Iran-Saudi Rift Complicates Geopolitics of the Mideast

As if there isn't already enough turmoil across the Middle East, fragile diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia have now been dashed. Perhaps more than anywhere else in this troubled region, these two nations represent the almost eternal divide between Shia and Sunni parts of the Muslim faith. The more relevant question here at home: How does the United States, given its past failures to understand this rift, negotiate this latest development?

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's decision to sever diplomatic ties with Iran followed an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. The attack on the embassy was in response to Saudi Arabia's precipitous decision to execute prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr -- an event that shocked many in the West and Muslim world. The 56-year-old cleric was a force behind 2011 Arab Spring anti-government protests in oil-rich eastern Saudi Arabia, where Shiites have long complained of marginalization in the Sunni-run nation.

This sudden event comes on the heels of the ongoing civil war in Syria, the Saudis' disastrous military operations in neighboring Yemen, turmoil in a badly divided Iraq and anarchy in Libya. The desert kingdom's decision to execute al-Nimr along with 46 others on terrorism charges offers a hint as to the short-sightedness afflicting Saudi leadership.

It didn't take long after the execution for a very agitated Iranian crowd to storm the Saudi embassy in Tehran. In response, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced in Riyadh that Iranian diplomats had 48 hours to leave the kingdom.

This uproar is no diplomatic flash in the pan: Execution of this Shiite cleric will have tremendous religious and political consequences. Yet the execution is really but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to root causes of animosity between Shia-led Iran and Saudi Arabia. The desert kingdom has been in a political, economic and diplomatic downward spiral ever since King Salman took power following the death of his half-brother King Abdullah a year ago.

Internal rifts within the new palace regime manifest themselves through ill-conceived policies, including the war in Yemen; the decision to maintain oil supply levels on the world market that have pushed petroleum prices down for everyone; controversial trade deals with Russia and China; and anger with the United States following its agreement with Iran over the latter's nuclear program.

The Yemen quagmire threatens to become for the kingdom what Vietnam represented for the United States. Lack of a decisive military victory highlights not only the difficulties the kingdom faces in the lawless country of Yemen but also exposes the lack of military and diplomatic experience of Saudi defense minister Mohammed bin Salman, the king's son. He after all advocated use of military force to oust the Iranian-backed Shia group, the Huthis, from the capital of Yemen. Now the conflict has widened to all areas of Yemen. I see no end to what has blossomed into a full-scale civil war.

The ongoing drop in oil prices is putting tremendous pressure on the kingdom's resources. To finance its social programs, Saudi Arabia's reserves have plummeted by $49 billion since oil prices dropped a few months ago. My guess is prices will fall even lower this year. One prediction is that a barrel of oil may hit $32. What's concerning for the kingdom is that it has blown through 20 percent of its reserves in one year. Thus, money used to purchase the loyalty of other countries in the region is now spent on internal security to save the new monarchy.

And where do Russia and China fit into this equation? The answer lies in whether tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran escalate into military conflict. If and when the Huthis in Yemen start using advanced weapons provided by Iran, we could well see military action between the two Middle East powers, though perhaps not full-scale warfare. Tensions between Iran and the desert kingdom could divert U.S. attention from what Russia meanwhile is doing in Crimea and Syria and what China is doing in the South China Sea.

Should military conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia erupt, the United States might have no choice but to assist its longtime ally. But given some of the kingdom's latest efforts completely contrary to U.S. interests, do we really have to?

The danger of supporting an increasingly unstable ally should not be ignored, despite campaign-trail rhetoric: My analysis suggests Saudi Arabia realizes it is stuck in Yemen, unable to change the outcome in Syria because of Russia's intervention and incapable of stopping Iran from expanding its influence in the region. Add to all this internal strife at the Saudi palace. Talk about your ticking time bomb.

Given that the Saudi kingdom's political calculations likely include dragging other countries -- mainly the United States -- into its conflicts, we need to be extremely cautious, even as war hawks in Washington bang the drum for U.S. support of the kingdom.

The decision to execute al-Nimr looks increasingly stupid. The Saudi kingdom obviously failed to consider what the cleric meant to the rival Shia culture in Islam, even outside the Middle East. For instance, in a show of solidarity, a Shiite Muslim in front of Saudi Arabia's embassy in New Delhi burned a picture of King Salman. Shiite Muslim women during a protest in Lahore, Pakistan, denounced the execution. Demonstrations in Iran have spread far beyond that country.

As Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, the world's largest political-risk consultant, argues persuasively, the desert kingdom is in big trouble: "The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is much more challenged on the economic front, more isolated regionally and globally and beset with succession issues (given the king's controversial son)."

Washington needs to coldly and objectively consider the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East at present. That landscape is shifting and not in our favor. And tying our future to a perplexing ally simply does not make strategic sense.