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Society & Culture

The Saudi-Iranian Blood Feud

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have frequently flared over the years, reached full intensity this winter when the Saudi government executed 47 regime opponents, including the prominent Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.  Immediately, there were riots in Iran directed against Saudi targets, culminating in the burning of the Saudi embassy—an incident that even Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, condemned.  Riyadh responded by severing diplomatic relations with Tehran, a step that several smaller Saudi allies and clients quickly emulated.

Animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been building steadily for years.  Among other things, the two governments support opposite sides of several civil wars, in what amounts to a regional power struggle between Sunni and Shia Islam.  A few years ago, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily to prop up the Sunni ruling family in Bahrain against an increasingly angry majority Shi’ite population supported by Iran.  More recently, the Saudis have launched air strikes against Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen to prevent a victory by that faction, which has also received material backing from Iran.

One cannot understand the bloody struggles currently taking place in Iraq and Syria without first understanding the roles played by Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Although there are many complex factors involved, those conflicts are in large part local...

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