The Saudi-Iranian Hostilities: What Should the U.S. Do?

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Shiite Muslims burn an effigy of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz during a protest against the execution of cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was killed along with others in Saudi Arabia, in front of the Saudi Arabia Embassy in New Delhi on January 4. Adnan Abidi/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Make no mistake: Saudi Arabia should be condemned without reservation for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, perhaps the country's most prominent Shiite cleric.

The murder is, alas, the sign of more trouble to come as Muhammad bin Nayyef—Saudi Arabia's crown prince and interior minister—consolidates control against the backdrop of King Salman's growing dementia. Nayyef is a sectarian warrior who seldom finds a fire upon which he cannot pour gasoline.

There was also cynicism involved in the timing, coming so soon after Saudi Arabia implemented new austerity measures. That so many diplomats in Europe, Washington and the United Nations also blessed Saudi ambitions to a leadership post on the United Nations Human Rights Council simply convinced Riyadh that they could get away with murder.

That does not mean the Islamic Republic of Iran is blameless. While they have now named the street on which the Saudi Embassy in Tehran sits after Nimr, they did nothing for Nimr during his imprisonment. Nor does Iran have the moral high ground on either religious freedom or executions.

Indeed, Iran's rate of executions in 2015 was an order of magnitude above Saudi Arabia's. Even as Saudi Arabia is wrong for arresting and executing Nimr, there can be zero tolerance for the sacking and burning of embassies, a practice that has become all too common inside Iran. Iran's refusal to protect diplomats on its territory risks far more than Saudi-Iranian peace, but rather threatens the mechanism of modern diplomacy.

So what comes next? Nothing good, especially at a time when American diplomatic influence is at its nadir. It's not simply that neither side trusts the United States. Rather, both Riyadh and Tehran believe that the U.S. is actively supporting the other side.

So here's a quick look at the crystal ball:

  • That Syria peace process in which Secretary of State John Kerry is engaged? Fuhgeddaboudit​. At the very least Iran and Saudi Arabia are going to take their proxy war in Syria to a new level. That's the best scenario. The worst is that Iran moves to undercut security in Bahrain and takes its proxy conflict to Iraq, which has quietly been making amends with Riyadh.
  • Nuclear proliferation? Expect Saudi Arabia to pursue that off-the-shelf bomb from Pakistan. And if Riyadh gets a nuclear capability, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—which continues to oppose the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—is simply going to push forward with Iran's nuclear capability, an easy move since Secretary of State John Kerry designed his deal to leave Iran with an industrial program and a $100 billion cash infusion to boot.
  • Terrorism. Iranian officials have already threatened to assassinate Saudi princes in response. Iran doesn't hesitate to carry out murder outside its border and, indeed, has already targeted the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C.

So what should the United States do? Unfortunately, there's no magic solution at this point, but here's a few places to start:

  • President Obama argued that the United States could have more influence by working with the U.N. Human Rights Council than by ignoring it. All evidence is to the contrary, however. The Council is a parody of human rights advocacy and gives moral inversion U.N. imprimatur. It's time to cut off all funding and support for the Council until human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia are purged from them.
  • Condemn, in unequivocal terms, the murder of Sheikh Nimr and the persecution of anyone on the basis of their religion. Demand that Iran release Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor imprisoned simply because he is a Christian. Free the Bahai men, women and children from Iranian prisons. Demand Tehran account for the missing Iranian Jews.
  • Crack down on Iran's ballistic missile program. Desperation is seldom a successful negotiation tactic, as Obama and Kerry might realize if they had any experience in the private sector. By allowing Iran to cheat on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the U.N. Security Council Resolution which encoded it, Obama and Kerry are only convincing regional states that they must take matters into their own hands.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. A former Pentagon official, his major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy.

The Saudi-Iranian Hostilities: What Should the U.S. Do? | Opinion