Saudi-Iranian fallout and the manipulation of the sectarian card

A New Year, same old Middle East. Any hope that 2016 would foster more peace and stability in the already fractured and volatile Middle East were quickly dashed as Saudi Arabia executed  prominent Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on terrorism charges.

This inevitably led to outrage in Iran, Iraq and other countries with significant Shia populations. As protestors attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran and its allies in the region quickly followed suit.

The escalating tensions raise the sectarian stakes and whilst all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is unlikely, the already palpable proxy war between both sides will simply intensify.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been simmering since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and relations have been fraught with suspicion and mistrust ever since.

The jockeying for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia has resulted in the powers taking opposing sides in the conflict in Syria and Yemen.

But does the race for regional supremacy really just comes down to the age-old sectarian card? In reality, the Sunni-Shia divide has been in force for over 1400 years. Whilst sectarian friction and animosity has existed throughout this time, sectarianism is more openly fueled in this day and age to serve political and strategic goals.

On the same day as the execution of al-Nimr, Saudi Arabia ended the cease-fire in Yemen. Al-Nimr was a symbolic dissident in Saudi Arabia’s approx. 15% Shia population. The Saudis have always been weary of Shia dissidence stoking instability and ironically the execution of al-Nimr serves to intensify the sectarian divide, perhaps as a way for rallying Sunni support in Saudi Arabia as well as the war in Yemen.

At the same time, Saudi’s wanted to send a strong message to Iran. The Saudi government was willing to take any action it deemed appropriate to safeguard the Kingdoms stability and regional interests.

Iran has also successfully played the sectarian card in Iraq and Syria. Stoking of sectarian tensions helped Iran reap significant influence in Iraq. Communities living together for centuries in Baghdad were increasingly divided into Sunni and Shia districts. The respective Sunni and Shia circles in Iraq reached out for regional leverage and even today Iran plays a key role in Iraq, especially within its Shia militias and in the fight against the Islamic State.

If sectarianism was historically a dominant factor, then the Iran-Iraq war belied this ideal. Two Shia majority powers fought a brutal war for 8 years. Whilst many anti-Saddam Shia rebel groups existed in Iraq at the time, Saddam Hussein successfully used the Arab nationalism card against the “Persian” enemy.

In Syria, anti-government protests that were largely about Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship and not strictly sectarianism were quickly reshaped by Iran, Saudi and other regional powers around sectarian grounds. This allowed Assad to rally Alawite support and afforded Iran a key hand in the Shia circles in Syria and the regimes struggle against the uprising.

The recent tensions make peace efforts in Syria and Yemen all the more difficult, whilst also having economic ramifications.  Trade sanctions have already been announced between both sides, but the tensions will be felt greater in the oil arena.

Saudi is by far the biggest power and exporter in OPEC and any deal to cut output to bolster faltering oil prices is more difficult, especially with Iran re-entering the oil stage after lifting of sanctions.

With further protests in Iran in recent days, Iranian accusations of Saudi Arabia “intentionally” bombing its embassy in Yemen and regional countries compelled to take sides, the regional division and state of tensions is at risk of rapidly increasing.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

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