Amid a roiling Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia are fanning the fires of sectarianism and playing politics in a zero-sum proxy war of religious fervor.
- By Vali NasrVali Nasr is dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat and The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.
Since the Iraq War, sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis has emerged as a major fissure in Middle East politics — fueling conflicts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen; a resurgence of extremism and the scourge of the Islamic State; and an escalation in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia which has become the most significant clash between regional rivals in decades. From country to country, across the region, sectarian conflict is the thread that runs through each crisis, tying them into a strategic Gordian knot.
The common refrain in the West is that this is a 14-century-old feud we don’t understand. Even U.S. President Barack Obama said as much in his final State of the Union, calling the Middle East a place “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” The not-so-subtle implication, of course, is that this is the kind of religious politics the West has long left behind. It is true that Shiite and Sunni identities were formed centuries ago over a religious dispute. It is also true that Shiite-Sunni clashes are nothing new. But sectarianism should not be dismissed out of hand as an ancient feud that defies modern logic. The violent paroxysm in today’s Middle East is a modern phenomenon, a product of contemporary politics and priorities. Furthermore, it is playing out not in obscure theological forums but in the political arena.
Sectarianism today is a perfect storm — the product of a confluence of factors at play in the region. The first culprit in stoking sectarian conflict is Islamism. This modern-day ideology, born in the 1930s, calls for an ideal Islamic state built on the foundations of Islamic law and sharia. The Islamic state is a utopian panacea that looks to religion to perfect modernity. But the Islamic state is not a generic idea, as it requires harkening to either Shiite or Sunni conceptions of Islam.
Shiites and Sunnis each have their own methodology, interpretation, and practice of law. As such, there can be no such thing as a non-sectarian Islamic state. In a region in which Islam matters so much to politics, it is inevitable that the critical question then becomes “what Islam” and “whose Islam.” The rise of narrower and more extreme forms of Islamism have only exacerbated sectarianism.
The founder of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, learned this lesson the hard way. He fashioned himself as a pan-Islamic leader but was dismissed by a growing number of Sunnis as a Shiite cleric. He may have garnered political respect, particularly in standing up to the United States, but few Sunnis accepted him as their religious pole. While Shiites across the region were filled with pride and hope, Sunni Arab rulers looked for ways to quash expectations of change. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein famously responded to the revolution’s challenge by purging Shiites from the ranks of the Baath Party and putting to death the eminent Shiite cleric, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, then-President Zia ul-Haq also began to play politics with Islam, imposing a mandatory religious tax. But, emboldened by the Iranian revolution, Pakistan’s Shiites asserted their sectarian independence, refusing to submit to that country’s experiment with Islamic statehood. Zia soon capitulated, but resentful Sunnis recoiled at this diminution and started sectarian clashes and violence that has beleaguered the country to this day.
Iranians were always at a disadvantage exporting their revolution to Arabs or Pakistanis, but the true firewall that kept Iran’s revolution at bay was sectarianism. Pakistan was an early target. The country’s Shiites embraced Khomeini’s message, but Sunni extremism backed by both Pakistan’s government and Saudi Arabia stopped Tehran in its tracks. The revolution’s influence quickly waned — but not Sunni extremism and its culture of sectarianism. And what started in Pakistan is now unfolding in the Middle East. Iran’s revolution ensconced Islam in regional politics and, along with it, underscored sectarian fealties that divide the region.
Greater prominence of sectarianism, as Saddam well understood, exposed the imbalances between Sunnis and Shiites that lay at the heart of many Arab states, from Syria to Iraq to Bahrain. In majority Sunni Syria, an Alawite minority with distant roots in Shiism ruled. In Iraq and Bahrain, minority Sunni Arabs lorded over the majority Shiites. This sectarian domination of power was a vestige of colonialism, which lived on through secular nationalist states. Years of state-building only masked the problem by harping on Arab nationalism and the fight against Israel and the West. But the facades soon started to crumble.
Starved of legitimacy, facing population growth and economic stagnation, the Middle East’s sclerotic dictatorships succumbed to callous divide-and-rule strategies. Syria and Iraq may have been secular Baathist states, but ideology did not make for a level playing field; minority Alawites ruled over largely Sunni Syria and minority Sunnis over largely Shiite Iraq. For a while, these majority populations were quiescent, held in check by the promise of patronage and threat of violence.
Then came the American occupation of Iraq and the Arab Spring — a one-two punch that broke the Arab order. The state shattering lifted the veil to expose the sectarianism that was frozen at the heart of these states, which provided the competing sects with incentive to fight over the spoils. Shiites in Iraq and Bahrain, and Sunnis in Syria, welcomed the promise of change. But not so their Sunni and Alawite compatriots who stood to lose power — and face retribution.
Since the Iraq War, sectarian interests have come to dominate the political discourse in the region, as a chain of events has replicated the competition that started in Iraq in 2003. At the height of the Arab Spring in 2011, public opinion in the region was divided over which crisis was more important and which suppression of dissent a greater travesty. Sunnis in Cairo and Riyadh were up in arms over the butchery unfolding in Syria, while Shiites in Baghdad and Tehran decried the violent quelling of protest in Bahrain. Even in nominally secular Turkey, sectarian fissures surfaced as the country’s majority Sunnis sympathized with Syria’s opposition and the minority Alevis (distantly related to Shiism) with Syria’s Alawite regime.
Little surprise then that rulers looked to sectarianism to defeat popular demands for change. Manipulating sectarian interests divided opposition movements and shattered the hope for cosmopolitan politics, separating Alawites from Sunnis in Syria, and Sunnis from Shiites in Bahrain and Iraq. In every case, the ruling regime was successful in garnering sectarian support, at home and in the region. But, of course, this strategy of survival came at a high cost.
Whereas Bahrain successfully snuffed out its Shiite-led opposition movement, Syria and Iraq collapsed into civil war, which in turn paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State — a violent sectarian army that has fashioned itself as the sword of the Sunnis pointed at the heart of the Shiite world and the West.
The changing sectarian landscape is happening in the context of an intense great-power rivalry in the Middle East, of the kind that once raged in Europe. American insouciance toward the region, combined with the collapse of the Arab order, has pitted the region’s main actors — Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — against one another. Each is rushing to protect its equities and further its interests in the vacuum of power that has emerged across the Middle East. Saudi leaders say that two things they won’t compromise on are their faith and their security. The first they aver is threatened by Shiism, the second by Iran.
The nuclear deal only added fuel to the fire. Saudi Arabia interpreted the agreement as an American tilt toward Iran — one that would not only bring gains to Tehran, but also to the Shiite side of the ledger in the Middle East. Hence Sunnis have had to redouble their efforts to block Shiite gains. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become more confrontational since the Iran nuclear deal, emphasizing the sectarian divide. Rising tensions have been playing themselves out in clashes over the future of Syria; the execution of Saudi dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr; and in the escalation of the civil war in Yemen.
Both sides in this conflict are now stuck in a zero-sum sectarian battle, having mobilized their masses with religious fervor. But the numbers game favors Sunnis, and the sectarian fervor has rallied tens of millions to Saudi Arabia’s side, winning domestic favor for the monarchy in leading the fight against Iran and its Shiite allies.
Sectarian interests are now too tightly interwoven with regional politics high and low to subside anytime soon. Both Shiite and Sunni leaders see political interests in exploiting this divide, taking advantage of anxieties on the ground to defend their rule and protect their interests. This is a replay of nationalist politics of the kind familiar to the West, during the prelude to World War I or, more recently, in the Balkans. That history does not bode well. There is no true effort among the Middle East’s rulers to close the divide, heal the wounds, and put forth a shared vision of an inclusive future. So all that is left is a winner-takes-all scramble.
Iran and Saudi Arabia will not go to war directly, but they will continue to fight in every theater of conflict in the region to protect and further their interests — and those opportunities are only proliferating. Neither side thinks it can afford to lose, and gain is measured by giving its adversary a black eye. Victory in one conflict by one side will only encourage the other to compensate by getting the upper hand elsewhere. Iran has won Iraq and now (to Saudi eyes) looks to be also winning over Washington. Riyadh may have intervened to stop Tehran’s influence in Bahrain, but not so in Syria — which in turn has led to Saudi intervention in Yemen.
One might hope that the cost of confrontation will soon exhaust the regional rivals. Both countries face serious economic problems, and their energies are better spent on domestic reform than on regional confrontation. But neither side looks ready to entertain that wisdom. Each thinks it can win the region — or at least, improve its position before settling for a new equilibrium.
The West’s focus in the Middle East is, for now, on the Islamic State and the war in Syria. But that’s just a slice of the wider conflict. Even a successful end to the war in Syria would not end the Saudi-Iranian rivalry or bridge the sectarian divide. Moreover, the United States needs close cooperation with Shiite Iraq and Iran to defeat the Islamic State, which would only unsettle Riyadh. Peace talks in Vienna are approaching, but it is difficult to see how either Washington or Moscow could overcome Saudi Arabia’s uncompromising mood to get to a diplomatic settlement in Syria. A stable Yemen is an even more distant prospect. Without regional consensus supporting the peace, sectarian tensions lying just below the surface could ignite new conflagrations.
So where will this end? The Middle East needs a new order. But the fundamentals in the region have changed. Shiites have again found their voice and are claiming their place in regional politics. The wall of containment keeping Iran out of the region has broken down — it appears, with American acquiescence. Saudi Arabia and many Sunnis yearn for the pre-2003 Middle East, but it is time to adjust to the new reality: a Middle East that is more Shiite, with greater Iranian say in its affairs. Not until the region comes to terms with this new political equilibrium will there be peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia. And only then can we talk about tamping the fires of sectarianism.
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