The New Year got off to a rocky start for people hoping for peace in the Middle East in 2016.
But the year is still young.
Saudi Arabia ignited a firestorm when it executed 47 men, including prominent Shitte cleric Sheik Namr al-Nimr. Al-Nimr had been an outspoken critic of Saudi Arabia’s treatment of the country’s Shiite minority.
He was one of four Shiites put to death by firing squad or beheadings for political activism. Human rights groups have said Saudi Arabia carried out at least 157 executions in the past year, a record number.
Al-Nimr was a leader in the anti-government demonstrations that swept the mostly Shiite east of the country in 2011. The Arab Spring protests inspired the action as well as instability throughout the Middle East.
Saudi security forces arrested al-Nimr in 2012. He was charged with “instigating unrest and undermining the kingdom's security” in addition to giving speeches against the government and defending political prisoners.
In response to the execution, protesters overran the Saudi’s embassy in Tehran. That prompted Saudi Arabia to sever ties with Iran and expel its diplomats.
Bahrain cut its ties with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates downgraded its diplomatic relations with Tehran. Kuwait on Tuesday also recalled its ambassador to Tehran.
It is a delicate situation for the U.S. because the Middle East counties are needed in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In addition, the uproar over the executions makes peace talks this month to end the civil war in Syria more problematic.
Like the U.S., the Saudis back the opposition forces while Iran — like Russia — supports the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Also looming in the background is the nuclear deal that the Obama administration brokered last year with Iran. That pact has had the effect of elevating Iran’s presence and power in the Middle East.
Diplomats will have to sort out the disputes, differences and bad feelings and get all parties back at the negotiating table. That won’t be an easy task.