On Monday, thousands of Iraqi Shiites took to the streets of Baghdad to protest Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. “We demand that the government close the Saudi embassy, kick out the ambassador and boycott all Saudi products,” said one protestor, a sentiment echoed by many. The Saudi embassy in Baghdad reopened just last month, 25 years after Riyadh broke off relations with Iraq to protest Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. And now Iraqi mobs are threatening to burn it to the ground, just as Iranian protestors torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran Saturday as well as the consulate in Mashad.
There were other demonstrations, from Beirut to Dearborn, Michigan, to protest the killing of Nimr, put to death with 46 other Saudis, mostly Sunni Islamists. It seems that no one has shed many tears about putting al Qaeda members to death, but almost everyone agrees that executing a Shiite Cleric who threatened to call for a Shiite secessionist movement and violence (”the military option“) to bring down the Saudi ruling family was a big mistake.
“By executing [Nimr],” writes the Washington Post, “the Saudi regime managed to unite most of the world in condemnation, from Iran’s supreme leader to the State Department and the myriad Western and Arab human rights groups that had reported that Sheik Nimr’s 2014 trial on sedition and rebellion charges was unfair.” The White House is especially upset. “Administration officials were privately critical of the Saudis for provoking the weekend’s upheaval,” the Post reported. The White House, according to Foreign Policy, “had kept its concerns private but had also voiced its dismay at plans to mete out the death penalty to the cleric.”
Much of the press appears to agree with the White House that Saudi Arabia unnecessarily provoked the Iranians by executing Nimr, and adding to the sectarian tensions dividing the region. On this view, a pox on both Iran and Saudi’s houses, and neither the White House nor anyone should be taking sides with either of these difficult states. After all, Iran is hardly saintly, executing more people per capita than any other country.
Let’s try to see this dispassionately. Whether or not you think states should execute their citizens, the death penalty is a marginal issue here. Or imagine it like this: The United States also puts inmates to death, and if a foreign government were to lay siege to one of our embassies, if, for instance, the Swiss Guard torched our diplomatic missions in Rome because the Vatican is against capital punishment, the point would clearly not be about executions. Rather it would rightly be regarded as an attack on a sovereign state. That’s what happened on Saturday—Iranian mobs, at the behest of their authoritarian government (the Obama administration is pretending that the clerical regime may not be involved), attacked Saudi diplomatic missions. Everything else that obscures that fact is noise—noise, in this case, that advances Iranian interests.
State Department spokesman John Kirby released a statement Saturday that failed to criticize the attacks. “We are particularly concerned that the execution of prominent Shia cleric and political activist Nimr al-Nimr risks exacerbating sectarian tensions at a time when they urgently need to be reduced.”
Why does the administration believe that to be the case? Or, why does it perceive the action of a sovereign state regarding one of its own citizens to be so “provocative” that it was likely to compel another sovereign state to take violent action? It is because the White House understands that Tehran regarded and still regards Nimr as an Iranian asset. With Nimr alive and free, the Iranians saw him as a potential agent of Saudi destabilization. With Nimr imprisoned and now dead, Iran gets to claim him as one of its own and wave the Shiite banner. In acknowledging Nimr as an Iranian equity, the White House is backing Tehran’s campaign as final interlocutor on all matters Shiite, regardless of state sovereignty. It doesn’t matter if it’s Beirut, Baghdad, Riyadh or even Dearborn, Iran wants a say, and now the Obama administration has legitimized it.
Obama’s Middle East policy has been tending in this direction from the very outset, starting with his June 2009 speech in Cairo. In this instance, the president sought to go over the heads of state of Muslim majority countries, including allies like Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in order to speak directly to Muslims. Leaving aside the fact that Muslims constitute anything but a mono-society—for instance, among many other key distinctions there are Sunnis and Shiites—Obama established the precedent of obscuring the central role of nation-states.
The problem, however, is that American bureaucracies that deal with foreigners—State Department, CIA, the Pentagon, etc.— understand the world in terms of states. They are not equipped to deal with amorphous groups of people who seem to define themselves by faith (Christendom, for instance, Buddhists, etc.), but rather with real and specific institutions that manage, for better or worse, the societies and peoples living within its borders. And we understand it in this fashion not simply because of some imaginary construct cooked up by the authors of the Westphalian system, or the European diplomats who drew the Sykes-Picot borders in the post-WWI Middle East—rather, it is because this is the order that the United States has encouraged and enforced since the end of WWII. Thus, by accepting Iran as a mediator on Shiite affairs, Obama is not only exacerbating sectarian tensions in the Middle East, he is also erasing sovereign borders and eroding the nation-state system—all of which damage American interests directly.
Let’s look at it in more specific terms. The attacks on Saudi’s diplomatic missions have brought out a lot of anti-Saudi sentiment in the U.S. foreign policy community, journalists and analysts who wonder why we should care about a regime responsible for a lot of bad things around the world. There is no doubt that Riyadh is, to say the least, a very difficult ally in many ways. However, it is part of the American order of the Middle East and has been so for 70 years. Iran sees it this way as well. Therefore, an attack on Saudi diplomatic facilities is an attack on our side, our order, us. They see other traditional U.S. regional partners—like Jordan, Turkey, and Israel—in the same way.
Saturday’s siege then should be understood in the context of other Iranian campaigns against the American order, like most recently the regime’s ballistic missile tests. The administration’s responses to the burning of an embassy and consulate of an ally should be seen similarly, as yet another concession to a terrorist regime that violates international law as a matter of policy. The White House’s retreat only means that the system of laws and norms underwritten by the United States for decades will be toppled and then replaced by another order, likely shaped by actors like the Islamic Republic and its allies.