The heat is on.

Diplomatic historians will be familiar with the idea of “two table games.” That is, governments deal with both other states and with domestic constituencies. This analytical approach arose in part as a result of the domestic problems that led Wilhelmine Germany to court the danger of war in 1914. By the early Twentieth Century, the fake-parliamentary government of the Second Reich faced a serious challenge from the rapidly expanding Social Democratic Party, with the powerful labor unions at its back. Middle-class parties were also growing restive with a government dominated by big business and the reactionary “Junker” land-owners of Prussia. To rally support for the established order, Germany pursued an aggressive foreign policy. Either Germany would achieve some diplomatic triumph that would redound to the credit of conservative leadership or the country would face a diplomatic crisis that led all parties to rally ‘round the flag. In the end, however, this policy brought on the First World War.[1]

According to one well-informed analysis, something like the same thing is contributing to the current Iran-Saudi conflict.[2] On the one hand, supporting the spread of the Wahhabist message of conservative Islam has been one way for the Saudis to fend off unrest. Such conservatives have seen Iran as a revolutionary and anti-Saudi force since the Iranian Revolution began (1979). They have quietly criticized the Saudi government for inertia in the early stages of the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. That criticism may have helped spark the Saudi intervention in Yemen—and Saudi non-intervention in the struggle against ISIS.

On the other hand, handing out free stuff has been another way of fending off discontent.[3] The slump in world oil prices brought about by the American “fracking” revolution forced Saudi Arabia to choose between reducing production to push earnings back up or accepting lower earnings to maintain their share of the market. Saudi Arabia opted for the latter course because they recognized that if they lost customers, they would never get them back. However, lower income meant that the Saudi public budget had to be cut. Recently, Saudi Arabia announced a 14 percent cut in its budget, leading to reduced subsidies for all sorts of things.

For their part, Iranian conservatives are unhappy with the deal over Iran’s nuclear program and the suspected openness to “liberalization” on the part of younger people. New elections loom in February 2016. What to do? Anything that revived revolutionary fervor and rallied people to the defense of the Islamic Republic would be welcome.

Adding to the grounds for complaint by Saudis about various aspects of government policy is the problem of radical Sunnis. What to do? In October 2014, a Saudi court convicted a Shi’ite cleric named Nemer al-Nemer of sedition and sentenced him to death.[4] On 2 January 2016, Saudi Arabia executed him—along with 47 Sunnis linked to al Qaeda. In Iran, crowds stormed and burned down the Saudi embassy.[5] Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic ties with Iran. Other Sunni-ruled Arab states followed suit.

In 1914 German leaders misjudged where their policy could lead them. People had great confidence in rationality. There isn’t much rationality in “playing chicken.”

[1] See, for example, Volker Berghahn, Germany and the Approach of War in 1914 (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977).

[2] Jaroslav Trofimov, “Mideast Internal Politics Fuel Rift,” WSJ, 5 January 2016.

[3] It’s the mirror-image of “taxation without representation is tyranny.” No taxes = no right to representation.

[4] In both Iraq and in Saudi Arabia, Iran has long used Shi’ites as instruments of Tehran’s policy.

[5] It is difficult to believe that the government of Iran did not understand the implications of one more embassy invasion, especially since the seizure of the American embassy figures as the Iranian “Boston Tea Party.” Perhaps that’s why the police failed to prevent it.

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