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Noah Feldman

U.S. Can Afford to Side With Iran Over Saudis

Tehran's interests in Iraq increasingly overlap with Washington's.
A more peaceful protest outside the Saudi Embassy.

A more peaceful protest outside the Saudi Embassy.

Photographer: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The rapidly escalating conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, sparked by the execution of a Saudi Shiite activist, may seem like the natural outgrowth of a decade’s Sunni-Shiite tensions. But more than denominational differences, what’s driving the open conflict is the Saudis’ deepening fear that the U.S. is shifting its loyalties in the Persian Gulf region from its traditional Saudi ally to a gradually moderating Iran. And in a sense, they’re right: Although the U.S. is a long way from becoming an instinctive Iranian ally, the nuclear deal has led Washington to start broadening its base in the Gulf, working with Iran where the two sides have overlapping interests. Of which there are many these days.

The Saudis executed the activist, Nimr al-Nimr (it means Tiger the Tiger, by the way, which could possibly be the best name ever), last weekend because they wanted to send a message to the country's Shiite minority and neighbors, and because they thought they could get away with it.