Both Iran and Saudi Arabia believe their identity is at stake in the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict
More than a decade ago, King Abdullah II of Jordan, one of the Arab world's wisest leaders, publicly warned that the Middle East risks being torn to pieces by the emergence of a "Shi'ite Crescent", which could condemn the region to decades of bloodshed.
Commentators dismissed this as just alarmist talk. But the current showdown between Saudi Arabia and Iran indicates that the embers of war between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are now burning fiercely. For, as an official close to the Saudi royal family put it, the kingdom is confronted "not just by a Shi'ite Crescent, but by a Shi'ite full moon". And the consequences of this looming showdown will be grave not only for the US, still the region's pre-eminent arbitrator, but also for the security of Muslim nations outside the Middle East.
It is easy to blame the Saudis for the current flare-up between Sunnis and Shi'ites. The Saudi government knew that its decision to execute Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the prominent, outspoken religious leader of the country's marginalised Shi'ite minority, was bound to result in a popular backlash from Shi'ites elsewhere and attract a fierce response from Iran, the Middle East's biggest Shi'ite nation and the region's only official Shi'ite state.
The Saudi decision to execute Sheikh Nimr was also a rebuff to the US, whose officials spent months trying to persuade the Saudis that the consequences of the execution would be severe, and deal a blow to American-led efforts to put together a peace plan for Syria, one which will require Iranian cooperation. The fact that the Saudis simply brushed aside this US advice is a source of great annoyance for Washington and an inspiration for US commentators who are now urging President Barack Obama to "ditch" Saudi Arabia and embrace Iran.
But much of this analysis is nonsense, and some of it is dangerous nonsense. First, it is worth remembering that by their own standards, the Saudis exercised a great deal of restraint before ordering the execution of 47 people, including Sheikh Nimr. Some of those who were subjected to capital punishment last week were detained and convicted of murder as far back as 2004; this includes one terrorist who killed a British cameraman and left a correspondent for the BBC permanently paralysed.
Nor was Sheikh Nimr the peaceful, saintly figure Iran claims him to be. For the man whose name literally translates as "Tiger the Son of Tiger" has advocated the violent overthrow of the Saudi monarchy and the secession of the oil-rich, Shi'ite-populated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia for over a decade.
And, in a detail which often escapes the attention of Western commentators, Sheikh Nimr was also close to Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad Taqi al-Modarresi, one of Iran's most hard-line clerics and a prime mover behind the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most radical and violent organisation in Iran. It is laughable for Iran to protest at Sheikh Nimr's execution since a similar anti-government critic inside Iran would not have received even the courtesy of a trial before swinging from a hanging crane. Finally, it was not Saudi Arabia, but Iran which generated the first spark in the sectarian Sunni-Shi'ite violence which now threatens to split the Muslim world.
IRAN'S SHI'ITE MILITIA
Undoubtedly, the Shi'ites, who account for 10 to 15 per cent of the global population of Muslims, have genuine grievances: In many countries they are mistrusted and marginalised.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, one of the key elements in Shi'ite identity is that of human suffering and martyrdom, based around the tragic end of the Battle of Karbala (now in modern Iraq), where Sunni rulers killed the Prophet's grandson, Hussein, in the year 681.
However, although tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites periodically flared up over the subsequent millennia since the Karbala tragedy, they came to the fore only in modern times with the Iranian revolution of 1979, which put a Shi'ite theocracy in charge of that powerful Middle Eastern nation.
In reality, in terms of culture, politics and even religious beliefs, Arab Shi'ites are different from Iranians. Not only do they speak different languages, but the Arab Shi'ites do not subscribe to Iran's official ideology, which claims that one Shi'ite cleric exercises supreme authority over the state. However, Iran has spent the past few decades seeking to transform the Shi'ites of the Arab world into its agents of influence, and has by now largely succeeded in doing so.
At the beginning, this was done surreptitiously. Iran denied it was funding or supplying weapons to Hizbollah, the Shi'ite militia in Lebanon, and claimed not to interfere in the internal affairs of other Arab nations. But especially since the Middle East revolutions of 2011, which came to be known as the Arab Spring, Iranian involvement became overt, and all-pervasive. Hizbollah is now openly fighting in Syria to maintain a pro-Iranian government in power, while Iran openly supports violent movements in Bahrain and Yemen, where a Shi'ite militia now controls the capital city.
In every country in the Middle East, there is some Iranian involvement, and some personality - usually a cleric - who is in Iran's pay and acts as a future potential leader. Iran has also subsidised similar activities to destabilise the internal order in countries as far apart as Pakistan and Malaysia. Some countries in Asia will not have an Iranian embassy on their soil precisely for that reason.
The US could have done little to halt this trend, but should have done much more to counteract it. Yet the problem with President Obama's administration is that it always proceeded from the assumption that stability in the Middle East would come when Iran's historic grievances were addressed and satisfied, while at the same time dismissing the similar historic worries of Arab governments as at best exaggerated, and at worst just imaginary.
Why should history be supremely relevant with Iran but irrelevant in dealing with the Saudis and other Arabs was never explained in Washington? Yet it is now clear that this approach achieved the worst of both worlds. It encouraged hardliners in Teheran to conclude that the US would ultimately acquiesce in Iran's dual-track objective of appointing itself as the leader of all the Shi'ites and as the Middle East's pre-eminent power, and it also heightened Arab states' feelings that they are on their own, facing an existential challenge. And to a certain extent they are, for Iran's current behaviour amounts to a mortal threat to Saudi Arabia, whose own identity is heavily influenced by the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, an 18th century preacher who strongly opposed the Shi'ites.
The US also failed to reassure the Arabs that its nuclear deal with Iran did not give the Iranians a blank cheque to do as they pleased. Indeed, recent American actions appear to have conveyed precisely the opposite message. The US did nothing after the Iranians recently conducted a test of their missile delivery systems, and pretended not to notice when Iranian forces opened fire in the vicinity of the US aircraft carrier in the Gulf. The Saudi decision to execute Sheikh Nimr was designed as a warning not only to the Iranians, but to the Americans as well.
The US administration is now urging caution on both sides, but the long-term consequences of this Saudi-Iranian confrontation are grim. For most Arab governments, it is Iran and the Shi'ites, rather than terrorism and religious extremism, which are now the most pressing security concern. For Iran, this has also become a battle about the very identity of the Iranian state and its international standing. Teheran is guaranteed to continue exporting violence beyond its borders.
And although some Israeli leaders believe that this Sunni-Shi'ite confrontation provides the Jewish state with some respite, they are wrong. The meltdown of existing states and borders ushers in a more unstable Middle East, and one in which Israel's presence as the "villa in the jungle" is likely to prove more and more difficult to sustain.
The biggest mistake US officials can do now is to succumb to calls which are increasingly heard in Washington to distance America from Saudi Arabia even further, since that will merely plunge the Middle East into an even bigger turmoil. America's best bet is to patiently reassure the Saudis that Washington is still by their side.
For as one Saudi crown prince put it a decade ago, his royal house "came to power by the sword" and, if it has to, it "will remain in power by the sword". And most of the Middle East sides with the Saudis.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2016, with the headline 'Islam's battle within widening Middle East rift '. Print Edition | Subscribe
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