Monday, October 17, 2016

No, FRUS doesn't have all the answers

A recent article in Politico on the 1953 Iran Coup, while well intentioned, is unfortunately fundamentally flawed. Malcolm Byrne, who collaborated with Mark Gasiorowski to provide one of the most important academic books on the coup, writes in support of releasing the updated FRUS (Foreign Relations of the US). I too have argued for the same thing, but our reasons are very different.

Mr. Byrne makes a variety of mistakes in his assessment of the situation, ones that someone with his experience with archival documents, and with this episode in history should not make.

First he neglects to mention that the first coup attempt failed miserably, leading to the arrest of dozens of high-ranking officers and conspirators. There was no backup plan. Mr. Byrne does not state how one man, with zero knowledge of Persian managed to create a 2nd coup a mere three days later after his entire plan collapsed.

He also fails to account for competing interests, including Iranians who despised the Iranian Prime Minister, who wished to remove Mr. Mossadeq from power. He ends his introductory paragraph blaming the coup for feelings of anti-Americanism that endure to this day, ignoring once again, that clerics, including the direct spiritual predecessor of Ayatollah Khomeini (Ayatollah Kashani), was key in the attempts to remove Mossadeq from power.

His argument is based upon the core principle that the US, and the US alone (well including the UK), is guilty of overthrowing Mossadeq, rejecting the possibility of domestic (or other foreign) collaboration.

Mr. Byrne goes on to claim that the American public does not have full-access to the full historical record. This is partially true, as the CIA "lost" all of its files from the time in a suspicious fire, and some of the documents from the State Department remain classified. At the same time, the vast majority of these documents ARE available at the National Archives in Maryland.

Mr. Byrne also seems to not understand the point of the FRUS system. These are not complete records containing every single cable to and from an embassy or consulate. There are a small fraction that are included in FRUS collections. They are selected to be pertinent, not a complete data dump. There are many more documents from and to Tehran and other places that are in the National Archives, I have seen them myself. Most of them are mundane, but some are quite interesting. It would be nice to include these in a massive digital archive including every single document, but this is not how the FRUS system is set up.

Mr. Byrne claims that the US and UK role in the coup is covered up, and the documents the State Department refuses to release will prove the two parties guilty. In the Archives, the additional documents I have read myself, indicate otherwise as I have demonstrated here and here.

Mr. Byrne believes that US and UK guilt over the coup is the major reason to not release the documents, but his analysis falls far short. He does not account for the local efforts to remove the Shah, and their ties to the current regime. He additionally fails to mention the saga (covered by David Ignatius of the Washington Post), where BP (formerly AIOC) forced Kermit Roosevelt and his publishing company to pull the entire run, though he has written about it in the past.

What would be more infuriating for the regime, to show that the US was involved (which is what they are already furious about), or that major regime figures, or their direct influences played a role in fomenting the coup?

Given the sensitivity of the Iran nuclear talks which have been ongoing, this delay makes sense in that they do not want to upset the Iranians so that they completely withdraw, and years of diplomatic efforts are lost.

While I agree with Mr. Byrne that the updated FRUS should be released, I strongly disagree with his analysis and I am very disappointed with his failure to mention the most likely scenario: that documents will show involvement from the Iranian clergy.

There are classified documents out there, documents which have not undergone their 50 year declassification review. Why hasn't Mr. Byrne filed MDRs (Mandatory Declassification Review) for these documents? He spends his time working on archives, yet in his article he ignores this potentiality.

His argument does not stand up. It does not make any sense for him to claim that the documents are not available when they mostly are. For the few that are classified, he simply has to go to the Archives and find the sheet that says how there is a classified document missing and then file an MDR. Yet he refuses to mention this aspect in his article, instead making it about some conspiracy to hide the truth from the American people.

It is also quite disheartening that he is convinced that there are going to be documents giving us a definitive answer as to what happened, and who the guilty parties are. I have demonstrated how even the CIA's latest (known) internal history has at least one glaring mistake (see #5). If the CIA doesn't have the story straight, how would the State Department?

There may be documents proving Mr. Byrne right, yet his shoddy work, and misleading, baseless claims do not help shed a light on a complicated historical event.

In conclusion, this quote from Donald Wilber, the author of the CIA's first internal history of the coup sums up the entire situation: "The early accounts of various participants differed widely enough to make it impossible to follow the slender thread of truth through the dark night"

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Iran and the Taliban

A core principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to export the revolution, their system of Twelver Shi'a inspired Islamic governance. This is most prevalent in Lebanon, where Hezbollah acts as a proxy. Iran also spends money funding ideological enemies for strategic purposes, namely Sudan (less so now), Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and recently, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan and almost certainly in a limited sense in Iran as well.

Two major articles in the past year, one from Foreign Policy in May 2016, and another from the Wall Street Journal in June 2015, claim that Iran is actively funding and arming the Taliban in hopes of curtailing potential advances from ISIS. This "ISIS" is not the same group of terrorists as those in Syria and Iraq, though there is some affiliation. It is believed that many of these "ISIS" terrorists are in fact disaffected Taliban. The two have fought each other, and both still actively work to perpetrate terror attacks.

Iran has a vested interest in aligning with the Taliban for a number of reasons:

  1. The Taliban are fighting Western and Western-backed forces. Countering American attempts at stability helps Iran's anti-hegemonic, disruptive strategy. 
  2. The Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) are known to be heavily involved in the drug trafficking industry in Eastern Iran, Western Afghanistan and Western Pakistan. Establishing relationships could lead to greater efficiency in these smuggling routes, also potentially reducing the amount of violence involving non-Pasdaran security forces.
  3. ISIS is a threat to Iran's interests in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, the last thing Iran wants is a second "front" in the East to deal with.

Iran's decision to not just tolerate, but also support the Taliban is perhaps best demonstrated by the previous leader of the Taliban visiting Iran hours before he was killed in an American drone strike. If Iran was serious about preventing this type of violent group they would take steps to make sure that such an important figure was not able to enter the country.

ISIS was able to conduct their first major terror attack in Afghanistan recently when they targeted the Shi'ite Hazara ethnic group killing dozens. This same ethnic group has been known to be used by the Iranian government to fight in Syria. Interestingly enough, it was claimed that the Sunni Taliban, no matter how radically xenophobic they are, agreed to protect the Hazara from ISIS last year. Here too, Iran has an interest in working with the Taliban.

Iran's actions in Afghanistan are not surprising, yet they do not seem to get much attention because of other ongoing conflicts. I expect this to change soon, especially if ISIS is able to conduct another serious attack. Unfortunately, I suspect that given the attention given the ISIS brand, more will be made of their involvement than Iran's.

The Obama administration has a duty to investigate the connections between Iran and this known terror group. Even if they are fighting our enemies, they are still terrorists, who have attacked, and will continue to attack Western and Afghan government targets. I realize that the success of the Iranian nuclear deal is important to the administration, but ignoring a state actively funding and directly supporting terrorists is not an acceptable position.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Why is State Delaying the Release of the Updated 1952-1954 Iran FRUS?

UPDATE #1 (March 7, 2017): Nate Jones from the National Security Archive tweeted a few cryptic tweets about the delay:

The initial reason for the delay was to keep the negotiations going, yet "until the final day" of Obama's term they fought to delay the FRUS edition. It is now delayed until 2018 or later. 

I tweeted the following about this: 

What doesn't the Obama admin want the public (US, or Iran), or the Iran regime, or the world to know?? This is very suspicious and illogical.


For all the strange and unprofessional behavior by the State Department over the last few years, something curiously ignored is the persistent delays in the scheduled re-release of the 1952-1954 Iran Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) collection.

FRUS is an invaluable tool for academics and researchers as it contains primary archival material hosted online by the University of Wisconsin in an organized and easily accessible form. All of this and much more is also available in the National Archives II in College Park Maryland, but the documents are not in any particular order, are not sorted and accessing them is inconvenient.

The 1953 Iran coup is fascinating for a number of reasons, and sensitive to many parties because of the injustice of overthrowing a legally appointed premier. As I've noted in the past, the full story is not evident from the documents that we have; there are too many inconsistencies and holes in the timeline. This has not stopped academics and pseudo-academics from pontificating and making grandiose judgements based upon such shoddy work as the "memoirs" of Kermit Roosevelt; a work that is known to have been at least partially edited by the CIA at the behest of BP and perhaps other unknown parties. It is unclear how the edits changed the story, but a cursory glance through the text shows how it is barely more than a dime novel.

FRUS, as the primary collection of archival documents from the Department of State, has a certain authority to it. Even though significant pieces of the archive are missing from the current edition of the Iran as I noted here and here, and an unknown number of cables and documents remain classified (well beyond the legally justified time period), there is a lot there.

At least a few of the top books on the coup were written by authors who apparently had never even been to the archives; the only State Department cables cited by them are also included in the existing FRUS. Given my personal experience digging through the boxes at Archives II, I know there are other cables there that have academic value to the study of this important event.

The Department of State announced years ago that there would be an updated version of the collection updated, yet in September 2014 announced that "the Department had decided to delay publication because of ongoing negotiations with Iran". It has now been almost a year since the nuclear deal was signed, yet the updated FRUS has not been released.

In December of 2015, the Office of the Historian held a meeting where the release of the collection was discussed. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Valerie Fowler indicated that "the timeline was to release the volume at the earliest possible moment, but that external developments and considerations were important too".

What could these "external developments and considerations" entail? The National Security Archive believes that there could be documents confirming a British hand in the events. While in theory this should be plausible, it would not explain the early decision to release the updated version, before an abrupt about-face and decision to withhold the documents. The other problem with this theory is that the British had been kicked out of the country months earlier and so their intelligence apparatus was knee-capped by a closed embassy and limited access. This is partially why the US took the lead in conducting the first (planned) coup attempt.

Personally I think that the most likely possibility is that there are documents tying Iranians, potentially clerics associated with Ayatollah Kashani (or perhaps even Khomeini), to the coup and that this would infuriate the Iranians so much that they would have pulled out of negotiations. It is also possible that this could contain further details of United States involvement, but as the US is already blamed as the primary instigator and actor by Iran, it isn't like things could get much worse, is it?

Given the strange and inept way in which the State Department and the administration have handled public diplomacy regarding Iran (see Rhodes, Ben) I am deeply curious why they are not releasing the updated version. What are they trying to keep hidden?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Hardline Assembly of Experts Chair and Conservative Majles Speaker Selected

As expected, a hardliner and a conservative were selected to head both Iranian governmental bodies "elected" a few months back.

The leading vote getters in both elections ended up not being selected to head either the Assembly of Experts (Rafsanjani) or the Majles (Aref). The individual who was selected to lead the Assembly of Experts for the next 2 years (of the 8 year term) was in fact the last place finisher in Tehran.

The "loss" by the "moderates" in both of these decisions was not surprising for a many reasons. The elections were rigged from the beginning, with thousands of candidates disqualified, in particular those with views less in line with the regime. Additionally, as I and others have noted, the "moderate" list was in fact not as moderate as the pro-Iran lobby, and portions of the left in the United States trying to sell the Iran Deal have claimed.

With significant overlap between the "Principalists" and this "moderate" "List of Hope", it was only natural for the more hardline members of the "moderate" list to vote for the hardliners.

This complexity has gone way over many pundits heads here in the West. As the usual suspects point to the hardline victory as proof that there are no moderates (and of course no liberals) in Iran, the reality remains more complex. Again, they miss the greater point, that the elections had to be fixed to undermine genuine attempts from the population to move towards the West and the rest of the international community. The scale of this ideological schism may not be large, and many of the people pushing for change may approve of Iran's unending support for terror groups throughout the region, but the attempts to move away from the anti-Western ideologues must not be ignored.

Each time there is a political event where the hardliners do not win outright, the system, the regime, the deep state is put under pressure. This pressure forces a decision out of the regime; to allow an opening, or to crack down, and repress the population. Either way resources are expended, and the system becomes more unstable. However limited it may be, this instability at home undermines Iran's ability to conduct operations abroad; more attention must be given to preventing civil unrest.

Iran has a choice: to fully embrace autocracy like China, or to reform. They had previously mentioned attempts to create a "halal" internet, so that only sites that were deemed appropriate would be available in Iran. This failed. The real question is how far apart the Iranian public and the regime will drift, and how, when and if this will happen.

It is very difficult to measure the ideological bent of the population. The previous election for the Majles (2012) was boycott by the Reformist bloc so they only received a few seats. The election prior (2008) the "Reformists" had under 20% of the vote. Principalists have controlled the Majles since the 2004 election when they forced the heavily disqualified Reformist majority to the sidelines.

That there are so many members who are not Principalists is encouraging, but doesn't mean too much in the grand scheme of things. The greater system of control by the regime and deep state remains intact, and the Majles will continue to be more or less powerless as it has been for decades. The wins by hardline candidates are important in showing that anti-Westernism is still a fundamental value of the state, but the turnout for those with a different point of view should be encouraging to the West. The situation continues to be multi-faceted and fluid.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

EXCLUSIVE: Key Source in Hersh's Ghouta Claims Investigated by FBI and ICE

On the morning of October 25th, 2010 Federal Agents from the FBI and ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) raided a home in Melrose, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. At the same time, an interview was conducted by FBI agents at JFK International Airport. The subject, a warhead expert affiliated with defense industry giant Raytheon, had recently returned from India on business.

The late Mr. Richard Lloyd was regarded as one of the top experts in his field, with decades of experience, and at least two books on conventional and nuclear warheads according to Amazon listings. In recent years he, along with Theodore Postol, received some attention for his work attempting to refute the efficacy of the Iron Dome, and to prove that Assad’s forces were not responsible for the August 2013 Ghouta Massacre. He died in October 2014 of an unspecified cancer.

As the article on notes, Lloyd was no longer employed by Raytheon on October 26th, 2010, but the spokesman 'declined to say when or under what circumstances Lloyd left the company.". It is unclear if the raid and interview led to Mr. Lloyd's termination, or if not, how long before this happened did he no longer work for the company.

Because Mr. Lloyd is deceased, it is possible to submit Freedom of Information Act requests about him and receive information. I submitted parallel requests about the arrest and interview to the FBI and ICE. ICE refused to comply, citing “ongoing criminal investigations” despite Mr Lloyd having been deceased for 5 months, while the FBI delayed for nearly a year before providing partially redacted documents. Following are the documents (annotated by me) which undermine the integrity and reliability of Mr. Lloyd. 

It is unclear if Lloyd lied because he was panicking. It is evident that the first priority of the special agents was to ensure that he was not trafficking information on nuclear weaponry, but the consistent lies are deeply concerning. Was Lloyd was terminated from his employment at Raytheon before he went to India or afterwards? Was he fired because he violated security protocols? If he had been fired before this why would he still have sensitive computers from Raytheon in his possession? There are many questions which remain unanswered.

Richard Lloyd, for all his valuable work in the past, seems to have made some major mistakes in his Iron Dome work as I've pointed out herehere and here, and as Eliot Higgins and Dan Kaszeta have pointed out, also appears to have made some mistakes in his work on Ghouta. Despite this, he was still cited as a source by Seymour Hersh in his work attempting to prove Assad's innocence. The information which I have obtained, partnered with the shoddy work on these two major cases demonstrates that Lloyd has serious credibility issues and should not be taken at face value.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Iran Elections 2016 Early Thoughts

With many seats remaining unselected until the run-off election, a large number of independents with uncertain affiliations, and overlapping elections lists, there is much left unresolved by the dual Iranian elections. Despite this obvious truth, partisans on both sides in the West have rushed to claim that the results fit their pre-conceived notions of what would happen, and what this means in a larger sense. This is not helped by the spin from Iranian politicians and media. I have seen a bit of both positive and negative; a more complicated scenario which seems too difficult for the hacks to comprehend or accept.

There are a few interesting and undeniable facts about the election.

1) The leading vote-getter was a reformist. Mohammad Reza Aref, was a vice president under Mohammad Khatami, and continues to be a reformist. His revolutionary credentials are without question, yet he managed to pass the Guardian Council's vetting in both the 2013 presidential election (before withdrawing and throwing his support behind eventual winner Rouhani), and this election. He ran in Tehran, the most cosmopolitan and therefore potentially "liberal" part of the country, but the fact that he was able to receive the most votes says a lot.

2) Rafsanjani was able to receive a lot of votes. I've written a lot on Hashemi Rafsanjani in the past and for good reason; he is one of the most interesting remaining revolutionary leaders. He conspired with Khamenei to remove Ayatollah Montazeri as Deputy Supreme Leader, yet since 2009 has aligned himself with the moderates and reformists. He has been wildly unpopular for his perceived corruption, as well as his political positions, but he seems have to changed this. The state-sponsored persecution of his family may have something to do with reformists and moderates accepting him.

3) The overlapping lists don't help in understanding the political bent of the Majles and Assembly of Experts. The wonderful folks at have posted this great graphic illustrating the complexity of the lists and how the actual results are hard to understand at this point

The "List of Hope", billed by US media and others as a reformist-moderate coalition, is actually more socially conservative and likely hostile to the US than it would seem.

Here is the corresponding graphic for the Majles:
This is hard to bill as a "reformist" victory, as the List of Hope is a mixture of reformists, moderates and conservative pragmatists. Additionally, a 27.5% share, while currently the largest, is not so significant. 

This is understandable as Iranian politics are notoriously faction-based, and personal issues can cause individuals to switch alliances. Ali Motahari, a conservative with somewhat pragmatic inclinations is a prime example of this. He was on the List of Hope, but no one in their right mind would categorize him as a reformist.

4) The List of Hope did very well in Tehran, but less so in other parts of the country. This shows that Tehran isn't necessarily Iran, but also that there is a concentration of like-minded individuals in this area. 

5) Results outside Tehran really cut into the List of Hope's success in the capital. While Aref has a slight chance to become the speaker of the Majles, there are still plenty of conservative voices that will strongly oppose this. 

6) The positive feelings about the Iran Deal in the less anti-Western population are clearly evident in Tehran. Despite obvious tampering, and some ridiculous rulings from the Guardian Council (approving a 24 year old to run for the clerical body, the Assembly of Experts, is laughable), the Iranian public seems to have accepted the regime for at least this election.

7) The Majles does not have much power to change the law no matter (see the "changed" child marriage law under Khatami on the top of page 5), but it is a symbolic victory of sorts, and that a clear reformist ended up with the most votes should deeply frighten the hardliners.

8) The Assembly of Experts results could come back to haunt the hardliners. There appears to be a sizable block of reformists/moderates/pragmatists that are capable of preventing a hardline Supreme Leader or Supreme Council if Khamenei dies this term. Additionally, two of the most hardline candidates lost their seats, Ayatollahs Yazdi, and Mesbah Yazdi. Hardliner Gholam-ali Haddad-Adel also lost his seat in the Majles

9) The incredibly low incumbency rate (30%) makes the situation even more unclear. As many of the individuals are new, it is uncertain how they may be as members of parliament. 

I still support the JCPOA. Frankly, there was no chance of continuing the level of sanctions necessary to force the regime change we desperately want, especially given the unwillingness of European partners, not to mention the much less friendly Russian and Chinese interests. It is unrealistic to argue that other states would have gotten on board with unending sanctions. Italy and Greece have been highly dependent on Iranian oil, as has India, South Korea and South Africa, all countries that otherwise may have accepted a US political position. The result was not ideal, but given the number of disqualifications, a very strong showing in Tehran for a clearly defined reformist is encouraging. The hardliners are threatened by the results, and while their ability to control the population through their standard nefarious methods remains mostly unchecked, the ideological threat of a reform-minded populace has to be of concern for them. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Leading up to the Iranian Elections

Iranian domestic affairs are notoriously difficult to predict. This is especially true at such an important moment in the Islamic Republic when the stakes are as high as they have ever been. Rumors, unreliable polling and opaqueness in the approval and electoral process have made this election (like most previous ones), very interesting.

I have a few expectations and predictions to share, based upon what has happened so far. Here is how I have come to these conclusions:

As I have made quite clear, I supported the Iran nuclear negotiations/JPOA/JCPOA because of the potential to influence this coming set of elections, as well as the Iranian youth in general. Empowered reformists and pragmatists/moderates, leads to more pressure for Iran domestically. This (at least temporarily) reduces its ability to be disruptive regionally and internationally (especially in Syria and the Gulf). This election is vital for hardliners as they are on the defensive from the implications of a negotiated settlement with the West. Any sort of agreement with the West goes against their core ideology, and the violation of nearly all of Khamenei's 'red lines' is indisputable.

Western hardliners have argued that the backlash against moderates and reformists by Khamenei and Iranian hardliners is from a position of strength, but this couldn't be further from the truth. This election is a chance for hardliners to take back the momentum, and the actions of the Guardian Council in rejecting various candidates, the refusal of Khamenei to overrule them, and the assorted hostile acts by the IRGC-Navy in the Gulf are all part of a larger strategy to distance Iran from the West. 

I was surprised by the numbers of reformists excluded from elections. I knew there would be a massive number of rejections, but I did not anticipate that the number would be so high. This more than anything shows the insecurity of the establishment. Rejections of moderates in addition to the previously mentioned reformists reinforces this. 

The exclusion of Hassan Khomeini, a cleric and grandson of the Islamic Republic's first Supreme Leader, is particularly troubling for democracy and reform in Iran, but I would not count him, or the reform movement out yet. 

One reason for these massive disqualifications (which is coupled with an unprecedented number of applications for these electoral races) is the complexity of rigging municipal elections on a nation-wide scale. The 2009 stolen election was much easier to manipulate because it was an election for only one position with only 2 serious candidates (4 total). The Majles has nearly 300 seats and the Assembly of Experts has 88. Because so many candidates were excluded, some of these seats have no competition (for example the provinces of Ardabil, Azerbaijan West, Bushehr, Hormuzgan, Khorasan North and Semnan), and hardliners will automatically win the seat(s) in these locations. 

While hardliners have the natural advantage as they control the bodies concerned with oversight, I would not count out the Iranian people. I expect large numbers to turn out and vote, especially for reformists and moderates. Sanctions have just been removed, and there is optimism. The challenge here is that Rouhani's efforts to repair the extensive damage of the past administration have not been entirely successful, and Iran is still struggling with inflation and budgetary issues.

The actions from the Iranian government before the elections are important. Will they cave and allow more reformists and moderates to run? There were rumors of this happening, but as of yet, it has not been confirmed. The more pragmatists are allowed to run, the further the election can swing in their favor. 

Rouhani seems to have aspirations to be the next Supreme Leader, and he knows that he will never gain this position if the hardliners handily win this election.

If there are additional plans to fix the elections I would suspect the Assembly of Experts to be around 75-80% hardliners, perhaps even more, and at least 60% of the Parliament (Majles) to be this way. I think the establishment is aware that if they go much higher, there are serious risks for another mass protest like 2009. 

The unknown for me is how badly the election has to be stolen for the Iranian public to protest en masse. 

As long as the reformist/moderate/pragmatist groups vote and expect the result to reflect their voting preferences, I would be cautiously optimistic for either a result or resulting protests. In either case, the current attitude of the Iranian state is unsustainable, and unacceptable and I see this election as key for moving towards making necessary changes.

UPDATE #1 (02/05/16): It appears as though an undetermined number of Majles candidates will now be allowed to run as the Guardian Council has reversed their decision in approximately 20-25% of cases:
Again because of the absurd opaqueness of the system it is unclear where this decision was made and why it was made. It is believed that various high-level figures were upset with the decision to bar so many candidates. At this time however, the identities and political affiliations of the candidates are unknown, so it is just as likely that hardliners, or even moderates were approved ahead of reformists.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Implications of al-Nimr's Execution

Today Saudi Arabia executed 47 individuals, 46 of whom appear to be Sunni (there are rumors that 3 of them were Shi'a) and allegedly linked to Al Qaeda, and one, a prominent Shi'a cleric. Iran, as the self-proclaimed protectors of Shi'ism and Shi'ites has expressed its discontent in a variety of ways; Iranians protesting at the Saudi consulate in Mashhad who seem to have caused a fire, and a large demonstration is expected at the Saudi embassy in Tehran tomorrow (there are now breaking reports that the Saudi embassy in Tehran has been at least partially burned as well from molotov cocktails).

The inclusion of Nimr in with the 46 accused terrorists/political prisoners is interesting as his case has been very high profile. Rumors of his impending execution in the past few months outraged Iranian officials and the general public. Even the relatively quietist Marja Ali Sistani, based in Najaf, Iraq, involved himself by writing to Saudi officials asking for Nimr to be pardoned.

Signs of attempts at rapprochement between Saudi and Iran appeared throughout the first years of Rouhani's administration, despite ongoing proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen as well as Iraq to a lesser extent. They have not been exclusively positive statements, as Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the more pragmatic Iranian political figures, has also strongly condemned Saudi actions in Yemen.

Despite Iran's own status as a major human rights abuser, despite its disproportionate use of capital punishment, and despite its lack of due process and an independent judiciary, the Iranian government is objecting to another state's use of this tactic. This is an opportune time however, as Saudi is stuck in the quagmire of Yemen while Iran appears to be at least nominally withdrawing from its own in Syria, as Russia takes the lead there. Nationalism and sectarianism are important, and I expect Iran to exploit this while heavily criticizing Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses (and ignoring their own).

If it is true that there are additional hundreds of Saudi Arabian executions pending, and especially if any of the individuals sentenced to death are Shi'ite, there may be further diplomatic tension between the two states. I am less familiar with Saudi politics, but this would appear to be some sort of statement from the interior ministry, or from the new king as to what their approach to other religions and to local international politics will be. An embrace of hardline ideologies at an increasingly volatile time in the region is worrisome.

Because the reports of the attack on the Saudi embassy are true I expect there to be significant diplomatic problems, though I am not sure either side is eager to engage in full-on conflict. The UK embassy was stormed and damaged a few years ago, but there is not the same level of animosity (or proximity) involved. Saudi Arabia will probably expel the Iranian ambassador (he already was summoned over "hostile remarks" earlier today), and potentially file complaints with the UN. If Saudi Arabians attack the Iranian embassy in Riyadh or consulate in Jeddah, a response from the IRGC-N in the Gulf is not out of the question.

If things spiral out of control, I expect this is how it would happen. For now, until we see what happens in Saudi Arabia it doesn't seem that things will be too bad. The more damage done to Saudi facilities in Iran, the worse it could get.

UPDATE #1 (1/3/16): KSA did end up expelling diplomatic staff, and additionally withdrew its own staff and broke ties with Iran. They broke ties in 1988 before restoring them in 1991. Iran has the initiative now. It remains to be seen if they will retaliate through their militant proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Bahrain, Saudi or Yemen, or with the IRGC Navy. They could also give the green light for Hezbollah to attack in a Central Asian or North African country. At this point I don't think they would do this outside the region.