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The Saudi-Iranian Eruption

Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran after a mob set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, stormed the compound and trashed its offices while Iranian security personnel stood aside.

This is hardly anything new. The Iranian government has been violently contemptuous of worldwide norms of diplomacy ever since it seized power in 1979. The Iranian hostage crisis, where Islamist revolutionaries held 52 foreign servicemen and women hostage at the American Embassy for 444 days, was just the beginning.

Four years later, Iran’s terrorist proxies in Lebanon used to a suicide truck bomb to destroy the American embassy in Beirut.

Ten years later they blew up the Israeli embassy in Argentina, also with a suicide truck bomb.

In 2012, Azerbaijan arrested 22 members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah for plotting attacks on the American and Israeli embassies in Baku.

Like Iran, Azerbaijan is a Shia-majority nation, but unlike Iran, its government has normal and even warm relations with the United States and Israel. And like most of the world, Azerbaijanis understand and respect the sovereignty of foreign embassies. The Iranians don’t, so the Saudis are calling everyone home and giving the Iranians 48 hours to leave the country or else.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have been enemies since the 1979 revolution, but their hatred for each other is far older than either regime. It stretches all the way back to the time of the Persian Empire.

It’s slightly amazing that they’ve had diplomatic relations at all. They have more grievances against each other—some of them reasonable, others bigoted, sectarian and hysterical—than anyone outside the region could ever keep track of.

The Iranians didn’t torch and sack the Saudi embassy just because they woke up in the morning and felt like it, though. The Saudis kicked off the latest round when they executed Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Nimr lived in Saudi Arabia’s enormous Eastern Province. It’s where most of the oil fields are. It’s also—inconveniently for Riyadh—the one place where Shia Muslims make up the majority in an otherwise Sunni-dominated kingdom. Nimr had been calling for democratic elections and for the Shias to secede if their rights weren’t better respected.

He was right to complain. Saudi Arabia is the most backward and medieval society in the entire world outside ISIS- and Taliban-occupied territory. Tehran is like Amsterdam compared with Riyadh despite the Iranian government’s theocratic regulations and draconian enforcers.

During a series of protests in 2011 and 2012, Nimr called on Shia demonstrators to resist the Saudi government with words rather than violence. “The weapon of the word is stronger than the power of lead,” he said.

The Saudis called him a terrorist and cut off his head.

Unless the Saudi government knows something about him that the rest of us don’t, this is pretty outrageous.

The Iranians are almost right to be furious, but not quite. They’re furious for the wrong reasons. They’d be just as furious if the guy was really a terrorist. They’d be just as furious if he’d been dispatching squads of suicide bombers to Riyadh and Medina. The Iranian regime murdered its way into power and tortures and murders to keep itself in power. It doesn’t care about human rights any more than Kim Jong-un of North Korea. 

Tehran’s rulers are just bent out of shape because Nimr was a fellow Shia who could have been useful if the global Sunni-Shia war—which Iran does everything in its power to keep ablaze—were to engulf Saudi Arabia as it has just about everywhere else Sunnis and Shias live next to each other.

Which isn’t to say the Saudi rulers aren’t violating anyone’s human rights. Of course they are. They do so as a matter of course. Their absolute monarchy isn’t drastically different from the ISIS “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq except that Riyadh plays well with others diplomatically and pushes back hard against Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudis do so for entirely self-interested reasons, of course. They don’t care about human rights any more than the Iranians do. They’re the world biggest proponents of hardline Sunni fanaticism. The only reason they’re bothered by ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood is because ISIS and the Brotherhood threaten the Saudi royal family’s stranglehold on absolute power.

Americans can be excused for watching the Saudis and Iranians slug it out as if they were Hitler and Stalin beating the crap out of each other in Europe.

We have to stick with the Saudis, though, like it or not, the same way we stuck with the Soviet Union against the Nazis.

The Washington-Riyadh alliance is strictly transactional. We have common enemies and common economic interests, and that’s it. There is no warmth there, no real friendship, on either side. We rightly find the Saudis distasteful. They find us distasteful, too, because they’re a thousand years behind us. They’re a thousand years behind almost everyone in the world, including much of the Arab world.

But we have to stand by them—and not just because they have oil—because they don’t actively work against us like the Iranians do despite the negotiated nuclear “deal” between Tehran and Washington earlier this year.

So: good on the Saudis for kicking the Iranians out even though the Saudis instigated the recent unpleasantness with their usual appalling behavior.

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