White House and State Department officials are scrambling to do damage control today after the weekend Saudi execution of top Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, which they fear could escalate sectarian tensions and create problems in efforts to kick-start Syrian peace talks.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia were already an obstacle to the efforts, and US officials confirmed they’d warned the Saudis against executing Nimr explicitly because it was going to deepen the sectarian divide and imperil the process.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest appeared a bit annoyed on that count, saying the Saudis have “precipitated the kinds of consequences that we were concerned about.” He urged both sides to show restraint to avoid making the situation any worse.
But from the Saudi perspective, “worse” seems to be exactly what they’re shooting for. Internal memos show that, not only were the Saudis warned by the US about the consequences of executing Nimr, but that they had internal memos warning of the situation and even cancelled some planned holidays to be ready for the backlash the executions would cause.
Analysis in the New York Times went so far as to suggest the Saudis executed Nimr specifically to provoke a reaction from Iran that they could exploit, and are trying to parlay Iranian criticism of the killing into more anti-Iran sentiment.
So far the US media is biting, but the US government is not, and the administration is too focused on trying to clean up the mess the Saudis have created to be mistaken about who made the mess in the first place, and how.