Tensions are escalating in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including a prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. In response, a group of protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Iran, a demonstration that led Riyadh to cut off all ties with Tehran.
Fears of renewed sectarian strife in the embattled region are emerging, especially in Yemen where Saudi Arabia is already engaged in a military operation against Houthi rebels who – according to Riyadh – are supported by Iran.
However, the latest spat between the two long-time rivals doesn’t only affect the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. It has far-reaching implications, for the United States in particular.
Even though Saudi Arabia is an old U.S. ally, their relations have deteriorated ever since King Salman ascended to the throne last year. Human rights violations, such as the alleged mass murder of civilians in Yemen; criminal negligence in the Hajj stampede; and record number of executions at the hands of Riyadh left Washington in a really awkward position.
But since the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia in order to fight Islamic State terrorists – and, of course, for vested economic interests in the region – the alliance cannot be broken. So, supporting Iran is out of the question.
On the other hand, the Obama administration, after years of negotiation efforts by Secretary of State John Kerry, managed to strike a deal with Iran to curb the Islamic republic’s nuclear activity. It was a major foreign policy struggle in American history, one that finally thawed the ice between Washington and Tehran after decades of non-cooperation.
Now, if the U.S. tries to tilt toward Iran to protect the landmark nuclear agreement, it will, of course, (further) alienate Saudi Arabia.
Considering the current state of affairs, taking sides in this complicated proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran will inevitably create more problems for the U.S.
But is it possible to remain neutral? Only time will tell.