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Why It Matters That the Saudis Executed an Iranian Cleric

2016-01-04

Saudi Arabia is known for its brutality in carrying out capital punishment, and the murder of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr was no exception.  He was only one of forty-nine victims the other day, a high count even for the Saudis.  He was said to be guilty of “sedition” in calling for the overthrow of the Saudi royal family.  He was more guilty of being a pious and sectarian Shiite cleric, and was an old man unable to harm anybody.  Nonetheless, the Saudis found it necessary to commit this act which has divided the Middle East even further.  Since the execution, there was a protest in Tehran which resulted in the storming of the Saudi embassy despite the presence of Iranian police, who made numerous arrests.  The Saudi government has given the Iranian envoy forty-eight hours to leave the country.  There has been no new troop mobilization or any sign that war is imminent, but there also has been no let-up in the civil war in Syria or the war between the Islamic State and the Iraqi and Kurdish governments.  A state of war in fact exists; it merely has not been given a name because there are so many named conflicts already.

The only possible escalation would be a direct attack on Iranian territory by a Saudi-flagged armed force.  This would be unlikely and redundant.  Neither country is capable of sustaining a fully equipped invasion.  Saudi Arabia has a large area of territory which is populated by a Shiite majority, centered on Dhahran on the east coast.  The large oil fields in this eastern part of the country also correlate with the Shiite population, and there is a risk of rebellion in this area.  The Saudi’s response to dissent has always been harsh, and this execution has only made it more so.  The friction between Shiite and Sunni threatens to cause even more bloodshed: bombings and massacres, individual suicide attacks and institutional discrimination more vicious than before.

The Saudi execution was one of the most provocative things you could possibly do to a Shiite Muslim.  These religious devotees are more than usually sensitive to begin with.  They are the same type of people who would murder a man for drawing a picture (any picture, not just a satirical picture) of the Prophet Muhammad.  Whether this act was calculated to cause a negative reaction is hard to say, but it could hardly be more provocative if it was designed that way.

There is no credible institutional response to this violence other than expressions of dismay.  We as a nation cannot change the behavior of the Saudis or the Iranians.  At the same time, it is inappropriate to support the governments that engage in this behavior.  We have treated the Iranians to a prolonged negotiation that may lead to improved relations between the US and Iran.  We cannot treat the Saudis as friends without taking some action to express our dismay at the murder of Shiek Nimr al-Nimr and forty-eight others for political dissent.  Under our laws, this type of punishment is not permitted and we should tell the Saudis that we don’t consider their behavior to be the sort of thing that civilized countries do.

Perhaps we have continued to support the Saudis through their war in Yemen, in which they have killed thousands of civilians in air attacks, because we, like the Saudis, are a more than normally violent people, and we appreciate the position they find themselves in with regards to more civilized countries like Belgium and Denmark.  We are, after all, one of the  most violent countries in the world, and we possess more firearms per capita than any other country in the world.

Here’s a story from the New York Times blog (that was shut down) back in 2012 about the arrest of Sheik al-Nimr.

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