Contrary to popular opinion, the current spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not necessarily a continuation or resurgence of a 1400 year old conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. It is true that through various proxies Saudi Arabia and Iran have been embroiled in a struggle for regional supremacy for many years. Nevertheless, their conflict has its origins in a more modern and prosaic set of circumstances.
Stability in the region has been severely tested ever since the United States occupied Iraq and Afghanistan and so both countries have sought to cement their positions within a volatile environment. The Syrian Civil war carries on unabated despite attempts to install a functioning peace process. More and more weapons pour into the country from all sides and the bloodletting continues. In Yemen too the war seems likely to continue on the same destructive course as before.
As a result, Saudi Arabia has begun to feel vulnerable. Its attempts to have Salafist radical forces remove the Assad regime in Syria have failed. Even worse, opposition forces have splintered and become increasingly radicalized, culminating in the setting up of the Islamic State, which is now a serious threat to Saudi stability. Moreover, the human suffering has been horrendous. Further, Saudi intervention in Yemen has been a strategic failure. The Saudis have accomplished precisely nothing but at a huge financial and human cost.
There seems little question that the execution of Nimr is a response to these regional events plus Iran’s reintegration into the international community in the wake of the US deal with it over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Saudi Arabia views the agreement between Washington and Tehran as a profound threat to its own regional position. Since mobilizing anti-Shiite sectarianism is a familiar move in its efforts to sustain its own position while containing Iranian influence, there seems little doubt that the execution was a deliberate act of escalation.
Saudi Arabia had tried to block the deal and is dealing with the rejection of its widely aired public opposition.
Nevertheless, that Saudi Arabia was willing to abandon its long term policy of carefully managing Shiite dissent, and carry out such a provocative act that would clearly result in a huge Shiite protest, is somewhat surprising.
It can perhaps best be understood not solely as an escalation of its rivalry with Iran, but rather as an attempt to consolidate its leadership of a revamped Sunni regional order. The recently announced Islamic coalition against terrorism and Saudi efforts to have the Yemen war seen as an example of Arab collective action are further examples of this kind of Saudi diplomacy.
The unity displayed during the Riyadh conference for Syrian opposition groups and the joint support for those rebel groups is, however, largely superficial since Qatar and Turkey continue to rival Saudi Arabia in the region.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia must continue to contend with growing Iranian geopolitical influence within the Middle East and will most certainly continue to use proxy war as a key instrument against Iran.