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Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia Takes A Harder Line With Iran

President Obama meets Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh in January 2015. The Saudi monarch, in power for a year, has adopted more confrontational positions toward Iran, the kingdom's longtime rival.
Carolyn Kaster
President Obama meets Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh in January 2015. The Saudi monarch, in power for a year, has adopted more confrontational positions toward Iran, the kingdom's longtime rival.

The decision by Saudi Arabia's King Salman to sever diplomatic relations with Iran sends a strong message to its main regional rival. The move should also be seen as a warning that the Saudis feel the United States is not standing up to Iran, and are willing do so on their own, according to regional analysts.

The diplomatic break came after Saudi Arabia's execution of 47 prisoners convicted on terrorism charges. This action was seen as a domestic move, part of a crackdown on Sunni extremists. Most of the men were found guilty of links to al-Qaida and taking part in violent crimes committed more than a decade ago.

But the most prominent prisoner was a Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. The Saudis accused him of leading a Shiite uprising in Saudi's eastern province in 2011, though his supporters denied this.

Despite international pleas for clemency, and warnings from the U.S. and Iran, the Saudis carried out the execution, which spurred strong regional reactions, including a furious response in Iran.

As protests spread in Arab Shiite communities from Bahrain to Lebanon, an Iranian mob ransacked and torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned the attacks, but they suggested a lack of control over radical elements and made much worse the already bad relations between the regional powers.

"I think if an embassy is overrun, it's common to cut relations," says Faisal bin Farhan, a Saudi analyst involved in the kingdom's defense sector. He says the diplomatic break was not planned, but Iran's reaction presented an opportunity for the new Saudi leadership to make a point.

"The current leadership works quickly. They were ready," he says.

Differences Over Iran

King Salman was ready to reset regional relations and demonstrate to Washington that the Obama administration's policy toward Tehran is unacceptable to the Saudis, Farhan adds.

"With the U.S. position being what it is, the longer Saudi Arabia waits, the harder it is to push back," says Farhan. He says the Obama administration has downplayed Iranian provocations to protect the nuclear deal reached last summer between Iran and six world powers.

The U.S. president has defended the agreement against Saudi, Israeli and conservative critics in the U.S., and has held out the possibility that it could improve the overall atmosphere in the region.

But in Riyadh's view, Iran's hardline challenges have gone unanswered by Washington. In the past week, the Saudis watched with alarm as the Obama administration declined to impose additional sanctions against Iran for a widely reported October test of a ballistic missile. The administration notified Congress that it would impose new financial penalties on nearly a dozen companies and individuals, but then delayed the move.

"I am still in favor of the Iran deal. The only problem: how the rest of the package is handled and the side effects. This is where I think we've gone off the rails," says Farhan.

Saudi Arabia has upped the ante by rallying Sunni allies. Bahrain and Sudan have joined in cutting ties with Iran, while Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have downgraded relations. Egypt denounced the Iranian attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions as "unacceptable."

"This is a real change. For the first time, Saudi Arabia is taking a proactive leadership role," says Ford Fraker, a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, now president of the Middle East Policy Council in Washington.

Shaking Things Up

This new and aggressive stance began with King Salman, who took over as monarch a year ago and shook up the traditional governing structures.

He elevated his cousin, Mohammed Bin Nayef, to interior minister and crown prince, and appointed his young son, Mohammad bin Salman, as chief of staff, deputy crown prince and defense minister. Saudi Arabia has been more assertive abroad, launching an air campaign against Shiite rebels in Yemen and increasing military aid to rebels in Syria. In both those wars, the Saudis and Iranians are on opposite sides.

But raising the temperature is risky in a region already on fire.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday urged both the Iranians and the Saudis to show restraint. The rift is likely to damage Washington's efforts to find solutions on Syria, Yemen and perhaps even in the fight against ISIS.

"The question is, have [the Saudis] thought through the potential reactions? It sends a message — the follow-up is not clear," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who met with senior leaders in Riyadh last month. "I don't see a longer game plan."

The Saudi gamble appears to be driven by security concerns at a delicate time.

As oil prices continue to drop, the Saudi government unveiled an austerity program in late December that immediately hiked gas prices and proposed an income tax for the first time.

The Saudi military campaign in Yemen is expensive and has not gone well. In Syria, the Saudis are deeply concerned that the U.S. is not pushing hard enough against Iran and Russia, countries that support Syrian President Bashar Assad.

So the Saudis may be expressing themselves more openly, but will they get what they want?

"Anger is not a policy," notes Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "Anger is a means to an end. "

The Saudi goal, he notes, is to pressure the U.S. to adopt policies more in line with Saudi thinking. If that happens, "then the gamble will have worked," he says. "But I don't think the mood in Washington is heading in that direction at all."

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Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.