WASHINGTON -- Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran have always been tense at best, with the two countries constantly competing for influence in the Middle East. But despite backing opposite sides in almost every regional conflict over the past decade, the two countries have managed to maintain diplomatic ties.
So it came as a surprise when Riyadh announced on Sunday that it was recalling its diplomats from Iran and cutting off trade and travel.
Analysts disagree about the real motives behind the sudden move. Saudi officials justify their action as a legitimate response to the attacks on the country's embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashad, which were themselves prompted by Saudi Arabia's execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent anti-government Shiite cleric and activist.
“These attacks are considered a continuation of Iranian regime’s aggressive policy in the region, which aims to destabilize the security and stability, and to provoke conflict and wars,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said in a press conference.
James B. Smith, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, dismissed the Kingdom's move as little more than a natural reaction to the embassy attack.
“If Iran is not willing to accept the bilateral agreement of protecting foreign citizens on their soil and their embassy, it’s impossible for Saudi Arabia to continue diplomatic relations," Smith told The Huffington Post. “I don’t think it’s a strategic signal -- this is actually very cut and dry."
Fahad Nazer, a former analyst for the Saudi embassy in Washington, described the embassy attacks as “the proverbial last straw” after years of escalating tensions.
“When one looks at the hotspots around the Middle East, whether it is Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Lebanon, they will find that Saudi Arabia and Iran are supporting opposite sides in virtually all of them,” said Nazer, who is now an analyst for the intelligence consulting firm JTG Inc.
But others alleged a more nuanced motive, suggesting that Saudi officials anticipated that the execution of Nimr would spark a backlash in Shiite communities.
A memo leaked to The Independent showed that Saudi officials predicted the executions would be met with violence -- at least at home -- and ordered security services to exercise “maximum precaution” in the days following.
“It is difficult to see that Saudi Arabia did not know that its decision to execute Nimr would not cause uproar in the region and wouldn’t put additional strains on its already tense relations with Iran,” wrote Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based advocacy organization.
The embassy siege, Parsi continued, “provided Riyadh with the perfect pretext to cut diplomatic ties with Tehran.”
Riyadh previously halted relations with Iran in 1988, prompted then, as now, by Iranian protesters attacking the Saudi embassy in Tehran. (That confrontation was sparked by clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police forces in Mecca.)
Relations between the countries have been fraught for decades. What brought them to the recent tipping point is Saudi Arabia's perception that the U.S. is warming to Iran -- at the cost of its support of the Kingdom.
“From the Saudi perspective, geopolitical trends in the region have gone against its interests for more than a decade now,” Parsi wrote, referring in part, to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That invasion replaced Saddam Hussein, once seen as a regional counterweight to Iran, with a Shiite government with close ties to Iran.
On the issue of the Syrian civil war, Saudi Arabia is committed to the ouster of President Bashar Assad. Washington is ostensibly on the same side, but the Saudis see the U.S. inching closer to the position of Iran, a key backer of Assad's regime.
In 2013, President Barack Obama backed down at the last minute on his threat to bomb Assad’s forces as punishment for its use of chemical weapons. The reversal was an early indicator to Saudi officials that the U.S. was softening on its insistence that the Syrian dictator had to step down.
Since then, the Obama administration’s position that “Assad needs to go” has evolved into a vaguer sense that Assad will ultimately need to step down, but could stay in place during a transitional period. To the Saudis, even this subtle shift suggests that regional power dynamics are shifting in favor of Iran.
The nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S., and five world powers added to those fears. Although rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran is still a distant prospect, the nuclear accord demonstrated some level of normalization between Iran and the international community -- in addition to providing the country with billions of dollars in sanctions relief.
More recently, the Obama administration delayed imposing new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program, which Saudi Arabia views as a sign that the deal would lead the U.S. to compromise with Iran on issues other than its nuclear program.
Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman has been Saudi Arabia’s king for just under a year, and has overseen a more aggressive foreign policy agenda than his predecessor. Consistent in his government's actions is a message to the Obama administration: If the U.S. won’t stand up to Iran, the Saudis will.
Last March, four months before the Iranian nuclear deal was finalized, Obama invited heads of state from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations to Camp David in an effort to allay their concerns about the agreement. Salman declined the invitation and sent a delegation of senior government officials in his place.
Under Salman, the Kingdom has launched an aggressive and indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen, allegedly targeting Houthi separatist fighters allied with Iran. Saudi Arabia appears immune to quiet pressure from the Obama administration to mitigate civilian deaths and hospital bombings.
Nazer, the former Saudi embassy analyst, said it was clear by last summer that Salman's policies "were stark departures from the Kingdom’s signature quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy abroad and cautious, gradual reforms at home.”
Indeed, Salman has exhibited a greater willingness to put the Kingdom’s rift with Iran -- and by extension, with Shiite Islam -- out in the open.
As Rutgers University professor Toby Craig Jones put it, “The real problem is not just that Saudis are willing to live with violent sectarianism. They are now beholden to it, too. That the kingdom’s leaders have embraced sectarianism so recklessly suggests that they have little other choice.”
U.N.-led peace talks on Syria are scheduled to begin in Geneva on Jan. 25, and this will be the first time that Iran is invited to join the negotiations. It was a significant milestone for the U.N. to get Iran and Saudi Arabia, two of the outside parties most invested in the Syrian conflict, in the same room for negotiations at all. Now, however, some fear that the growing rift between Riyadh and Tehran could endanger already the already complex and fragile talks. Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy for Syria, is meeting with officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran this week to urge them not to unwind the progress that's been made in the peace process so far, though that progress has been largely symbolic.
But Abdullah al-Mouallimi, the Saudi ambassador to the U.N., said Monday that the diplomatic spat would “have no effect” on the effort to end the civil war.