Beginning with the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 and further developing with the Arab Spring, the Middle East has faced the emergence of a cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. When looking at this complex region and the widespread and diverse actors at play within it, many observers point to the long Sunni-Shi’a split within Islam as the root of the conflict. However, reducing the new cold war in the Middle East to a manifestation of an endemic Sunni-Shi’a sectarian divide is a historical misrepresentation and a gross oversimplification. Rather, the exploitation of sectarianism is just a tool in the arsenal of leaders who are looking to build power bases in order to expand their regional hegemony, rather than serving as the underlying cause of the conflict itself.
While rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia predates the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the current cold war has its roots in the fall of Saddam Hussein and the disruption of the balance of power that this created in the Middle East. Later, local, national and regional developments only served to exacerbate tensions. The year 2005 in particular witnessed a turning point due to the "emergence of [Iranian and Saudi] leaders who adopted more activist, muscular foreign policies, which markedly changed the tone of the bilateral relationship."1 Regional instability arising from events such as the 2006 Lebanese War and the Arab Spring then provided more space for the implementation of these hardline foreign policies. As the conflict develops, sectarian rhetoric is increasingly used and exploited by the two sides.
It is therefore unsurprising that among the media a popular narrative has arisen that the cold war in the Middle East originates from the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Even some scholars have taken up this mantra, such as Ze’ev Maghen, chair of the Department of History at the University of Bar-Ilhan University. When discussing the driving factors behind Iran’s regional foreign policy, Maghen claims that:
- The true and lasting enemies of the Shi’a are…the Sunnis. Shi’ism is anti-Sunnism. It originated in the past, and has subsisted up to the present time…in order to seek thethorough eradication of the Sunni system and all that it stands for2.
The Sunni-Shi’a divide is thus often presented as an ancient and innate conflict which continues to play out in the region until today.
However, pointing to religious sectarianism as the root of conflict within the Middle East is a historical misrepresentation. The assumption that conflict between the two groups is inevitable overlooks numerous instances of Sunni-Shi’a cooperation and harmony throughout history. While there certainly have been periods of Sunni-Shi’a confrontation, the two Muslim sects often lived together peacefully. For example, "during the past century, their religious scholars have sought to create accord on the basis of the many elements that unite them within the embrace of the totality of the Islamic tradition."3 Indeed, even in areas in which sectarianism dominates contemporary politics, such as Iraq, people from different religious and ethnic backgrounds historically lived together and even intermarried4. Thus, it should not be assumed that Sunni-Shi’a conflict has always been the rule in the past and inevitably forms the backbone of regional policy.
Describing the current Middle Eastern cold war in terms of the Sunni-Shi’a divide also oversimplifies the situation. The oft-described "Shi’ite crescent" of Iran and its regional partners does not fit neatly within this concept. For example, not all groups which Iran supports are Shi’ite, such as Hamas, a Sunni national group. Even among Iran’s nominally Shi’ite partners, the religious label is sometimes more convenient than strictly accurate. The Houthi rebels in Yemen are part of the Zaydi sect, which is theologically closest to the Sunni among the different Shi’ite denominations5, and many mainstream Shi’a scholars consider the Alawis in Syria (another group with which Iran has partnered) to be a heretical offshoot, rather than an orthodox Shi’a branch6. The use of "Shi’a" as a blanket term for one side within the cold war therefore is not a particularly accurate representation.
Thus, depicting Sunni-Shi’ite conflict as a rule is historically questionable, and reducing the current cold war to such lines is overly simplistic. The weakening of states within the region, rather than sectarianism, led to the conflict. Politically weak countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen are now open to outside interference, driving competition between regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, who seek to extend their hegemony through domestic client partnerships7. To this end, shared ideologies and identities are used to strengthen relationships with these clients8. For example, Iran often blames Saudi Arabia for secretly supporting terrorist attacks against Iraqi Shiite pilgrims as an attempt to limit Saudi influence among the Shi’ite majority population of Iraq, a country which falls within Iran’s perceived natural sphere of influence9. The exploitation of societal differences thus serves as a tool to build power bases and contain the hegemony of a rival. While this may bring about short-term political gain, it comes at the cost of increased tensions and greater potential for military conflict in the long run,making the manipulation of differences between the Sunni and Shi’ a dangerous practice10.
This exploitation of different identities in order to establish power bases in opposition to an "other" is by no means a new phenomenon, as shown by numerous historical examples from which comparisons may be drawn. Much like the contemporary cold war in the Middle East, the war between the Ottomans and Safavids at the beginning of the 16th century featured strong religious sectarian overtones. The Sunni Ottomans and the Shi’ite Safavids were drawn into military confrontation while seeking to defend and expand their hegemony in eastern Anatolia, the unstable frontier between the two rising powers. Religious differences fueled the ideological divide, and Sultan Selim went as far as declaring a fatwa which legitimized the killing of Shi’a "heretics."11 Yet despite employing far more religious rhetoric than the modern cold war, this conflict was also not solely reducible to the Sunni-Shi’a divide between the two states. The Shi’a rulers of the Gilan region of Iran allied themselves with the Ottomans against their Shi’a neighbors, and the Sunni Ottoman sultan tolerated the local moderate Shi’a population who did not rebelliously ally themselves with the Safavids12. Then, just as now, religious differences were just one of many factors at play in the efforts of powerful states to further political
interests, solidify state legitimacy, and spread regional hegemony.
It is tempting to look at the sectarian rhetoric that is employed in Middle Eastern conflicts such as these and to reduce them to solely another manifestation of the age-old divide between the Sunni and Shi’a. However, to do so forgoes a nuanced understanding of history as well as contemporary politics.The Middle East is a diverse and complex region, and the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is certainly no exception. Sectarianism is present within the new Middle Eastern cold war, but pointing to it as the root of its emergence is simplistic and inaccurate.
1 Frederic Wehrey, "Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry," Current History 110, no. 740 (December 2011): 353.
2 Ze’ev Maghen, "Unity or Hegemony? Iranian Attitudes to the Sunni-Shi’i Divide" in Sunna and Shi’a in History,ed. Ofra Bengio and Meir Litvak, (New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 189.
3 Seyyd Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization, (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), 14.
4 Ariel I. Ahram, "Republic of Iraq", in The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North Africa, ed. Mark Gasiorowski and Sean L. Yom (New York: Routledge, 2018), 240.
5 Seyyd Hossein Nasr, Islam, 11.
11 Adel Allouche, The Origins and Development of the Ottoman-Safavid Conflict (Berlin: Klaus Schwartz Verlag, 1983), 113-114.
12 Max Scherberger, "The Confrontation between Sunni and Shi’i Empires: Ottoman-Safavid Relations between the Fourteenth and the Seventeenth Century", in The Sunna and Shi’a in History, eds. Ofra Bengio and Meir Litvak (New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 55-57.
6 F. Gregory Gause III, Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War (Washington, DC: The Brookings
Institution, 2014), 5.
7 Ibid, 8.
8 Ibid, 4.
9 Wehrey, "Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry," 355.
10 F. Gregory Gause III, Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East (New York: The Council on Foreign Relations, 2011), 21.
Allouche, Adel. The Origins and Development of the Ottoman-Safavid Conflict. Berlin: Klaus Schwartz
Bengio, Ofra and Meir Litvak, eds. Sunna and Shi’a in History. New York, Palgrave MacMillan, 2011.
Gasiorowski, Mark and Sean L. Yom, eds. The Government and Politics of the Middle East and North
Africa. New York: Routledge, 2018.
Gause III, F. Gregory. Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 2014.
Gause III, F. Gregory. Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East. New York: The Council on Foreign Relations, 2011.
Hossein Nasr, Seyyd. Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.
Wehrey, Frederic. "Uprisings Jolt the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry." Current History 110, no. 740 (December 2011): 352-357.