KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The diplomatic fallout continues after the execution of Nimr al-Nimr. Saudi Arabia has now suspended flights to Iran's capital. The Saudi's have cut diplomatic ties with Iran, and allies in Bahrain and Sudan have followed suit. The United Arab Emirates have downgraded relations with Iran. This is all after a mob in Tehran ransacked the Saudi embassy. The White House is calling for calm on both sides. NPR's Deborah Amos recently returned from Saudi Arabia and has been in touch with people there. And Deb, cutting off relations with Iran was a big move by the Saudis at a pretty important time. I mean, Saudi Arabia has a new leader - King Salman. What might be his goal here?
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: What I heard today is the message is for two capitals. This is what regional analysts and Saudi sources say. For Tehran, the kingdom is saying you can't burn our embassy and expect us to do nothing. Yes, Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shia cleric, but that was a domestic matter.
The other message from Saudi Arabia is for Washington. According to the Saudi's, they have to stand up to Iran because they say that Washington is not. And they have a long list. I'll give you one example. They say that last week the Obama administration hedged on imposing fresh sanctions after the Iranians did a ballistic missile test. Now, the Obama administration counters by saying, we support the Saudis in Yemen; we help them get a arms deal through Congress. Yes, we complained about the execution of a prominent Shia cleric, but that is a difference of opinion among allies.
MCEVERS: I mean, there is a pretty long history of enmity between these two big powers, between Saudi Arabia, which is seen and sees itself as the Sunni Muslim powerhouse, and Iran, the, you know, the sort of standard bearer of the Shiites in the region. I mean, what have been some of the problems between the two in the past?
AMOS: We can go back 35 years when Iran became an Islamic republic. That's when the political rivalry took on religious overtones. That's when the Sunni Shia divide became a political divide. It's not the first time Saudi Arabia has broken relations. It happened in 1988 after an uprising in the Hajj, the religious pilgrimage. That took more than a decade to repair. So this goes up and down, this relationship. It's now particularly fraught because Saudi and Iran are on opposing sides in a number of proxy wars in the region. There's Syria. There's Yemen. They disagree on what's happening in Iraq. There's Lebanon. And there's also oil. The Iranians see the Saudis flooding the market, and it's depressing prices. This is just at the moment that Iranians see sanctions. They're going to be lifted. They're going to be back in the oil market, and they are not going to be able to make the money that they expected.
MCEVERS: So does this dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia have the potential to derail a U.S. effort for negotiations on Syria, negotiations that they long pushed to have Iran and Saudia Arabia at the table for?
AMOS: There is a lot of speculation about that today. You know, the high point was late last year. So what we say was the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran sitting across a negotiating table. That was amazing. It was seen as a breakthrough all for this preamble for peace talks that are scheduled later this month. It's not clear how that's going to go. In Yemen, a cease-fire was called off two days ago. The Saudis were scheduled to open an embassy in Baghdad. This would have been the first time since Saddam Hussein was removed by U.S. forces that an ambassador would be in Baghdad - not clear if that's going to go ahead. This rift has lots of regional implications. And you can see the alarm in Europe, at the White House where politicians are calling for both sides to show restraint.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. Thanks so much, Deb.
AMOS: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.