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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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  • Episteme

    While this is deadly-serious, I couldn’t help but put 2+2 together, get 5, and try to lighten the mood with this thought…

  • Pete

    Fence off the Middle East and let the savages kill one another. And for heaven sake, don’t bring ANY of them here.

    • Andrew Allison

      We don’t need to fence it off, just stop interfering in the mutually assured self destruction. But by all means let’s not replicate the EU (mal)practice of actually inviting terrorists into our midst.

      • Pete

        Andrew, I didn’t be a literal fence. I meant keeping them from spreading out to America as refugees or whatever. Let them settle their own affairs let them find their own level of civilization.

      • Beauceron

        It’s a bit late for that.

        America has been “transformed,” and whether it is by muslim immigrants or immigrants from third-world countries around the world, it makes little difference for those on the butt-end of the transformation.

        Elites on the Left, from government to big business and from the academies to the media industry, wanted a new America. And they got it.

        The next two to three decades in the country are going to be a very difficult, divisive, angry and possibly violent time.

        It did not have to be this way.

        Thank your local Leftist.

        • Andrew Allison

          I’m painfully aware of the impact of the past seven years on the conflagration in the Middle East, but too be fair the fire was started on the previous watch. To be strictly accurate, the fire was laid by the Sykes-Picot agreement, but ignited and fueled by Western meddling.

          • Beauceron

            I am clearly not, in the case of the US, speaking only of muslim immigration. And yes, it goes back further than Obama– and primarily had little to do with President’s other than neglect (outside of perhaps Clinton and Obama).

            In any case, I don’t think you can lay the blame of the current troubles in the middle east on the Sykes-Picot agreement, as convenient and easy as that may make matters. Or the Iraq war. Honestly, I think if you’re looking for the ground zero of the current troubles in the middle east, you go back to 1949 and Sayyid Qutb’s trip to Greeley, Colorado. Or perhaps ibn Taymiyyah’s reactions to the Mongol invasions. Or maybe we ought to just blame the archangel Gabriel and be done with it. 😉

          • Andrew Allison

            It’s all Abraham’s fault (his bastard son)! [grin] I agree that that the origins of the mess in the Middle East are debatable, but it does seem to me that the Sykes-Picot carve-up of the rump of the former Ottoman Empire regardless of tribal and/or religious has a lot to do with it (as does the USA’s former dependence on oil from the region). While Sayyid Qutb is generally regarded as a founding father of radical Sunni Islamic thought, I think that socioeconomic triggers unleashed the rabidly violent version seen today.

          • Kevin

            I doubt Sykes-Picot fundamentally changed the course of the region that much. It’s not like the states in the region they didn’t draw lines in (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran for example) are bastions of peace and prosperity. Sykes-Picot is just a way of blaming Westerners for the failings of the region’s inhabitants.

          • Andrew Allison

  ” suggest otherwise.agreement-you-need-to-know-about-if-you-want-to-understand-whats-driving-the-islamic-state/, and the 17,000 hits for “sykes picot agreement consequences

          • Kevin

            I disagree with this. I think this analysis fundamentally stems from Western narcissism – the idea that only Western actions are consequential and that the rest of the world revived around our decisions. There is always a self centered bias in analysis to assume that what one has done causes events to unfold as they have. However in the case of the broader Middle East I don’t think the Wrst through this agreement is culpable for the current state of affairs – the politics of countries subject to the agreement and those which were not are quite similar. A method of differences analysis thus suggests that this cause cannot be the cause of the regions dysfunctional politics.

          • bottomfish

            I’ve heard the “blame it on Sykes-Picot” meme several times. I’d like to ask, “So how would YOU have divided up the ME back in 1916?”

          • Andrew Allison

            The argument is that it was the division itself, not it’s structure, but to answer your qustion in a nutshell (and with the benefit of hindsight), East-West (Sunni/Shiite) instead of North-South.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      Read my post on the 3 fold Strategy.

    • WigWag

      I fully agree; the Iranian regime and the Saudi regime are both repugnant and on balance they’re probably equally repugnant. It’s easy to say “a pox” on both your houses and to sit back with a bucket of popcorn while two venal nations destroy each other.

      Unfortunately it’s not that simple. If we’ve learned anything by now it’s that what happens in the Middle East, most assuredly does not stay in the Middle East.

      The recent events provide ample evidence of how weak the Saudi regime really is. For more on this, see,

      • solstice

        Given the rate at which alternative energy technology–particularly solar technology–is advancing, it is unlikely that oil will play its current crucial role in the global economy by the time the Saudi monarchy collapses:

        • WigWag

          I agree with you in part. I believe that in time the electricity grid will become an anachronism and that distributed generation will become the norm. Electric utilities will go the way of blacksmiths, full service brokerages and the telephone monopoly.

          Renewable energy (and battery technology) will become increasingly popular as costs come down and electricity generation using new technology home gas generators will also play a role. Even automobiles will be powered using these technologies assuming that Americans continue to even own personal automobiles.

          I just don’t think that this will happen in the 5-10 years that it will take Saudi Arabia to burn through its financial reserves if energy prices don’t go up.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I would be delighted to see it happen (for many reasons), but I think it is extremely unlikely in the short-to-mid term. Storage technology is nowhere near good enough, and without that solar and wind are simply expensive frauds. Perhaps some new alternatives are viable, but so far, all I see is wishful thinking from self-interested ideologues (I do NOT suggest that you are one of them), and very, very few hard numbers.
            Perhaps I will live to see it (I am in my mid-50s), but I am not terribly sanguine about the prospects.

          • WigWag

            I agree. My best guess is that it could take 20-25 years. As young as you are, you have a great chance to live to see it. I’ll be rooting for that!

            Happy New Year by the way.

          • f1b0nacc1

            A very happy new year to you too!

          • solstice

            Solar power doubling every two years as costs go down dramatically is not wishful thinking from self-interested ideologues–it’s a fact. At the current rate of progress, not only will solar energy fulfill the world’s energy needs in the short to mid-term, it will be virtually free. Read what Ray Kurzweil has said on the topic, specifically with respect to exponential technological growth.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Oh please….solar power is heavily subsidized, and the costs reflect this. Power storage issues haven’t been resolved (nor will they bill in the short or mid term, much as I wish it were otherwise), and countries that have invested heavily in solar (Germany and France are the best examples) are already learning to regret it. China, which is pointed to as the best example of solar production, is simply dominating another industrial market….for domestic sources THEY are investing in gas, coal, and nuclear. When solar becomes economically viable, you won’t have to subsidize it, real businesses will do it because it works….until then, it is simply a religion….
            And much as I like Ray Kurzweil, he should stick to vitamins and life prolongation as his obsession of the day….

          • solstice

            The issue, f1, is that you are thinking linearly and not exponentially. Even taking subsidies into account, solar power is increasing exponentially as cost per watt plummets. The way you speak about solar energy is exactly how people spoke about mobile phones in the 1980s:

          • WigWag

            Electric utility executives are well aware of the fact that this is the wave of the future and they are literally panicked about it. They fully understand that few industries are more ripe for disintermediation than electric utilities. The current model relies on huge companies to generate electricity in a small number of locations and then have that electricity transported to end users often hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The waste and expense associated with this type of energy production and distribution is enormous. Heretofore, its been the only technologically feasible alternative but that is changing fast.

            In the future, apartment complexes, large businesses, small businesses and eventually individual homeowners will generate their own energy using renewable sources or, more likely, natural gas. Full time electrical generators powered by natural gas are becoming technologically feasible at an even faster clip than renewable sources are. To make matters even better, the electricity that these new generation generators provide is available even when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.

            Electric utilities are toast; the grid is becoming a dinosaur. But all of this will take longer than Kurzweil thinks and natural gas will be as important or more important a part of the new energy mix as renewable sources are.

            If this topic interests you, see,




          • f1b0nacc1

            You are talking about alternative generation (which is real, and is being driven by economics), he is talking about solar, which is fantasy. Solar may be a niche supplement to a alternative generation portfolio, but without real storage breakthroughs (some of which are simply impractical based upon electrochemistry) and significant changes in population distribution, it has no real future as a primary source.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Exponentially? Really….words have meaning, and if you cannot get that right, you aren’t making a whole lot of sense beyond that.
            Yes, people drastically underestimated all sorts of technologies in the past, but the proponents of those technologies weren’t asking for subsidies and tax breaks to push their visions. As it happens, I knew Craig McCaw at the time he struck it big in cellphones….he was a businessman and was convinced that if he was to succeed, it would be because he had a working business model. When solar advocates (as distinct from sober predictions of alternative sources such as WigWag, see below) claim that the future is inevitable…I laugh…
            Call me when you have a business model, not some trend lines

          • solstice

            You clearly have read very little or none of Kurzweil’s work. He constantly uses the word “exponential” in referring to technological growth and contrasts exponential growth with linear growth. Also, it seems you didn’t read the WaPo article I linked, which points out that at current rates of growth, *unsubsidized solar energy will be price competitive with fossil fuels by 2020.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Actually, I own all of Kurzweil’s work and find him a fascinating (if not entirely convincing) writer. His discussions of processing density and the potential for artificial intelligence resulting from it are delightfully amusing, but they run into numerous practical problems that are beginning to show up even now. Likewise, I am deeply skeptical of his somewhat charming faith in life prolongation…. Perhaps I will be proven wrong (wont I feel foolish!), but so far, the results don’t seem to show it.
            And yes, I read the WaPo article, and remain skeptical. ‘Current rates of growth’, are finicky things….at the current rate of temperature decline (since August), my home here in KC will be under 50 of snow by July….want to bet that this doesn’t happen? The solar industry is heavily subsidized, most of the actual costs are carefully hidden by the manufacturers (quite rational, as most of them are in a highly competitive industry where trade secrets, patents, etc. are the real product), and market distortions are commonplace. When the biggest manufacturers are Chinese firms of dubious provenance (and we all know how transparent those companies are!), the credibility of any of these estimates are questionable at best.
            Come to me with a business model, not simply some blue-sky projections from industry boosters.

      • Jim__L

        Would it be worthwhile at that point to actually invade the oil-rich portions of Arabia? Presuming places like Russia (and US frackers) could not pick up at least some of the slack.

        • WigWag

          At various times Donald Trump has said “take the oil.” The Donald is an impresario of impression so it’s hard to be sure of who’s oil he wants to take. When he’s uttered the phrase, he’s seemed to have done so in the context of ISIS, Iraq and just yesterday on “Face the Nation,” Iran. As far as I know, he’s never suggested a forced seizure of Saudi oil fields.

          But if you think that the United States should confiscate Middle a Eastern oil by force, Trump may be your guy.

          • Jim__L

            If it’s a decision between respect for the borders of a country that is in a state of collapse, and collapse of the world economy, I think an argument could be made that taking control of the oil producing areas might be the best path forward for the world.

        • f1b0nacc1

          If the US wanted to steal someone’s oil, Mexico would be a far more rational choice.

          • Jim__L

            Heck, we could hold royalties in trust for whatever government Arabia put together that agreed to squash jihadis… the point is to keep the volume flowing.

      • Ellen

        Good analysis. Sadly, the fact that the Saudi monarchy spent the last 60 years promoting fanaticism and backwardness among its own citizen population, rather than education and progress, is now going to take its toll with precisely the scenarios that you describe. Historians will wonder why American (and European) governments expended so much energy trying to appease the al Saud and their mouthpieces by pressuring Israel so much when they should have been demanding (not requesting) political and economic reform in Saudi itself as a condition of American support. What an idiotic policy to give carte blanche to these cavemen.

        As for the preference between Sunni fanatics and Shiite fanatics (ie, Saudi and Iran), Israeli politician Moshe Arens once commented, “It’s like asking how would you rather die, by cholera or by typhus?”

        • WigWag

          Happy New Year, Ellen. Actually the picture is worse than I painted it. If the Saudi regime collapses, the Sunni regime in Bahrain in Shia-majority Bahrain is toast. Iran will have Saudi Arabia virtually surrounded with its allies in Iraq and Yemen and its new ally, a Shia regime in Bahrain. With Iraq and Bahrain as vassal states, Iran’s control of world oil reserves will be closer to 40 percent than the 30 percent I cited earlier.

          It’s an open question whether the oil-rich Gulf monarchies could survive a Saudi collapse; if they didn’t, all bets would be off.

          The elephant in the room is Egypt. It imports much of the grain to feed its people but the country is flat broke. Egypt survives only through Saudi largess. A Saudi collapse leads inevitably to the collapse of the cultural center of the Arab world as surely as the night follows the day.

          If the Saudi regime falls, expect massive starvation in Egypt. ISIS, already active in the Sinai, will be immeasurably strengthened as will Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas, will benefit as well and become even more radicalized than it already is.

          Then there’s the Suez Canal. Increasing radicalism and terrorism could easily shut it down intermittently or even permanently. Thee United States would have two alternatives; military intervention to keep it open or leading from behind and watching the world economy take another vicious hit as a result of the Canal’s closure.

          Finally, I wouldn’t want to be a member of Egypt’s Coptic community if any of this came to pass. Thousands or even tens of Thousands of Copts may be forced to flee, but where can they go. Of course, if this happens Muslim refugee flows to Europe might grow bigger than they already are.

          • Gene

            Wouldn’t the nightmarish scenario you describe, which is highly plausible, be the perfect crisis for a president looking to permanently transform his country? Not sure who this “responsible” American President you refer to might be, but as of this moment his street address isn’t “1600.”

          • Jim__L

            Huh, so is that why we’ve been backing them all these years?

            Shouldn’t someone come up with a plan for a soft landing for Arabia and the region if the regime falls? Seems prudent to me.

      • Anthony

        The Kingdom faces a potentially perfect storm of low oil income, open-ended war in Yemen, terrorist threats from multiple directions and an intensifying regional rivalry with its nemesis. And WigWag, I concur an Al Saud collapse (though currently not imminent) under current market conditions would be calamitous. To your point be careful what you wish for, Saudi executions signal royal worries –

  • phaedo2000

    This has been coming for awhile – in fact has been inevitable for a LONG while. Let the games begin, and may the devil take whoever gets in the way.

  • gabrielsyme

    As usual, it’s America’s “friend”, the Saudis, destabilising the region through their vicious sectarian aggression (cf. Yemen, Syria). No one should shed a tear for the Saudis on this – this is the fruit of their cruel persecution of the minority Shia within the KSA.

  • JR

    Another W in Barry’s win column. The man is en fuego.

    • solstice

      And how is this Barry’s fault? I am no fan of the President, but he does not bear responsibility for every crisis that erupts in the Muslim world, which was a dysfunctional, terrorism-incubating disaster long before he entered office. Although the President deserves blame for much, he does not bear responsibility for the sectarian carnage in places such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, which conservatives often blame him for and which he never had any control over. Actually, it is in Western interests for these two theocracies to be at each other’s throats. Since they are both our enemies, let them expend lives and resources fighting and undermining each other.

      • JR

        “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.” From the article.

        • solstice

          There is nothing in the article that says that Obama could have done
          anything to prevent Saudi Arabia from executing a dissident Shiite
          cleric or prevent an Iranian mob from ransacking the Saudi embassy. The
          sectarian war within Islam is outside the power of the American
          president, and we should actually hope that it continues to intensify.
          Nothing would benefit US interests more than for these two rabid Muslim sects to tear each other’s guts out.

          • JR

            Are you a football fan? An Eagles coach Chip Kelly got fired, partly because he failed to turn great power vested into him into W’s. Obama’s insistence of doing everything just the way Obama wants in the Middle East expose him to a greater level of scrutiny. Them’s the breaks. Otherwise, we have great power with little responsibility. Seems a bit too easy, don’t you think?

          • f1b0nacc1

            That is especially amusing when you consider that Lurie (the owner of the Eagles) is a huge Obama supporter

          • JR

            I apply Football Coach test to all the candidates. Would you want this guy coaching your team? Using that standard, Obama is a resounding no.

          • f1b0nacc1

            I wouldn’t trust Obama to inspect the jockstraps

  • John Pryce

    I… well, I do hope that they left the building after setting it on fire.

  • GS

    May they akbar each other even to the uttermost.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    “a crisis for U.S. regional strategy, such as it is”

    I agree, What Strategy?

    I actually like the fact that the Sunni Jihadists are focused on the Shiite Jihadists and vice-a-versa. This is the kind of least expensive “Jeffersonian” strategy for dealing with the Islamic Culture’s continuous spawning of Jihadists, that I can agree with. The problem is that Obama can’t even recognize that this Strategy is already in place, and requires only that America get out of the way and let it play out. This is one leg of the 3 fold Strategy I have been advocating, as follows:
    The “Best Strategy” is a 3 fold one of 1st:”Containment”: Where Muslims are confined to their own nations, and where the ambitious who want a better life, will be forced to do the hard work of fixing things in their own countries, rather than seeking a new life in a country with a Modern Civilization. This combined with 2nd: “Divide and Conquer”: Which would encourage the Sunni Jihadists to use all their resources killing the Shiite Jihadists, and vice-a-versa, should make everyone safer by killing off Islam’s continuously spawning Jihadists and using up all their resources. And 3rd: “Probation” The President declares “Islam to be a criminal organization”, by reason that Sharia Law legalizes Murder, Rape, Robbery, and Enslavement (Yes, Slavery!) and all Muslims are required to honor Sharia Law above any national laws by the Quran. Anyone declaring themselves to be a Muslim therefore confesses to belonging to a criminal
    organization, and placing them all on probation where they are monitored for sedition, sabotage, treason, and other crimes, would go a
    long way towards securing America from the backward and inferior Islamic Culture’s spawning of Jihadists domestically.
    The Advantages of using these 3 “Strategies” are many:
    1. It forces those most desiring change to stay and fix things in their own country,
    2. It forces the Jihadists to use all their resources in killing each other,
    3. It absorbs, exterminates, or catches the Islamic Culture’s continuously spawning Jihadists,
    4. It is cost effective, as it doesn’t put expensive infidel troops and planes into the quagmire,
    5. Making the internecine fight between theSunnis and Shiites as hot and bitter as possible can be done mostly with words,
    6. Selling weapons to the losing side can keep the fight going for decades, which is what will need to happen because “Cultures change at Glacial Speeds”.
    7. By absorbing all the Jihadist’s resources in killing each other, there will be little left for Murdering, Raping, Robbing, and Enslaving the innocents of the West.
    8. The Objective is to “Change Islamic Culture” so that it stops spawning Jihadists and can join the rest of mankind in modern civilization, not just get revenge on Muslims for Murdering our people.

  • Dhako

    It seems that Saudi elites are, for some reason, looking for some justifiable casus belli, whereby on the pack of that, they could then start some sort of action against Iran. Or against Iran’s growing clout in the region.

    And that may be the case since that the little adventure in Yemen (against the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency) by Saudi’s political state didn’t do much to “dent” Iran’s growing influence in the Arab world.

    Secondly, considering that Syria (with the help of Russia, in military terms) is now likely to be another Iran’s vassal state, since whatever agenda the Turks, Qatari and Saudis had for Assad regime, didn’t do the trick, then this latest Saudi act has a certain desperation air about it.

    And it has the whiff of a high gambling man, who seems to be on a losing streak at the high casino table, and who therefore, instead of cutting his losses and withdrawing from the table, decides to up the ante and put a large number of chips on the table in-order to double down on his failing hand.

    This is the impression one gets from what the Saudis are up to. After all, they seemed to have lost Iraq to Iranian’s vassaldom status. And again despite their best effort to rally the Sunni majority in Syria against the Assad’s regime (and its Shia minority government) it seems that Assad is here to stay with Iran becoming a de-facto puppeteer who will control it. And that outcome for Syria seems to be happening with the tacit approval of the western powers in general and Obama’s administration in particular.

    Thirdly, the worst of it all for the Saudis seems to be that Iran is coming in from the cold with her Nuclear deal with the West.

    Consequently, putting altogether, it seems that the Ruling elites of the house of Saud have decided (rather foolishly in my view) to stanch the bleeding of their geopolitical position in the Middle East region vis-a-vis with that of Iran. And they somehow concluded a frontal head-on-clash (either militarily or politically) instead of fighting through third-parties or through shadows, may be the best option that is left for Saudi Arabia in fighting to diminish Iran’s growing influence in the region.

    And lastly, of course, the Israelis, particularly, the ever-war-obsessed Lukidniks under Netanyahu’s administration, particularly if its a war against Iran, will give succor and all manner of a political cover within America’s political establishment to Saudi’s government, if the Saudi’s Elites decides to have a go at Iran.

    But we shall see the coming days as to how this budding regional hot-spots develops. And how far the Saudis are prepare to push this problem from a manageable proportion into a mother of all messy regional conflagration.

  • f1b0nacc1

    What is it with Iranians and embassies?

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