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Why The Saudi-Iranian Standoff Is Escalating

Saudi Arabia executes a prominent Shi’ite cleric and things are getting hot with Iran fast. We’ll dig into the mounting tension.

Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. (Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA via AP)

Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016. Protesters upset over the execution of a Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia set fires to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. (Mohammadreza Nadimi/ISNA via AP)

When the Saudis executed Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr over the weekend, it was directly in the face of Iran and of the United States. Now, the Saudi embassy in Tehran has been mobbed, vandalized. Relations with Iran are broken. And American strategy for the whole region is in deep trouble. The Saudis are supposed to be US allies. Iran, the foe. But now, in something approaching crisis, old lines are breaking down. This hour On Point, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and soaring stakes in the Middle East.

— Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Jon Gambrell, senior Arabian Gulf correspondent for the Associated Press. (@jongambrellAP)

Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Former senior advisor to Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Author of “The Dispensable Nation,” “The Shia Revival” and “Forces of Fortune.” (@vali_nasr)

Bernard Haykel, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Author of “Revival and Reform in Islam.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Financial Times: The folly of Saudi Arabia’s battle with Iran — “The US should recognise how dangerous the stakes in the Middle East have become. After the debacle over the Iraq invasion, the Obama administration has adopted a hands-off approach, insisting the dominant regional powers should take more responsibility for events. As the US has become increasingly invisible, however, Saudi Arabia and Iran have responded by doubling down on support for their sectarian proxies.”

BBC News: Iran-Saudi crisis ‘most dangerous for decades’ — “Tensions have spiralled following the execution of Saudi cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the subsequent setting ablaze of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Riyadh’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats. The struggle between Riyadh and Tehran for political and religious influence has geopolitical implications that extend far beyond the placid waters of the Gulf and encompass nearly every major conflict zone in the Middle East.”

International Crisis Group: Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next? — “How seriously should we take the threat that Iran, rather than coming around from decades of isolation, reinforces it by stepping up its entanglements in the Gulf and the Levant? In respect of the latter, Iran’s leaders may find they have little choice, but it’s not as if they have much to cheer about: Tehran’s military backing of the tottering governments of Syria and Iraq is a direct result of its failure to protect these allies from internal upheaval through the use of its soft power.”

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