National Security & Defense

The Execution of Nimr al-Nimr and Obama’s Failed Policy in the Middle East

Protesters outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran, January 3, 2015. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty)

‘Without a doubt, the unlawfully shed blood of this innocent martyr will have a rapid effect and the divine vengeance will befall Saudi politicians.”

That was how Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, responded to Saudi Arabia’s execution Saturday of a Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. Since then, Iranian protesters have — with their government’s permission — attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Saudi Arabia has cut diplomatic relations. Further escalation is likely.

Nimr al-Nimr wasn’t just any Saudi cleric. As I explained last year, he was a transnational representative of Shiite populism against Saudi oppression. But where the cleric was a powerful political activist in life, his execution makes him a martyr: a divine embodiment of Shiite theology and politics. To Shiite observers, Nimr al-Nimr’s execution echoes that of the ultimate Shiite martyr, Husayn ibn-Ali, at the seventh-century Battle of Karbala.

But Iran isn’t alone in threatening retaliation. Former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki — who is engaged in a never-ending power struggle in Baghdad — warned that the execution would bring down the Saudi royal family. This political reaction reflects the deep scale of Shiite populist anger and illuminates the risk of unrestrained escalation. Other actors, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, are reacting with fury as well.

By executing Nimr al-Nimr, Saudi Arabia has deliberately attacked the Iranian revolutionaries in a highly emotive way.

Yet we must remember that this execution wasn’t ordered just because the Saudis hated a cleric. Instead, the execution was motivated by Saudi Arabia’s regional political agenda. More specifically, as I explained last month, recent Saudi actions prove the government’s exceptional concern about two active developments: Iranian expansionism and America’s relative retreat from the Middle East.

In recent months, the Saudis have witnessed both President Obama’s acquiescence to Iran’s nuclear-deal non-compliance and his decision to yield to Russia and allow Assad to remain in power. This perceived betrayal of U.S. commitments to Saudi Arabia has meant the collapse of U.S. influence with reliable partners such as the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir.

RELATED: Obama’s Foreign-Policy Neverland Invites Three New Crises in 2016

In short, by subordinating Saudi Arabia’s concerns to his legacy project with Iran, President Obama has eviscerated America’s tempering influence against Saudi sectarian paranoia. And by executing Nimr al-Nimr, Saudi Arabia has deliberately attacked the Iranian revolutionaries in a highly emotive way. The Saudis know the Iranians will retaliate, but they’re so concerned about showing resolve to Iran that such concerns have been overwhelmed.

#share#Khamenei’s threat to Saudi politicians deserves special scrutiny, because we cannot assume the danger is limited to Saudi Arabia. After all, in 2011, Iranian leadership ordered the assassination of Adel al-Jubeir, who was then the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., The person they hired to carry out the murder — actually a U.S. informant — warned that the attack would kill other innocent diners. Their operations officer responded: “f*** ’em.” That Iran faced no meaningful consequences for the 2011 bomb plot — an act of war on America — also fuels the threat.

RELATED: Toward a Post-Obama Middle East

The U.S. must take a number of urgent steps. First, it should warn Iran in multiple forums that any attack — whether direct or indirect — on U.S. interests will meet U.S. reprisals. Considering that Khamenei is desperate to retain the economic rewards of his nuclear-deal Ponzi scheme, there is an opportunity for deterrence to influence his behavior, at least in the short term. Second, as I asserted recently, the U.S. must pressure the Saudi government not to execute Nimr al-Nimr’s young nephew, who is also in Saudi prison awaiting execution. If the younger al-Nimr is executed, the escalatory dynamic may become uncontrollable as Iranian hard-liner passions boil over. Don’t believe me? Recall how the hard-liners’ theological zeal manifested itself during the Iran–Iraq War: in the use of children as mine-clearance devices.

#related#Of course, some will welcome escalation here, assuming it means Iranian and Saudi extremists will kill each other off. But that’s a very dangerous delusion. Aside from the moral consequences of a regional war between Iran and Saudi Arabia (think Syria’s immense suffering plus refugees, multiplied by at least five), the first casualty of escalation would be political moderation. The rot in political Islam would catalyze, terrorists would find ever-multiplying recruiting swamps, and America would face ever-increasing danger. Regional anarchy would not be containable in our globalized world.

Obama-administration officials must urgently reassess their Middle East policy. Absent credible U.S. influence, a great crisis is brewing.

— Tom Rogan is a writer for National Review Online and Opportunity Lives, a panelist on The McLaughlin Group, and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. He tweets @TomRtweets. His homepage is

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


The Latest