Concerning the contretemps between Saudi Arabia and Iran, a few observations:
• David Goldman thinks Saudi Arabia’s execution of the Shite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and others is a sign of panic among Saudi leadership, and perhaps this is correct. On the other hand, the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran can’t have taken place without the connivance or tacit approval of the Iranian regime (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), who probably welcomed the provocation of Nimr al-Nimr’s execution.
But is the tension entirely unwelcome to the Saudis? Goldman and others note that the Saudis are under considerably economic pressure because of low oil prices. Iranian oil coming on to the market soon will put more downward pressure on oil prices at least in the short term. What better way to prop up oil prices than to ramp up the political risk premium, which serves the interests of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. A new war in the Gulf would do wonders for oil prices. Farfetched perhaps, but stranger things happen in the Middle East. Everyone ought to regard the surface accounts of the media about what is going on with a great deal of suspicion.
• It’s unlikely there would be a prospective war between Saudi Arabia and Iran if the United States had a real president. One quick way to drag an MIA president back into action would be a new Gulf War.
UPDATE: Shane Harris at The Daily Beast is asking the same questions:
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and Middle East analyst at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the execution of al-Nimr was meant in part to send a signal to Tehran.
“I suspect they wanted an Iranian reaction. Salman is a risk taker,” Riedel said, referring to the Saudi king. Riedel noted that the Saudi monarchy was also making clear to its own citizens that it wouldn’t tolerate any internal political dissent fomented by Iran.
Inciting a diplomatic rift also may play into Riyadh’s long-term strategy of undermining Tehran.
Another unanswered question is what, if anything, the Obama administration may have done to deter the Saudis from executing al-Nimr and setting off a regional crisis.
Pretty sure we know the answer to this last question.