There might appear to be no connection between the shipment of 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium out of Iran on December 28, 2015, which was part of the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six global powers, and the decision by Saudi Arabia a week later to sever diplomatic ties with Iran. But there is.
Days after the shipment, Saudi Arabia beheaded Ayatollah Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. Charged with sedition, he was a prominent dissident and leader of the country's Shiites, who constitute 15 to 20 percent of the population. When a hysterical mob, likely supported by some elements within Iran's ruling elites, torched an annex to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Riyadh immediately severed ties with Tehran. Iran sent to the United Nations an official letter of regret about the embassy attack, but it did not defuse the crisis.
Riyadh quickly severed all ties with Iran and pressured its regional allies to follow suit. This comes at a time when Iran is implementing the nuclear deal and is struggling to normalize relations with the West, suggesting that Riyadh has been anxiously waiting for a good opportunity to justify escalating its lingering cold war with Iran. For too long, Saudi Arabia must believe, Iran has had the upper hand, gaming the battlefields in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. To put the country back in its place, Saudi Arabia, whose regional policies have at times been at odds with Washington’s, has been maneuvering restlessly to compel Washington to come back to its side and let go of any détente with Tehran. Washington must resist falling into this Saudi trap.
Authoritarian monarchies face their most perilous moments during succession processes and when they initiate major internal changes. Simultaneously going through both, Saudi Arabia is nervous and hides its insecurity by projecting power at home and abroad.
Less than a year ago, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who was 79 years old and in poor health, became king, precipitating a discreet power struggle in the royal family. His