Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran-Saudi Tensions Show Why It's So Hard for US to Disentangle from Mideast

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Iran-Saudi Tensions Show Why It's So Hard for US to Disentangle from Mideast

Article excerpt

Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran have been battling each other for supremacy in the Middle East for decades - a reality that might make the weekend's breaking-off of diplomatic relations between the two rivals seem like business as usual.

But one key reason the flare-up in tensions is different and more concerning this time is that it occurs as both regional powers are acting to assert themselves and gain the upper hand in what they see as a vacuum of power left by a retreating United States, some regional analysts say.

"This time is different and it matters because it shows that tensions are escalating and coming to a head in a context where the perception of both Saudi Arabia and Iran is that the United States is intent on an exit from the region," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"That has emboldened both of them to push forward on establishing their own priorities and signaling each other that they are going to watch and respond to what the other is doing," he adds. "And that could lead to actions that bring two [powers] already facing off through proxies closer to direct conflict."

The spike in tensions was set off by Saudi Arabia's execution Saturday of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, as part of a mass execution of mostly Sunni jihadists who had acted against the Saudi throne. An enraged Iranian mob set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran over Sheikh Nimr's death, prompting Riyadh to sever diplomatic ties with Iran. On Monday three Sunni-led Gulf states followed the Saudi lead by either cutting off or downgrading diplomatic relations with Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are already facing off against each other - though through proxies - in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

But heightened tensions and a prolonged diplomatic standoff along the region's Sunni-Shiite divide would set back US interests - chief among them the battle against the Islamic State and violent Islamist extremism generally. Moreover, it would further complicate a Middle East that has up-ended President Obama's vision of leaving behind the region's conflicts, some experts say.

"The Obama administration's aim all along has been to reduce American involvement in the region and turn attention elsewhere, but that approach is having the effect we're seeing now: heightened tensions between these two geopolitical rivals in a way that poses a serious threat to US interests," says Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and energy policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Two of Mr. Obama's chief foreign policy goals - a political resolution of the five-year-old Syrian war as a key element in the battle to defeat the Islamic State, and implementation of the Iran nuclear deal - could be dealt blows by unchecked Saudi-Iranian tensions, Mr. …

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