The furor over the alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States has made one point clear: The most important strategic divide in the Middle East today is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At issue is religion and power. Iran’s clerical rulers see their regime as the product of the first and only Islamic revolution, and the true vanguard of Islamic politics in the Muslim world.
For it’s part, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam; the Saudi king carries the title of the keeper of the two holiest shrines in Islam (those of Mecca and Medina). The Saudi monarchy was also born of a puritanical religious revolt and continues to see itself as the true standard bearer of Islam.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two most avowedly religious states in the Middle East. But they are not of the same creed. At issue between them is not which is more religious and truer to the spirit of Islamic law, but rather whose Islam is the true faith. The majority of Iranians are followers of Shiism, the smaller of the Islam’s two main branches, and Saudis are predominantly followers of Sunnism.
Since the Iranian revolution the two have competed over leadership of the Muslim world and claims over who speaks for Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini denounced the Saudi monarchy in his will, and Saudi clerics have reciprocated with fatwas declaring Shias as heathen. The rivalry between the two has divided Islamists into warring camps. In Pakistan, it ignited a sectarian war that continues to rage and over the past three decades has claimed thousands of lives.
The Iraq war transferred power from Iraq’s minority Sunni regime to its majority Shia population. That emboldened Iran and angered Saudi Arabia, which continues to support that country’s Sunnis and shun its Shia leaders.
The same pattern has since unfolded in Lebanon where Iranian-backed Shia Hezbollah is now accused of murdering that country’s popular Saudi-backed Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and more recently, of ousting his son from office and replacing him with a Sunni politician of its own choosing.
The familiar narrative of the Arab Spring is its call for democracy, but behind that hopeful dynamic lies the specter of more Saudi-Iranian competition, this time to decide what comes after faltering dictatorships. Saudis drew a line in the sand when Bahrain’s Shia protesters looked poised to topple the Sunni monarchy in that island kingdom, and Tehran and Riyadh are now supporting opposite sides in Syria.
After Iraq, the West took refuge in the false hope that the worst of Middle East’s sectarian conflicts were over. But the Washington plot shows that the fundamental divide at the heart of Islam continues to shape regional politics. This is a struggle shaped by identity that is defined by sect; but it is not a battle waged in books or at mosques and seminaries. It is now high politics intermingled with rivalry between states. Iraq’s sectarian war was a paroxysm of violence; the Saudi-Iranian rivalry burns on a much slower fuse. This is battle over who garners the political power of Islam; but also which claimant to leadership of the Muslim world and the sect of Islam that it represents, will decide the future of the Middle East.
Vali Nasr is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. From 2009 to 2011, he was an advisor to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. He is the author of many books, including, “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future.” Follow him on Twitter @vali_nasr.