Foreign Policy: The United States cannot ignore or choose to stay out of the brewing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is not a purely religious feud, and it is not someone else’s civil war — it’s a hornet’s nest in which Washington poked its finger by pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran.
The merits of the agreement as an effort to stop nuclear proliferation stand on their own, and the deal’s potential to help Iran on its long-term journey to moderation remain. But the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the deal is known, was never going to be just about Iran’s nuclear program, no matter how much the administration insisted it was. It is this shifting regional context caused by the JCPOA that explains not only Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive stance in recent months, but also its decision to execute Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2.
The kingdom could have chosen a different time to execute Nimr. It could have postponed his execution indefinitely. There was no specific reason to include him in the mass execution of 47 political opponents and militants on Jan. 2, the largest such mass execution since the kingdom put 63 militants to death after the 1979 siege of Mecca. Nimr had lost all his appeals, but there was no deadline to carry out the sentence. He was executed with al Qaeda-linked militants who had been on death row for many more years than he had been.
When Nimr was sentenced in October 2014, the Iranians immediately warned against his execution. For a while, there was the expectation of a pardon under King Abdullah or at least the probability that the sentence would not be carried out. But when King Salman came to power in January 2015 and later installed his 30-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister, he ushered in a much more hard-line mood in the kingdom.