Saudi Arabia and Iran: The divide is more secular than religious

Friday 15/01/2016
Iranian FM Zarif (R) and his Iraqi counterpart Jafari in Tehran

LONDON - The severing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the latest mani­festation of a long-run­ning struggle that has more to do with secular geopolitics than with a religious conflict divid­ing the region.
The spark for the present crisis was Saudi Arabia’s execution of a leading Saudi Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, and the angry response of Tehran demonstrators who stormed the Saudi embassy with little apparent action by the Iranian authorities to restrain them.
As both sides ramped up the rhetoric, other Arab states allied to Riyadh joined its diplomatic boy­cott of Iran.
Among the factors that have exacerbated the ever-present ten­sions between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the war in Syria, where Tehran is defending the regime of President Bashar Assad against Saudi-backed rebels. The two sides are also at odds in Yemen, where the Saudis are actively involved in a war against Shia Houthi rebels that Riyadh claims are a proxy army for Tehran.
The Saudis have also been taken back by the decision of world pow­ers, including the United States, to reach a deal with Iran over its nu­clear programme, a development Riyadh fears may amount to a shift by Washington towards Tehran.
The renewal of tensions follow­ing the execution of Nimr could not come at a worse time for Iraq, where the Shia-dominated government has been trying to co-opt the sup­port of Sunni tribes in the campaign to destroy the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi was quick to condemn the execution but he resisted demands from among his Shia constituency to sever ties with Saudi Arabia. He is aware that his army needs the support of Sunni tribes to hold the recently liberated town of Ramadi and to undertake an attempt to re­take Mosul from ISIS.
Years of conflict in Iraq and Syria have been marked by deepening animosities between sectarian com­munities — the minority Sunni and majority Shia in the case of Iraq, and the minority Alawite and majority Sunni in Syria. But the divisions in the region are more complex than a simple rift between rival interpreta­tions of Islam.
Tensions that predated the 1979 Iranian revolution were not funda­mentally doctrinal in nature. At the height of the reign of Iran’s shah, the Saudis and their Gulf neigh­bours lived in the shadow of a re­gime that was emerging as, not only a regional, a world power under the leadership of its increasingly mega­lomaniac monarch.
In the chaos that followed the Iranian revolution, conservative Arab states colluded with Saddam Hussein, the secular Ba’athist Iraqi dictator, to attempt to crush Ayatol­lah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Re­public. Saddam’s invasion of Iran in September 1980 marked the start of a nationalist, rather than a religious, war, fought largely by Shia foot sol­diers on either side of the border.
Early Iraqi propaganda in the eight-year war couched the con­flict in terms of a historical rivalry between Arabs and Persians rather than between Shias and Sunnis.
It was only when the war began going badly for Saddam that he at­tempted to play the religion card by making a well-publicised pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, at the height of the crisis over his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Saddam order the addition of Allahu Akbar to the national flag to give a spurious religious impri­matur to his adventure.
Saudi-Iranian relations hit one of their periodic low points in 1987, during the Gulf War, when 275 Irani­ans were killed during the pilgrim­age to Mecca in clashes with Saudi security forces. The bloodshed was sparked by political tensions rather than religion.
The Iranian contingent had been demonstrating against the United States, Russia and Israel because of their alleged support of Iraq, and against what Khomeini had brand­ed “American Islam” — by which he meant the conservative Gulf states rather than Sunnis in general. Irani­an leaders reacted by threatening to uproot the Saudi rulers and free the holy places from the “mischievous and wicked Wahhabis”.
Almost 30 years on, the two sides remain trapped in a long-standing rivalry for regional supremacy in which sectarian divisions between Sunnis and Shias provide a conveni­ent rallying cry to sustain the fer­vour of the masses. The danger is of further stoking divisions that play into the hands of ISIS, which would like nothing better than a holy war.