Though Shia-Sunni divide goes way back into history, its worrying revival, in Saudi-Iran diplomatic rift, has shaken the Middle East kaleidoscope yet again. Until the overthrow of Shah in Iran, both Saudi Arabia and Iran were part of the US-led anti-communist block. This overarching anti-communist unity eclipsed the underlying religious divide. However, with the departure of Shah of Iran, and the success of the Iranian revolution, the Saudi-Iran relationship was reset on old sectarian grid.
Saudi Arabia, the proclaimed leader of the Sunni world, saw in the Iranian revolution a destabilising threat to its regional hegemony and domestic harmony in areas where Shias composed a large section of the population. From this policy paradigm, Saudi Arabia embarked on a concerted plan of rolling back Iran’s expanding influence, both real and imagined. To this end, Saudi Arabia responded in a number of aggressive measures.
One, Saudi Arabia began expanding its influence through funding and cultivating Wahabi network of charities and religious seminaries in countries open to Iranian revolutionary wave. Pakistan experienced this first hand. In the 1980s, a number of Saudi charities, religious seminaries and funding for Afghan Jihad went up, sowing the seeds of long-term sectarianism and Wahabism in Pakistan.
Second, Saudi Arab tightened internal monitoring and bloody vigilance of Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries (in particular Bahrain where Shia form a majority of the population). Third, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed with a view to containing the Iranian threat and concerting united front against Iran in the Middle East by oil-rich Gulf Sheikdoms.
Fourth, Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, and sponsored by Saddam Hussain to engage Iran in a bloody and destructive Iran-Iraq war which lasted eight years with ruinous consequences for both countries. This well-concerted four-pronged strategy suffered a huge setback when Saddam Hussain was toppled in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. In one stroke, the minority Sunni government was replaced with a majority Shia government in Iraq, further strengthening Iran’s regional dominance.
This further tipped regional calculus in Iran’s favour to the horror of the Saudi monarchy. Now Iran was surrounded by friendly countries with Syria already under pro-Iranian Alawite minority rulers. Vali Nasr’s book, The Shia Revival, How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future not just telescoped this new pro-Iranian regional calculus but also solidified perceptions of Iranian’s expanding role in the Middle East. Where the book hinted at a Shia crescent forming in the region, Saudi Arabia saw a full Shia moon of Iranian dominance.
Amid all these reversals, the only glimmer of Saudi’s Iran containment policy lay in contributing to world-wide efforts to keep Iran in economic and diplomatic isolation caused by the Iranian nuclear programme. This suited Saudi Arabia fine as it not only circumscribed Iran’s regional ambitions but also emasculated it economically because of sanctions on the export of Iranian oil. However, this was to change in 2015.
As a result of the landmark nuclear deal with major Western powers, the end to Iran’s isolation and return to international respectability is imminent. Yet the prospect of Iran entering in the oil export market and international mainstream has further upset Saudi regional plans. The unfortunate result has been a range of recent panicky strategic moves by Saudi Arabia which are potentially subversive of prospects of peace and harmony in the Middle East.
The sudden panic aroused by the nuclear deal is of such order that Saudi monarchy is even reportedly ready to embrace Israel with a view to countering Iranian rehabilitation (Though this has been vehemently denied by Saudi Arabia). However, there is a domestic dimension to Saudi’s international interventions, ranging from Yemen to Syria.
With the enthronement of another aging new king, King Salman, Saudi Arabia has taken to aggressive policy in its both domestic and overseas policy. The moving spirit behind the new king and new aggressive Saudi posturing is none other than his younger son, Muhammad Bin Salman, who happens to be the defence minister as well.
Media reports describe him as a hyperactive aspirant to kingship with an eye to courting conservative clergy and introducing market reform. This is the background to the recent Saudi-Iran diplomatic rift which blew up following the execution of the Saudi Shia leader, Nimr- Al- Nimr on January 2, 2016 despite loud and vociferous protests from international human rights organisations and Western countries.
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The resultant Shia anger over the execution has been expressed in world-wide protests, including the Middle East. In Iran itself, the mob torched the Saudi embassy which resulted in Saudi Arabia swiftly cutting off all diplomatic links with Iran as part of long-standing policy to isolate Iran regionally and internationally. Some other gulf countries have also followed suit.
From the Western viewpoint, this escalation has come at a very bad time when peace negotiation on Syria in Vienna were making some headway with both Iran and Saudi Arabia participating in the talks for the first time. The UN efforts to keep the Syrian talks on tracks face a rough ride when Saudi Arabia is actively seeking the support of other Muslim countries to manufacture a concerted response to the perceived Iranian threat with a view to containing Iran and keeping it in isolation.
This strategy may not work because of Iran’s crucial role in fighting ISIS which is the key Western regional strategy. Pakistan, too, is being assiduously courted by the Saudis as demonstrated in two high profile visits of Saudi foreign and defence ministers to Pakistan within days of each other. In particular, the last visit of the defence minister, Muhammad Bin Salman, the architect of new Saudi assertiveness on regional stage, is very significant.
The choices before Pakistan are clear cut. Like Yemen debate, Pakistan needs to play neutral and seek to bridge the gap between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is all the more important because of our proximity to Iran. The consequences of getting embroiled in Saudi-Iran conflict, either diplomatically or in troops’ engagement, would be potentially fatal to domestic peace and sectarian harmony in Pakistan. Moreover, it complicates relations with Iran which is set to make a big comeback on regional and international scene in the coming years.