WHERE GOES THE DISPUTE BETWEEN IRAN AND SAUDI ARABIA?
There are currently two main wars being fought in the Middle East: the one against the ISIS and the one between Sunni and Shiite Islam. While the former war is fought directly, the latter has been fought, until today, by proxy nations. The two wars are, of course, interconnected, because the ISIS is a Sunni organization that fights, among others, the Shiites.
In addition to the two conflicts mentioned above, there are a number of collateral situations such as the civil war in Syria, the Kurdish problem, the political repositioning of the Muslim Brothers, the long-standing Palestinian issue, the survival of religious minorities that are being persecuted and the various hegemonic attempts, both endogenous and external. Nevertheless, the most pressing problem are the two above-mentioned ongoing wars, and the most dangerous of the two – due to its more enveloping ideological/religious catalysts - is the one between Sunnis and Shiites, with superimposing interests by the main regional and international players involved.
This superimposition of interests implies the risk that the battlefield, which presently encompasses only a few countries, could spread to other territories. Today we see the first warning signs of a war that could well spread like wildfire.
A subtle war
Presently, the confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran is indirect and is being played out in other nations like Syria (where Iran supports Assad's Alawite minority – about 13% - against the Sunni rebellion that is in turn supported by Saudi Arabia and other neighboring nations), Iraq (where there is a Shiite government and a Sunni rebellion – Shiites in Iraq account for 60% of the population, while Sunnis are only 30/35%), and Yemen (where the Saudis have decided to fight, with scarce success, against the Shiite Zayidis – whom, together with the Ismailis, account for 47% of the population – to support a deposed-then-reinstated Sunni president).
Iraq – perhaps the most emblematic case – finds it difficult to regulate its infra-religious relationships (which are seldom distinct from the political and military ones) because the two forces at play are both demographically-speaking consistent. To make things worse, Iraq was long governed by a Sunni dictatorship and the Iraqi Sunnis, unlike their Shiite fellow nationals, actually know how to fight a war. The civil war in Iraq is developing from these premises and the ISIS, a terrorist movement that is Sunni nonetheless, is exploiting the conflict's potential to destabilize the region and win consensus.
To better understand how dangerous the “religious” war between Sunnis and Shiites is, we should look at the numbers of the two religious communities.
Sunnis represent roughly 85/90% of the one-and-a-half billion Muslims in the world. But this can be a misleading figure because, apart from the numerical disproportion between the parts, the conflict between the two branches is essentially sparked by two reasons: the fight over political/religious hegemony and the struggle to inhabit the same land.
This subtle war creates contradictions among its contenders. Iran is the more coherent of the two contenders: they support Shiite regimes (Syria and Iran) and fight the ISIS, which is Sunni. As for Saudi Arabia, the various emirates of the Gulf and Turkey, it is a different story altogether: by fighting Shiite regimes, they find themselves in the uncomfortable circumstance of aiding the ISIS directly or indirectly. Their well-known ambiguity in fighting Islamic terrorism stems from this very circumstance.
Nimr Bakr al Nimr
Shiite Iran against Sunni Saudi Arabia
In the past weeks, the tension between Saudi Arabia, who wants to
be the guiding light of the Sunni world, and Iran, has reached a
The execution, on January 2, of 47 individuals – 43 Sunnis and 4 Shiites – accused of terrorism, among whom was the Shiite Imam Nimr Bakr al Nimr, who is himself accused of inspiring the Shiite opposition in the Eastern Province (main oil region in the country inhabited by a Shiite majority) was a premeditated provocation by Saudi Arabia.
The reasons for the Saudi escalation are not just theological, but tied to other circumstances as well: the fear of Iranian expansion in Syria and Iraq, the internal problems with the succession on the Saudi throne, the US military disengagement, the commercial and oil war which, after the Iranian nuclear accord, places the economic weight of Iran back onto the international balance.
The recent decision to create a so-called Islamic NATO headed by Saudi Arabia is part of the same scheme.
Now we are faced with new dilemmas. The first is to verify whether the rise in tension between Saudis and Iranians (with the due interference of other nations) will subside and give way to a more moderate diplomacy.
Since the execution of the Saudi Shiite Imam was a deliberate provocation (in the midst of one of the worst mass executions of the past 30 years), it is in the interest of Iran to avoid falling into the Saudi trap, which would jeopardize the positive results of the nuclear deal (by condemning the assault against the Saudi embassy in Tehran without mentioning the mass executions in Saudi Arabia, the UN security council recently gave a clear indication of how precarious Iran's reputation is).
However, to keep fueling the fire of dissent with Iran could cause problems to Saudi Arabia's internal stability, seen that the Shiites represent roughly 15/20% of the overall population and since the decreasing financial resources from the sale of petrol have downsized the welfare system on which the regime's consensus is largely based. The same considerations could be made for the Iranian theocracy, where two currents – a reformist and a conservative one – have been fighting it out for quite some time. Therefore a direct confrontation between the two countries is unlikely, unless there occur more provocations or incidents within a short period of time.
The fire spreads
But the second option (which is more likely) remains open: that the proxy war that is now being fought in other nations (i.e. Syria, Iraq and Yemen) spread to more countries yet. If this happens, it will be because of the presence of the Shiite community – as a vehicle for the protests – in those countries.
As for Iran, it has a population of over 80 million of which roughly 95% are Shiites. It is therefore less vulnerable compared to Saudi Arabia, where nearly one-fifth of the population is Shiite and resides mostly in the heart of the energy-producing area of Al Qatif, in the Eastern Province, where about 80% of the country's oil comes from.
And since the war between the two main 'branches' of Islam is essentially a regional war, similar regions in other countries could be effected by it. The countries where there is a consistent presence of Shiites are mainly Bahrain (where Shiites comprise about 70% of the population), Kuwait (with 30%), the United Arab Emirates (with 15%, especially in Dubai), Qatar (10%), Lebanon (with roughly 50%, reinforced by the military presence of Hezbollah).
Turkey (where the Alevite sect and the Shiites make up about 20/25% of the population) is excluded from this list because the country cannot be destabilized by Iran without incurring in a military reaction that would prove unsustainable for the Iranian armed forces. Oman, which is governed by an Ibadite Sultan (a sect closer to Sunnism) is also excluded: despite its 10% Shiite population, the country has always followed a policy of neutrality (and mediation) in all of the regional issues, including the juxtaposition between Shiites and Sunnis.
Iran to rock the boat
In short, if Iran were to fuel Shiite terrorism in an attempt to weaken the various monarchies of the Gulf, they would have a number of valid options at their disposal.
The first choice would probably be the Eastern Province of Saudi
Arabia itself, as it would allow Iran to strike in the same place
where Imam al Nimr was executed and to land a blow at the heart of
the economic and financial system on which the Saudi monarchy
The second option, the easier one technically speaking, would be to destabilize Bahrain. It is a country that is demographically small (1,3 million inhabitants) and governed by an oppressive Sunni dictatorship. In 2011, during the so-called Arab Springs, a rebellion by the Shiite population in Bahrain had to be defused by a military strike by some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Presently, about 5000 soldiers and policemen from Saudi Arabia and the UAE are still stationed in the country to keep the Emir Khalifa steady on his throne. The only drawback for a subversive attempt by Iran in Bahrain is the presence of a US naval base with about 7000 troops in its territory (the same is true of Qatar).
Both Bahrain and the Eastern Province have already been targeted by Iran. Weapon caches and ships loaded with Iranian arms have been found and seized before the cargo could be handed over to the Shiite communities there.
Surely the present crisis will tend to widen the scope of these subversive initiatives.
The petrol war
Another “war” which has yet to be fought is the petrol war. All of the main regional powers live off of the profits from the sale of petrol. The first in line are, of course, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Until today, Saudi Arabia has conditioned the market with an overproduction of petrol to keep prices low and make US-produced schist oil unprofitable. With the Iranian oil hitting the market, Saudi Arabia will try to keep prices even lower in an attempt to damage their competitor. Yet at the same time it will be damaging its own finances. It is still not clear which of the two countries will take the most damage, especially to their national economies.
Also, the “war” will have an effect on the various diplomatic initiatives that are on the table, especially on the mediation for a solution to the Syrian crisis.
Iranian president Rouhani with Russia's Vladimir Putin
The positions of Russia and the USA
But Saudi Arabia and Iran are not alone in their fight. There are other countries that can throw their weight around in the region. There is Russia which, for various reasons – the fight against the ISIS and the support of Bashar al Assad's regime – is today siding with Iran. Then there is the United States, that prefer to use diplomacy for the time being to avert another conflict in the region. But if they were forced to pick a side, the US would definitely choose Saudi Arabia. Siding with the Saudis and the US one would surely find France (that has recently signed deals worth billions to supply both Saudi Arabia and the UAE with arms) and the UK, because of the long-standing historical and economic ties between them and the Saudis.
Currently, the “war” is just one of words, threats, accusations, shutting down of Embassies, freezing of diplomatic relationships and boycotting of each other's products. These initiatives see the involvement of other, minor, actors, such as the various emirates in the Gulf (which side with Saudi Arabia: if Saud's regime falls, theirs would fall shortly thereafter). On the Saudi side there are also other, “Islamic NATO”, countries that see a political and financial opportunity in their choice (Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, etc.) On the opposite front, siding with Iran, we find Syria, Iraq and the various Shiite entities present in the region.
The “religious war” between Sunnis and Shiites is therefore fueled by much more prosaic reasons than a merely theological dispute from 1400 years back.
What about the ISIS?
Our final consideration is therefore aimed at the only regional
actor that will reap benefits from this dispute: the ISIS. The
division that exists between the various countries in the region
is a guarantee for Al Baghdadi's military survival. The sectarian
dispute further legitimizes the war of religion that the Caliphate
is fighting. Much like in Libya, social chaos, divisions and
bickering in the ranks of their enemies are the building blocks
for the military conquests of the ISIS.