By Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel
May 15, 2018
President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement is likely to add fuel to the fires of sectarianism in the Middle East.
From the cataclysmic wars in Syria and Yemen to the volatile assemblages of Iraq and Lebanon, Sunni-Shiite relations are at a breaking point. But the cause of this spike in tensions is recent, not ancient. It is rooted in politics, not piety.
To stop it from aggravating, we need a clearer understanding of the forces driving sectarian conflict. The Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry is central to it, and the Trump administration — in both its rhetoric and its policies — is aggravating rather than ameliorating it.
Saudi Arabia and Israel had aggressively discouraged the Obama administration from pursuing the Iran nuclear deal. The Saudis were thrilled when Mr. Trump — who attacked the Iran deal during his campaign — was elected. Last May, during his visit to Riyadh, Mr. Trump echoed the Saudi view that Iran alone was to blame for all of the region’s troubles and must be stopped at any costs.
Ditching the Iran nuclear accord should be seen as a coordinated United States-Israeli-Saudi shift toward isolating and confronting Iran.
The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is widely described — by columnists, policymakers and journalists — as rooted in a primordial and intractable hatred that, as a Times opinion writer put it, goes back to “the seventh-century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.”
Even President Barack Obama, who staked a lot of political capital on the nuclear deal with Iran, invoked the spectre of “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the Middle East. In his final State of the Union address, Mr. Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the region are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”
Projecting current conditions back and imagining they are this way because they have always been this way is a grave mistake. This convenient, Orientalist narrative has become the new conventional wisdom in the West — one with very real political consequences.
Global conflicts have more proximate causes and are driven by state actors pursuing political power and strategic interests. During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia and Iran enjoyed amicable relations. Both countries had warm relations with the United States, and they were on the same side of the region’s defining issues.
In the Yemeni civil war of the 1960s, for example, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Jordan allied with the royalist partisans of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom; Egypt, Iraq and other Arab republics supported the so-called Yemen Arab Republic. The Arab republics supported their fellow republicans in Yemen while the Saudi and Iranian monarchies supported their fellow royalists.
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran changed this equation. Fearing the spread of political Islam from across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia responded by investing significant resources in undermining the appeal of the revolution. It sought to portray it as a distinctly Shiite and Persian phenomenon — a foreign and deviant form of Islam. Consequently, the 1980s saw relations between the Sunnis and the Shiites deteriorate across the region.
Although the theological inspiration of the Iranian revolution was decidedly Shiite, people across the Middle East and Asia saw it as a popular anti-imperialist uprising against a repressive Western-backed monarchy. The spectre of mass mobilizations, in the form of political Islam, against other Western-backed monarchies in the region terrified the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia’s strong support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war intensified the animosity. With the end of that war in 1988, tensions between Tehran and Riyadh subsided and relations improved. A cold peace lasted for most of the 1990s.
The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a turning point in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry and in sectarian relations across the region. The Saudis were horrified that the invasion ushered in a Shiite-led government with strong ties to Tehran.
Warnings of a “Shiite crescent” began to take hold, and fears of an ascendant Iran began to resonate with more and more Sunnis across the region. In 2008, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia exhorted the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” with a military strike on Iran.
The Arab uprisings in 2011 seemed to temporarily sideline the sectarian narrative. In Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, Sunnis and Shiites marched together, chanted the same slogans, and met the same repressive fate at the hands of their governments. But in each of these cases, cross-sectarian popular movements morphed into sectarian conflicts. Deploying a divide-and-conquer logic, authoritarian regimes portrayed the protesters as foreign enemies with extremist, sectarian agendas. While demonstrably false, this narrative became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with tragic results.
Sectarian violence is now engulfing the region, and the Saudi-Iranian war of hegemony is propelling this lethal drama. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has committed atrocities in Yemen on a weekly basis, bombing hospitals, schools, markets, weddings, funerals and residential areas, killing thousands of civilians.
Iran is deeply complicit in the war crimes of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, which include deliberate starvation, bombing of medical facilities and residential buildings and the inveterate use of chemical weapons.
Iran is not only Mr. Assad’s key regional ally, but it has arrayed a massive transnational flow of Shiite fighters in Syria and is engineering population swaps along sectarian lines to fortify the Assad regime. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran are both responsible for this horrific carnage. Both states are responsible for deepening the sectarian fault lines in the region.
Saudi accusations of Iran orchestrating a serpentine Shiite takeover of the Arab world are self-serving exaggerations that conveniently cloak Riyadh’s own malfeasance, yet Iran’s policies in Syria make these claims sound perfectly plausible to many Sunnis.
Sectarianisation has taken on a life of its own. It needs to be reversed, not exacerbated. But by buying into Saudi Arabia’s sectarian narrative and by backing its war in Yemen, the Trump administration is helping to perpetuate sectarianism.
The desectarianisation of the region’s politics will take time, possibly generations. De-escalating the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is essential to this process. Debunking the myth that these conflicts are eternal and immutable is a critical first step.
Nader Hashemi is director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Danny Postel is assistant director of the Middle East and North African studies program at Northwestern University. They are co-editors of “Sectarianisation: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.”