Tensions Rise Between Saudi Arabia And Iran In Wake Of Saudi Executions

The execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric has led to a rapid deterioration of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Saudi Iranian Flags

Seemingly, but not really, out of nowhere, the Persian Gulf region has become somewhat more tense over the past several days thanks to a standoff between Saudi Arabia and Iran that was ostensibly set off by an execution in Riyadh, but which in reality has far deeper roots that could end up impacting everything from the civil war in Syria and the war against ISIS to the price of oil and gas. It all started on Saturday when the Saudis conducted a mass execution of more than forty people, one of the largest mass executions it had conducted in decades. The Saudis claimed that those executed were guilty of various terrorism charges, and it does appear that many of the executed were suspect al Qaeda members caught inside the Kingdom in recent years. Among the group, though, was a prominent Shi’ite cleric named Nimr al-Nimr, who had been a critic of the Saud regime for years and had seen his message resonating in recent years with younger members of Saudi Arabia Shi’ite minority. As news of Al-Nimir’s execution spread, it set off protests in Shi’ite communities in Saudi Arabia and, more significantly, in many cities in Iran, one of which resulted in damage to the Saudi embassy in Tehran.  In response to both the protests and the Iranian Government’s condemnation of the execution, Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations with Iran, a move in which it was quickly joined by Persian Gulf states Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates as well as Sudan. Additionally, earlier today the Saudi’s expanded their actions by cutting off commercial activity with Iran and prohibiting travel of Saudi citizens to Iran. It’s unclear if this travel ban includes Iranian pilgrims who want to travel to Mecca and Medina, but if it does it will likely serve to heat up the tensions even more. m

When dealing with a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s somewhat hard even determine if there is a ‘good’ side involved in the dispute at all. The history of the Iranian regime, including its backing of terrorist entities like Hamas and Hezbollah as well as other terrorist entities, its history of three decades of anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric, and, of course, it’s pursuit of a nuclear program that was clearly designed to lead to the acquisition of at least the technical knowledge needed to construction of nuclear weapons, is all well-known, and its meddling in the Syrian civil war to prop up the regime of Bashar Assad is a major factor in the chaos in that country. The Saudis, though, can’t be said to be much better. Internally, their human rights record is hardly better than that of the Islamic Republic in Tehran, and in some cases is arguably worse. For years, the Saud family has allowed radical Wahabists to fund terrorism and extremist rhetoric abroad, and to enforce a strict religious code inside the country that rivals the Taliban at the height of their power in Afghanistan. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia continues, with the backing of the United States, to prosecute a war that is devastating that country while the rest of the world turns a blind eye. And, in Syria, the Saudis and their friends in the other Persian Gulf states are backing Sunni rebels in without much regard to their allegiance to ISIS, which is, after all, a Sunni organization. All the while, the Saudi elites collect the money they make from oil revenues, and from the generous military subsidies that the United States provides, while no doubt doing their best to hide their assets overseas and prepare for the day when the end of the House of Saud is a real possibility and they need to flee the country. In the end, if one has to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it’s not really much of a choice at all, so it’s hard to see who has the better argument in this particular case.

While the diplomatic situation between Tehran and Riyadh has deteriorated rapidly in recent days, it seems unlikely that this will turn into a direct military confrontation. As it is, the two nations are effectively fighting via proxies in Yemen and Syria anyway, so as Daniel Larison notes, what is most likely is that this will be further bad news for both of those nations. The efforts to come up with some kind of resolution to the Syrian civil war have been difficult, but they have been taking place and both the Saudis and the Iranian have been taking part. Without them, a diplomatic solution seems less likely. Similarly, heightened tensions between the two nations is likely to make fighting in Yemen worse, which at this point only sends that nation, such as it is, further down the road to complete chaos. Finally, of course, there’s the potential world economic impact. Already, oil prices have ticked up slightly in response to the events of the past several days, and increased tensions or the possibility of a threat to the movement of oil through the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz could send prices higher, impacting economies around the world. So, this one bears keeping an eye on to say the very least.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    It’s funny to see Republicans, like Fiorina and Carson, defending the Saudi’s mass execution.

  2. Slugger says:

    The killing of dissidents even if consonant with the formal legalisms of a nation should be considered abhorrent by people with an interest in human rights and liberties. I know that Americans are supposed to be opposed to Iran for lots of reasons, but I don’t think that there is much of an argument to be made that we should therefore support the Saudis; a simple count of the churches and synagogues in Tehran versus Riyadh makes me cautious about jumping in on the Saudi side.
    My country has gone to war to recover a satrapy for the Saudis, to overthrow a regional Sunni rival, to overthrow a non-Sunni regime in Syria, and to support the Saudi war in Yemen. Someone please tell me how all of this served my country’s interests or the abstract interests of human justice.
    There are photos of the President of the United States kissing a Saudi Prince literally; it would be good to stop licking their boots figuratively.

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    @C. Clavin:

    True. But the Saudi’s are, ostensibly, our allies. If pressed, expect the Obama admin to to either dodge the issue completely or tacitly support it.

  4. bill says:

    it’s ironic as iran does public executions as well, and many muslim countries still do.
    it’s a win-win thing for us as they take out each other and it doesn’t cost us anything. and it may cause the price of oil to rise, which will be a great “bush/cheney” talking point!

    @C. Clavin: obama has “kissed the ring” so don’t get too excited, neil made a good point about how that works.

  5. James Pearce says:

    I thought it was amusing that the Saudis decried Iran’s tendency to storm embassies. They do kind of have a reputation for that, don’t they?

    Not sure if I want the Persians and the Arabs on the same side, one big happy Islamic family, scimitars pointed outwards rather than at each others’ throats, but maybe that’s just cynical Empire-style thinking on my part.

  6. Scott says:

    Quite frankly, we’ve indulged Saudi Arabia too much. I mean, just recently, the US passed visa restrictions on Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Sudan. Why those countries? Why not SA and Yemen, two actual sources of terrorists.

    SA is one nasty country.

  7. Jenos Idanian says:

    Iranians attacked an embassy in Teheran? In gross violation of international laws?

    Christ, I hate reruns…

  8. Mu says:

    Just sell both sides 10 nukes each and get it over with.

  9. Jim says:

    Frankly Obama and the presidential candidates should be saying that they have a bowl of pop corn and a six pack and intend to watch the fun. The tragedy will be for the innocents caught in the middle.

    A few weeks ago John Bolton was advocating tearing down the colonial borders of the middle east to allow stable nation (city?) states to develop. Of course he didn’t explain how you would get from A to B, but a general conflagration in the mid east would be a start.

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @Mu: Saudi Arabia has been covertly allying itself with Israel to take advantage of their nuclear umbrella. The tribes in Arabia and the Persians have been fighting each other since well before Islam. The Sunni Shia divide only complicated the situation.
    I would bet the House Of Saud is nervous about Trump’s rehotoric since they know their kingdom is coming apart and they are ready to move to the condos and estates they already own in the US.

  11. Mu says:

    I still think the reason Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf emirates aren’t on the new visa list to not completely destroy New York’s 5th Avenue boutiques.

  12. Tyrell says:

    Secretary Kerry needs to do something !

  13. edmondo says:

    The killing of dissidents even if consonant with the formal legalisms of a nation should be considered abhorrent by people with an interest in human rights and liberties

    And yet you have no problem when a Noble Peace Prize winner drone attacks at will.

  14. stonetools says:

    The big picture here is the the Islamic world is undergoing not so much clash of civilizations, but a clash WITHIN civilization is it tries to come to terms with the modern world.The Islamic world is undergoing the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Thirty Years’ War all rolled into one, with modern weaponry, and it is and will be a bloody process that , unfortunately, has a long way to go. All this could be ignored by the West, except the area is geopolitically so important, sitting as it does at the conjunction of Africa, Asia, and Europe and atop much off the world’s oil reserves.
    About all the West can do is stand aside and try to limit the damage. It can also move away from dependence on oil, and Obama has to taken some steps to move us away from dependence on oil. History will judge these policy changes as among Obama’s most important achievements.

  15. Davebo says:


    I worked for a prominent Saudi and one of my best friends still does. I can tell you they catch hell clearing customs in the US despite the fact that they fly in on a 767 that makes Trumps plane look like a cattle car.

    And these are the last people anyone needs to worry about terrorism.

  16. Pete S says:

    @Ron Beasley: You have a good point about Trumps rhetoric. An American presidential election is hardly a calming influence.

  17. Slugger says:

    @edmondo: Since this addressed to me let me say that I don’t recall being a cheerleader for such actions. In several comments on this site in the past, I have talked about the fact that in my long lifetime declarations of war have become a dead letter. Personally, I have reservations about US military actions going back to the Tonkin Resolution which was clearly based on a strong desire to go to war without a genuine causus belli.
    As far as Obama, I think he has done some things right and some things wrong. The attempt to promote regime change in Syria and Yemen after seeing the results in Iraq are an extraordinary mistake.

  18. An Interested Party says:

    And these are the last people anyone needs to worry about terrorism.

    Tell that to these guys

  19. Tyrell says:

    The new year is beginning with ominous events: China’s stock market in collapse, European markets down, US market in free fall, Arabia and Iran are close to war, earthquake hits India. Are the seven seals being opened ?

  20. Tillman says:

    @Tyrell: Considering we haven’t seen an absolutely gigantic angel with a rainbow halo striking down a quarter of the population, I’m going to say no.

    (I know that’s in Revelation somewhere…)

  21. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: Read Revelations carefully and you will discover that the very first thing stated is that all of the imagery appears in a vision.

    Check your history and you will discover that the island of Patmos was notorious for its hallucinogenic mushrooms.

    So you have a religious fruitcake, hopped up on magic mushrooms, babbling about what he sees in a vision. And this is supposed to be taken as an adequate form of prudent forecasting?

    The mind boggles.

  22. JKB says:

    So an election year hot war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and we could have a big pipe of Canadian oil right in the center of the country.

    But Obama and Hillary both worked long and hard to stop the pipeline being built.

    Hillary and Obama are responsible. High gas prices, faltering economy, unemployment. Responsible for America not being prepared.

  23. Tillman says:


    High gas prices

    Dude, gas is beneath $2 a gallon here for the first time in a decade.

  24. JKB says:

    @Tillman: Dude, gas is beneath $2 a gallon here for the first time in a decade.

    Oil prices have oddly not reacted yet. But if the war goes hot, they will, because the tankers and oil wells will be targets.

  25. WR says:

    @JKB: “Oil prices have oddly not reacted yet.”

    But that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to start criticizing Democrats for it!

  26. An Interested Party says:

    Oil prices have oddly not reacted yet.

    Not as odd as the drivel you type…

  27. JKB says:

    More great Obama “foreign relations”

    Iran saw fit to conduct sudden live fire exercises as a US carrier group moved through the Straits of Hormuz.

    Oh, and earlier, I wasn’t talking about now, I was talking about what could be a big topic right at the peak of the election campaign. High summer gas prices because of a burning Middle East, that’s going to highlight the Democratic Party’s national security/foreign policy creds.