- - Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Saudi Arabian-Iranian crisis that has erupted with the former’s execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr could easily, but not quickly, lead to open war. That war may be inevitable because it is, at the same time, a religious struggle as well as a conflict for domination of the Middle East.

The two nations have been engaged in proxy wars for years, but the nature of the conflict and President Obama’s nuclear weapons agreement with Iran shorten the time before open war breaks out.

As I’ll get to in a moment, the proxy wars in Yemen and Syria — as well as Iran’s having turned Iraq into a virtual satellite — made the Saudis feel surrounded and isolated. Al-Nimr’s execution, however, is significant in ways the other parts of this conflict are not. Its implications reach beyond to the core of the Sunni-Shiite religious wars that are almost as old as Islam.

The immediate results of al-Nimr’s execution include an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran which resulted in its being partially burned. Two Sunni mosques in Iraq were similarly attacked. Accelerating the crisis were statements from Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, defending al-Nimr, and from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps accusing the Saudis of a “medieval act of savagery” that would result in the “downfall of the [Saudi] monarchy.”

Iran has accused the Saudis of bombing the Iranian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, in their continuing war to put down a rebellion by Shiite Houthis.

The Saudis have closed their Tehran embassy and thrown Iranian diplomats out of their country. Bahrain (a Shiite majority ruled by a Sunni monarchy) unsurprisingly broke off relations with Iran and Qatar has recalled its ambassador to Iran. (Bahrain clearly remembers that it had to ask for Saudi forces to enter their country in 2011 to put down a Sunni rebellion. Sunni Qatar has also recalled its ambassador to Iran.

The largest factor in this conflict is religion. The split of Islam into Sunni and Shiite factions, in around the year 650 AD, commenced a war that has continued ever since. For most of the 20th century, the Sunnis — from Egypt to Pakistan — dominated through a variety of dictatorships and monarchies.

Iran is neither Sunni nor Arab but Persian and Shiite. Like Saudi Arabia and several other Sunni nations, it became an oil-wealthy rentier state in the last century. After its 1979 revolution, it became our implacable enemy.

The events that have made this crisis serious are the Saudis’ proxy wars with Iran and what they see as repeated betrayals by the United States.

In 2011, several events began that have since proceeded to shake the Saudi monarchy and caused it to divorce itself from American foreign policy.

In March 2011, street protests ignited the Syrian civil war. The Saudis first — covertly and then overtly — supported the rebels against the Assad regime. (President Bashar Assad’s regime is Alewite, a sect of Shiism). Iran — quickly but covertly — came to Mr. Assad’s aid. Removing Mr. Assad became a top priority for the Saudis. They were angered at the lack of aid from the United States.

Also in March of that year, the Saudis sent troops to help the Bahraini (Sunni) monarchy put down a revolt among its majority Shiite population.

The eastern province of Saudi Arabia contains most of the country’s oil production facilities and is predominantly Shiite. What the Saudi regime fears most is a Shiite revolt there. In May 2011, al-Nimr was a prominent leader of precisely that sort of revolt, encouraged and possibly aided by Iran. Al-Nimr was sentenced to death in 2014. (His nephew Ali remains in a Saudi jail awaiting execution for his involvement in the 2011 events.)

In August 2012, President Obama declared his “red line” against further Syrian use of chemical weapons. When that line faded into obscurity, the Saudis felt betrayed by Mr. Obama. The following year, after having campaigned for two years for a seat on the U.N. Security Council and elected to it, the Saudis rejected it. Reports quoting Saudi sources said the rejection was due to Russian and Chinese action blocking Security Council action against Mr. Assad.

Since then, the open interventions by Iran and Russia have brought the Saudi war against Mr. Assad to a standstill. Similarly, its military campaign against the Shiite Houthis in Yemen appears stalled.

The Saudis see Mr. Obama’s nuclear weapons agreement with Iran as a complete betrayal. But there were others to come. Mr. Obama’s delay of sanctions richly earned by Iran for two ballistic missile tests was one. That, too, wasn’t the final act. That may have been the administration’s reaction to the turmoil created by al-Nimr’s execution. While the administration’s spokesmen tut-tutted about growing tensions, there has been no condemnation or even criticism of the Iranian regime’s threatening reactions.

It is clear to the Saudis, and to the rest of the world, that Mr. Obama values his agreement with Iran far more highly than our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is no bowl of cherries. Its Wahabbist brand of Sunni Islam is radical and the Saudis export it everywhere, from America to Pakistan. The Saudis, according to a classified State Department cable released by Wikileaks, were still a principal funding source for al Qaeda eight years after Sept. 11, 2001. But while Saudi Arabia is an unreliable friend, Iran is — obviously to everyone except Mr. Obama — a relentless enemy.

It’s too late for America to influence the Saudi-Iranian conflict. Mr. Obama has chosen sides, and he has chosen poorly. If there is a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it will be long, bloody and possibly nuclear.

Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books, including “In the Words of Our Enemies” (Regnery, 2007).

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