After the Iranians burned and looted the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties Iran, while the U.A.E. “downgraded” theirs. Now, Sudan and Kuwait are also making diplomatic moves. Like Bahrain, Sudan opted to go all the way: “In response to the barbaric attacks on the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad… Sudan announces the immediate severing of ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran,” the Sudanese foreign ministry announced in a statement. Kuwait was more measured, tracking more closely with moves made by the UAE yesterday, recalling its ambassador as a reaction to the “flagrant breach of international norms” but not kicking out Iran’s ambassador or severing all ties.
The Sudanese reaction is interesting in that, until very recently, Sudan was one of Iran’s closest regional allies. However, as we covered in August, the increasingly bitter, sectarian nature of the regional split between the Saudis and Iran led the Sudanese regime to throw its majority-Sunni country onto the side of coreligionists in Riyadh. Today’s news should come as a reminder of just how much the Sunni-Shi’a conflict is starting to twist other, historical ties in the Middle East.
But that’s not the only dynamic that’s shifting. According to the New York Times, an informal survey of European political opinion indicates that, though official reaction in Europe’s capitals has been muted, elites across the continent appear to have grown exasperated with the Saudis and are tilting towards Iran. “[F]or many Europeans, Iran—long a pariah because of its anti-Western rhetoric and its nuclear program—has suddenly become, at least in comparison with Saudi Arabia, an object of sympathy,” the article notes.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Administration also seems to be gingerly weighing in on the side of Iran. Writing at Bloomberg View, Eli Lake and Josh Rogin note that:
The State Department has criticized Saudi Arabia before for executions and its human rights record. But this time, its spokesman, John Kirby, undermined the Saudi claim that Iran’s government was culpable for the attacks on its embassy, noting in his opening statement that Iran appears to have arrested some of those responsible.
There is no doubt that the Saudis make ugly and uncomfortable regional bedfellows. Their record on human rights is indeed appalling. It appears that after years of having to put up with and defend a state that represses women and employs barbaric punishments against its own people, European and U.S. diplomats are indulging in a bit of cathartic release. Furthermore, as Aaron David Miller noted in the BV piece, our room for maneuver is genuinely constrained: “The Iranians hold the Obama legacy in their hands [. . .] We are constrained and we are acquiescing to a certain degree to ensure we maintain a functional relationship with the Iranians.”
But none of this makes siding with the Iranians here a particularly good idea from the strategic perspective. The White House has been trying for some time now to step back from the Middle East, in an effort they characterize as an offshore rebalancing stance. But from the start, the Administration misjudged the relative strength of the regional powers: In the absence of American regional hegemony propping them up, the Saudis are the weak party and the Iranians have proven to be the stronger state—the one that classical offshore balancing theory would tell us we need to balance against, not toward. The consequences of balancing toward the strong party have become increasingly clear as Iran has gone on the march regionally from Syria to Iraq to Yemen, prompting the Saudis to react in an increasingly panicky fashion. The al-Nimr execution was driven partially by this, and partially by a Saudi desire to stick a finger in the eye of a U.S. Administration they feel has been abandoning them.
But to react to that execution on Wilsonian, human-rights grounds—and to let that reaction guide how you deal with events in Tehran—runs counter to the realpolitik project of regional disengagement. If we really do want to draw back from the region, we’ll have to swallow some rights abuses somewhere. You can’t have it both ways. And unless we are simply throwing in our lot with the Iranians, an attack on an ally and a violation of diplomatic norms on the level of sacking an embassy is the sort of thing you have to respond to, not cover up. Failure to do so courts further regional instability, as each side perceives that the U.S. is unwilling to help its allies, contain its enemies, or enforce minimal international norms.