the man Saudi authorities describe as al-Qaeda’s top spiritual leader in Saudi Arabia. These executions were a sign of just how worried Saudi Arabia has become about its security situation, threatened by Shi’a Iran on the one hand and a radical Sunni movement it can no longer fully control on the other. (The recent recapture of Ramadi by the Iranian-backed government in Iraq is also seen as a win for the Shi’a in this regional square-off.)

But the execution of Nimr in particular was also much more than the product of anxiety: it represents a conscious decision on Riyadh’s part to raise the stakes in its regional showdown with Iran. (In a possibly related development, the Saudi-led coalition announced the end of a ceasefire against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen on Saturday as well.) The Iranian storming of the Saudi embassy is a see-you-and-raise-you response. 

The sack of the Saudi embassy carries echoes of the 1979 Iranian attacks on the U.S. Embassy. That led to the hostage crisis, which Iranian hardliners used to break the moderates, who, after the fall of the Shah, still had a fighting chance. Likewise, the current crisis in Saudi-Iranian relations also undercuts Iranian moderates and strengthens exactly the hardline elements in Iran—exactly the types that Obama hoped to disempower with the nuclear deal. If the radical wing of the Iranian establishment can now turn the Saudi crisis to full account, this will create not just a struggle between two religious extremes but a crisis for U.S. regional strategy, such as it is. 

Those who think that what we’ve seen in Syria is as bad as things in the Middle East can get don’t understand much about sectarian hate and the dynamics of war.

Ed.: This post has been updated.

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