The latest episode of the long-running conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has sparked concerns across the globe about how the clash may affect geopolitics. After Saudi Arabia executed 47 people last week, including a prominent Shiite cleric, Iran responded by allowing protesters to attack the Saudi embassy. Since then the relationship has only deteriorated, with various Sunni allies joining Saudi Arabia in breaking ties with the Shi’ite powerhouse.
The feud struck a chord thousands of miles away for officials in the United States who had strongly discouraged Saudi Arabia from fanning the flames of conflict by executing cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Diplomats anticipated that such a step would infuriate Iran’s Shiite government, as concern grows around the world that the kingdom has become more severe and authoritarian since King Salman took power in January 2015.
Even so U.S. officials said the issue was not one for the U.S. to get involved in, expressing only concern about escalating tensions. TIME discussed how the execution and its aftermath would affect U.S. relations with one of its key allies in the region with Frederic Wehrey at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How will this impact U.S.-Saudi relations?
It’s another strain on an already troubled relationship that we can trace back to the start of the Arab Spring, we can trace back to 9/11. This is just one more obstacle or stressor on the relationship. The U.S. concern about Saudi rule has gotten more serious under Salman, and the more conservative tilt and the sped-up pace of executions.
Why didn’t the U.S. unequivocally condemn al-Nimr’s execution?
U.S. officials think it’s more constructive to have these conversations with the Saudis about judicial reform and the treatment of the Shi’ite minority in private. And I think the U.S. recognizes that the domestic situation in Saudi Arabia is still in flux, and a high level of public criticism could have unintended consequences for that power struggle.
Personally, I think the criticism needs to be more public. The Saudis have been involved in a massive PR campaign. They have been successful in selling a certain message. The U.S. should really call them on this. We need to tell them, “We have your back with Iran, we recognize Iran is not pursuing constructive policies in the region, but within your own backyard, within the gulf, the problem is more often due to your own policies.”
Does this change cooperation on tackling ISIS and terrorism more broadly?
No, this is a bump. The counterterrorism effort has been compartmentalized, [and] handled by intelligence agencies. But even as the Saudis are cooperating with the U.S. against Islamic radicals and jihadists, they worry about latent support among their citizens for ISIS. The support [for U.S. anti-terrorism efforts] is not without costs for the Saudis and they recognize that.
How does this change the U.S. relationship with Iran?
I’m not sure how much this really affects that. The Iran deal is proceeding according to its own set of metrics: are the Iranians complying with that? The optics of the [Saudi] embassies being burned, that’s not helpful. But the U.S. has its own policies that will be determined by how the Iranians act.
What would it take to fundamentally change the nature of the close relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?
It’s a rocky marriage, it’s a strained marriage. The U.S. is trying to move in a direction where the Gulf has to be responsible for its own security. But extricating ourselves is going to be hard. Revising this relationship is going to take some time.
It could be internal change in Saudi Arabia that changes the relationship. It could be the complexion of the regime will change. But the notion that the U.S. is still totally wrong as a strategic partner is very far-fetched. The U.S. has no interest in [strong ties to] Iran and the positions it holds.