The Boston Globe (Mass.), Jan. 7:

Just when it seemed the situation in the Middle East could not get any more dire, it got more dire. Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al- Nimr – a Shi’ite cleric who spent years studying in Tehran – last Saturday has turned the long-simmering feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran into a full-blown crisis.

Furious about Nimr’s execution, Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia, in turn, cut off diplomatic ties. Several of its allies are following suit, deepening the already-worrisome rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the region.

But the most alarming consequence of this ill-timed diplomatic row is that it threatens to derail the chances of a political resolution in Syria, which were already slim. US officials worry that the feud could make it more difficult for officials from Saudi Arabia and Iran, who have long been geopolitical and religious rivals, to sit down in the same room together to discuss Syria’s future in a meeting scheduled for Jan. 25.

Why did Saudi Arabia kill an influential Shi’ite cleric, despite US back-channel requests to spare his life? The answer lies in domestic Saudi politics. Saudi Arabia executed 47 people last weekend. Forty-four were militant Sunnis who’d been convicted of terrorist attacks that represent the biggest security threat to the regime. They included several prominent Al Qaeda figures who are believed to have a significant number of followers inside Saudi Arabia. To distract the public, the Saudi monarchy also executed four Shi’ites, including Nimr.

“It seems to have worked,” said Mohamad Bazzi, an associate professor of journalism at New York University who is writing a book about Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran. “Saudi Arabia hasn’t faced an internal backlash to the executions. The attention shifted pretty quickly to Iran.”

Indeed, Iran – a country that is already fighting proxy battles with Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain – is a perfect external enemy to whip up public unity and patriotism inside Saudi Arabia.

Iran provides a perfect scapegoat for everything else that is going wrong in Saudi Arabia: low oil prices, which threaten the welfare system that keeps the royal family in power; the Arab Spring, which stirred demands for democracy across the region, including among the restive Shi’ite minority in Saudi Arabia’s eastern region; and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which seeks to take the mantle of leadership of Sunni Muslims from the Saudi royal family.

But any short-term benefit Saudi Arabia might have seen from executing Nimr might be outweighed by a stiff longterm price. The execution of the cleric – an outspoken critic of the treatment Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority receives at the hands of the royal family – illustrates just how authoritarian and religiously extreme Saudi Arabia is. By beheading prisoners, killing political opponents, and fanning the flames of sectarian tension, the Saudi government is beginning to look far too much like the Islamic State, which private funders in Saudi Arabia enthusiastically support.

For decades, U.S. officials have refrained from criticizing Saudi Arabia, because of its government’s pro-American stance and US dependence on the country’s oil, even as they demonized Iran instead for religious extremism, oppression of women, and disregard for human rights.

But as the United States becomes less dependent on Saudi oil – and as oil itself recedes in importance – Saudi Arabia will come under increasing pressure to change its ways.