Misreading Sectarian Tensions: the Arab-Persian Struggle for Supremacy

by Uzair Younus

The lines have been drawn and the sides have been picked. From the Levant to Pakistan, Muslim-majority nations are involved in a proxy war that has pitted a Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and a Shia-majority Iran against each other. This conflict has led to a rather simplified analysis by experts who have wholeheartedly decided to view this conflict from a sectarian perspective. They argue that this is a conflict between Shias and Sunnis and is just a continuation of the struggle for influence that has lasted for fourteen centuries. The demographics of the two sides support this argument, and while both Iran and Saudi Arabia have used the sectarian card to rally support, it is important to understand that the real struggle is one between Arabs and Persians and not between Shias and Sunnis.

To understand this division, one must go back to the origins of Islam when the Persians were defeated and conquered by Arabs marching as Muslims in 651 AD. From thereon began a conflict that has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. The Safavid Empire, which lasted from 1501 to 1736, was the last great Persian Empire and it ruled under the banner of Shia Islam. It was during this period that Persian Iran became a Shia state and the stronghold of Shia Islam. The collapse of the Safavids ushered in an era of decline, with Iran subsequently suffering decades of misrule and instability. The Iranian Revolution of 1978 was another chapter in this battle for control of Iran, and with the successful quashing of the Green Revolution, it seems like the current regime in Iran has survived for now. Understanding this history is important, for this history is well-known to Iranians who yearn for a return to the days when they were the preeminent political and cultural force in the region.

While Iran underwent this era of instability, Arabs were able to wrestle free from the rule of the Ottomans after the First World War. Subsequent decades saw the rise of the Saudis as a regional power backed by the United States and petro-dollars. Gaining its legitimacy from the Wahhabi Islam, which is an extremely puritanical form of Sunni Islam, the Saudis played a key role in developing a strategy to contain Iran following the revolution. While the Saudis were close to the Shah of Iran, the rise of a Shia regime in 1978 prompted Arabs in general to view Iran as an imminent threat. This is why, backed by a large part of Arab leaders, Saddam Hussein decided to initiate a war with Iran. Saddam’s oppression of Shias, however, forced Arab Shias into the Iranian camp, creating a situation that would play into Iran’s favor after Saddam’s fall in 2003.

Today, Iran and Saudi Arabia are continuing to indulge in this centuries old battle. The fact that Iraqi Shias found a safe haven in Iran during the Saddam years meant that Iran was able to gain significant control in Iraq following the fall of Saddam. Add to this fact the support that Iran has given to Hezbollah and Hamas, along with its support for the Assad regime in Syria, and you have all the ingredients of a twenty-first century Arab-Persian conflict.

This conflict has played out in Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon, and even Yemen, where Iran is expanding its influence in the Arab world. It has used the strategy of reaching out to Shia Arabs to gain influence in the region while simultaneously being extremely anti-Israel. The anti-Israel stance is one that has given the Iranians cross-sectarian support and enabled it to portray itself as a Muslim rather than a Persian regime.

Meanwhile, the Saudis—recognizing this effective strategy of the Iranians—have also used the sectarian card to gain influence in the region. The Saudis have supported Sunni militias in Syria to break the lines of Iranian influence stretching from Tehran to Beirut. They have further strengthened the Bahraini monarchy by providing military and non-military aid, and have now initiated a process of bringing Pakistan firmly into their camp through a $1.5 billion grant. The last remaining play in the Saudi strategy will be to establish close ties with the new Afghan government, as this will allow them the ability to surround Iran from the east.

It is easy to portray this conflict as a Shia-Sunni conflict because this is what the current situation seems like on the surface. But this conclusion is drawn from a poor understanding of the political and cultural history of the region. Both the Saudis and the Iranians want to ensure Arab and Persian supremacy respectively, but in a bid to do so, they are increasingly dividing the region along sectarian lines. This is leading to a dramatic radicalization in the region that, if unchecked, could very well haunt both Iran and Saudi Arabia for decades.

To stem the violence, it is essential that the international community recognize this historical conflict and coax both countries to come to the negotiating table. Regional stability and the defeat of radical militias are in the strategic interest of both nations, but these goals cannot be achieved until there is an agreement on the general balance of power in the Middle East. This does not seem to be happening right now, largely because of the mistaken analysis that portrays this conflict as one between Shias and Sunnis. Without recognition of the true causes of this conflict, the situation will continue to worsen and the wave of radicalization will spread.

About the Author

Uzair Younus is a Masters candidate at The Fletcher School and is focusing on security issues facing South Asia and the Middle East. He tweets at @uzairyounus.

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