Republican presidential hopefuls shied away from condemning Saudi Arabia’s execution of 47 prisoners Sunday, instead highlighting the strong alliance between Washington and Riyadh.
The 47 people executed on terrorism charges Saturday included prominent Shiite dissident cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a vocal critic of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the Shiite minority. Iranian officials condemned Nimr’s execution and protesters in Tehran ransacked the Saudi embassy there. Analysts warned the execution threatened to inflame sectarian tensions in the Middle East.
But 2016 Republican candidate Carly Fiorina dismissed Iran’s reaction to the death of the leading anti-government protester.
“I take the Iranian condemnation with a huge grain of salt,” Fiorina told CNN’s "State of the Union" on Sunday. “This is a regime that tortures citizens routinely, that thinks nothing of executions, that still holds four Americans in jail.”
“Saudi Arabia is our ally, despite the fact that they don’t always behave in a way that we condone,” Fiorina continued, in her only reference to Riyadh’s mass executions. “Iran is a real and present threat.”
Retired neurosurgeon and presidential hopeful Ben Carson went further, suggesting that the nuclear deal struck last July between Iran, the U.S. and five world powers pushed Saudi Arabia to violently repress its Shiite population.
“The Saudis have been one of our strongest allies in the Middle East, and I think it’s unfortunate that we put them in the position we have by showing the support to Iran that we have with this foolish deal,” Carson told ABC’s “This Week."
“There’s no reason for the Saudis to believe that we’re really on their side when we do things like that.”
When pushed to specifically address Riyadh’s mass executions, Carson added a disclaimer but stuck to his previous notion that American support of the nuclear deal is partly to blame: “Of course we don’t condone that kind of thing. But I’m just saying we need to stop doing silly things that promote these kinds of activities.”
In 2015, Saudi Arabia executed 158 people, making it the kingdom’s deadliest year on death row since 1995. With 47 people killed just two days into the new year, 2016 is on track to overtake that record.
Saudi Arabia justifies the executions as part of its strict interpretation of Islamic law, also called Sharia law. Punishing government protesters with death while citing Sharia law has led some, including The New York Times editorial board, to compare the kingdom’s judicial system to that of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Unlike the Islamic State group, Saudi Arabia enjoys international legitimacy despite its atrocious human rights record. It currently sits on the United Nations Human Rights Council and, as Fiorina and Carson noted, is a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Because of this, even the U.S. State Department balked at condemning the Saudi executions, only voicing “concerns” over the practice.
“We have previously expressed our concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia and have frequently raised these concerns at high levels of the Saudi Government,” State Department spokesman John Kirby wrote in a statement on Saturday. “We reaffirm our calls on the Government of Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights, and to ensure fair and transparent judicial proceedings in all cases.”