Saudi Arabia and Iran in brawl for power. graphic via

Saudi Arabia and Iran in brawl for power.
graphic via CNN, from Pew Research, Council on Foreign Relations

The fallout of Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shiite cleric is spreading beyond a spat between the Saudis and Iranians, as other Middle East nations chose sides Monday and world powers Russia and China weighed in. [CNN]

THE MASS EXECUTIONS in Saudi Arabia, including the powerful Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, beget the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Iran. An Iranian military official condemned the assault on the Saudi embassy and consulate on Tuesday, while President Rouhani tried to move the focus back to the barbaric beheadings that escalated tensions between the two representative countries of the wide Sunni (Iran) – Shia (Saudi Arabia) divide.

Saudi Arabia recently being named chair of the U.N.’s human rights council, supported by the Obama administration, gives the executions more meaning to westerners.

Just don’t think this is all about religion.

The government’s choice to kill Nimr wasn’t just about this one religious leader. For Saudi Arabia, Nimr represented the danger of internal Shia dissent, behind which it saw Iran’s nefarious hand — and perhaps also an opportunity to generate more support for its struggling war in Yemen. For Shia throughout the region, though, Nimr was a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s oppression of Shia, and of the dangers that Shia face in the mostly Sunni Middle East. – Max Fisher []

It’s about power.

In fact, it seems more likely that this execution is meant to promote sectarianism within Saudi Arabia. Vali Nasr, a scholar and former State Department senior adviser, tweeted that the “sectarian narrative helps Saudi rulers at tough times: rally Sunnis at home and in region against Shia challenge.”

“The execution, both its timing and that it happened at all, was very calculated,” says Toby C. Jones, a Middle East scholar at Rutgers who often writes on Saudi-Iran issues.

He especially pointed to Saudi Arabia’s now months-long war in Yemen, where Saudi and allied forced are bombing a Shia insurgency that has taken over the government. Saudi Arabia — which views Yemen as its backyard, sort of how Russia views Ukraine — is convinced the insurgents are Iranian puppets.

There is so much involved in explaining this event, but as long as I’ve been following the Middle East it was always going to come down to this fight. Going all the way back to the Arab spring, the fall of despots and the freeing of the Islamic culture to express its fury against autocratic rule was certain to lead to new events.

For those old enough to remember, though the tension between Shia and Sunni has been there, the demarcation to escalation is 1979.

Then the Saudis backed Saddam Hussein in the 1980 war with Iran.

This was prologue to what we’re witnessing today, which is a very dangerous development for everyone hoping to move beyond what’s going on presently in the Middle East.

But the Saudis put the hammer down harder than anyone imagined, which has a lot to do with faltering efforts in Yemen, as well as losing in Syria.

As for diplomacy and Syria, it just got tougher and more dangerous — and many thought that wasn’t possible.