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Iran-Saudi Conflict: Do We Have a Dog in this Fight?

By: José Azel - Jan 25, 2016, 10:05 am

EspañolFollowing the execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shiite cleric, and the subsequent demonstrations and burning of the Saudi embassy in Iran, tensions between the two countries have escalated. The region is now facing a multinational sectarian-cultural conflict. For most of us, only tangentially familiar with Middle Eastern politics, the root causes of the conflict are nearly impenetrable.

The US administration also appears clueless. WikiLeaks documents quoted then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reporting that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

Her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, explained US-accelerated arms delivery to Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict by stating that “we’re not going to step away from our alliances and our friendships.” Huh?

The Iran-Saudi crisis presents the United States with significant foreign-policy challenges. In colloquial terms, the most basic question is: do we have a dog in this fight?

To begin with, the current crisis is only the latest episode of a rivalry that dates from the seventh century. Today, the rivalry has sectarian, ethnic, governance, and geopolitical components.

The sectarian element for the tensions is along Sunni-Shia lines. Saudi Arabia is a conservative “Wahhabi” Islamic Kingdom, 90 percent Sunni, with a tradition of close ties with the West. Iran is a Twelver, 90 percent Shia, republic founded by the anti-Western 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The original split between Sunnis and Shiites occurred in 632 A.D. soon after the death of the prophet Muhammad. It concerned the rightful successor to the prophet. The two sentence oversimplification of the dispute is that most of Muhammad’s followers wanted the community to determine who would succeed him. A smaller group thought that leadership should stay within the family.

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Iran began to attack and undermine the religious legitimacy of the Saudi Kingdom. For its part, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has been outspoken against the “heretic” Shiite dogma.

The cultural basis for the animosity follows Arab-Persian rivalries. It appears Persians will never forget their loss to the Arabs in the Battle of Qadisiyya 1,400 years ago. This engagement shaped the national psyche of both cultures and may underlie Persian racism against Arabs. The battle is believed to have been a decisive engagement between the Arab and Persian armies that resulted in the Islamic conquest of Persia.

The governance disputes stand on the Iranian principle of “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists,” which extends a supra-national jurisdiction to a Supreme Islamic Jurist over all Muslims regardless of nationality. The Saudi monarchy, in contrast, relies on tribal religious leaders that pledge allegiance to the monarchy provided it follows Islamic sharia law.

Add to all this competing hegemonic aspirations for leadership of the Islamic world, and we can begin to decipher the present day Iran-Saudi geopolitical brawl.

Both regimes exert near-totalitarian repressive control, and abuse human rights with abandon. Saudi Arabia has been a putative ally of the United States for decades, and US officials inexplicably often exhibit obsequiousness towards the oppressive kingdom. Iran spews anti-American rhetoric at every opportunity.

Yet, the Obama administration recently concluded a very controversial, and arguably unwise, nuclear treaty with Iran which, from the Saudi point of view, means a monumental loss of influence for Saudi Arabia. The deal enriches Iran and enhances its ability to continue its aggressive foreign policy for hegemony in the region and in the Islamic world.

In an apparent foreign-policy balancing act, it has been reported that “administration officials are promising a major strengthening of the US commitment to Saudi Arabia … possibly including a nuclear commitment to their security.”

This foreign-policy haziness does not bode well for US national interests. Given the history of US foreign-policy failures in this complex region, a better approach may be, what I call, the doctrine of “strategic engagement and tactical neglect.” By this I mean a policy that unabashedly gives voice to individual freedoms and democratic values, but refrains from overt meddling.

Unfortunately, the administration seems to have chosen the opposite approach. When dealing with despotic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Cuba, the administration embraces the despots and refrains from being the voice of freedom.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.