Saudi Arabia cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday, after Iranian protesters ransacked and set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran amid a row over the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric.
The US State Department on Saturday criticized Saudi Arabia's execution of Nimr al-Nimr.
It issued a statement expressing concern that Riyadh's actions were "exacerbating sectarian tensions." On Monday, State Department spokesman John Kirby noted that Iran had arrested some protesters who ransacked the embassy, undercutting the Saudi claim that Iran's government had an implicit hand in the embassy attack.
This comment, and the administration's overall response to the spat, has led some experts to wonder whose side the White House is really on.
Tony Badran, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he believes the Obama administration has set a "very dangerous precedent" not only by failing to express support for its ally, but also by framing the conflict as a Sunni-Shiite religious war.
Indeed, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday that the conflict "breaks down along sectarian lines." He said the US had raised "direct concerns" to Saudi officials in advance "about the potential damaging consequences of following through on the execution" of al-Nimr.
"Unfortunately, the concerns that we expressed to the Saudis have precipitated the kinds of consequences that we were concerned about," Earnest said.
But this rhetoric, Badran said, only adds fuel to Iran's argument that the execution of al-Nimr "was a deliberate provocation" against Iran and its Shiite allies — which, in turn, implies that Iran is a legitimate representative of the region's Shiite Muslims.
"The White House is therefore sending a new message to Saudi Arabia," Badran added. "'Provoke at your peril.'"
That message, Badran said, is sent in conjunction with the Obama administration's vision for a new Middle East order — one in which Iran plays a central, if not leading, role. That vision, Badran believes, stems from Obama's desire to preserve a nuclear deal that will be the cornerstone of his foreign-policy legacy.
"Attacks on Saudi diplomats are attacks on the US order in the Middle East," Badran said, referring to Saudi Arabia's long-time status as a major US ally. "By not stepping up to defend that order, the US has essentially given Iran permission to try and tear it down."
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator who is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, echoed this sentiment in an interview with Bloomberg View.
"The Iranians hold the Obama legacy in their hands," said Miller, who worked in the State Department for more than two decades. "We are constrained and we are acquiescing to a certain degree to ensure we maintain a functional relationship with the Iranians."
Other analysts have suggested that Iran's rising influence in the region led an increasingly isolated Saudi Arabia to push back against Iran and its allies, partly explaining the decision to execute al-Nimr.
"The key source of Saudi anxiety is Iran," the political-risk firm Eurasia Group noted in its 2016 analysis of the top risks to the world. "Soon to be free of sanctions, Iran's economy will strengthen, and its government will have more money to spend in support of regional clients."
But Badran said the US maintaining that functional relationship is key to the success of what he termed as the administration's "misguided approach to Syria," which aims to minimize US involvement in the conflict while recognizing Iran as a legitimate stakeholder in the country's future.
That policy was articulated most clearly in November when Russian officials, with the US's blessing, invited Iran to Vienna to participate in peace talks over Syria for the first time since the war erupted in 2011.
The invitation was "in line with Obama's long-held perception of Syria as an Iranian sphere of influence, and his desire to legitimize Iran as a regional interlocutor of the US," Badran said at the time. "Indeed, that was the whole point of the Iran deal — to establish a broader regional partnership with the Iranians."
Last week, an abrupt about-face from the administration also contributed to this perception.
It originally informed Congress that it would sanction Iran for violating a UN resolution and testing ballistic missiles at least twice in 2015. But it quickly backed away from those sanctions, indicating that it will take a lot — much more than a spat between Saudi Arabia and Iran — to derail a new relationship nearly eight years in the making.
Especially since, as Brookings' executive vice president told The New York Times on Monday: "We haven’t been on the same page with the Saudis for a long time."
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