Shiite Iran & Sunni Saudi Arabia Each Seek Upper Hand
Trying to understand what is happening in the Middle East, how that impacts the rest of the world, and the myriad reasons thereto can be a mind-numbing exercise. Islam is arguably the primary influence, but why can’t all Muslims simply get along? There is no simple answer. A good part of the Middle East problem arises from the conflict between religion and state, more particularly, the conflict between Sunni and Shiite governments:
The last several months have brought a dramatic escalation in conflict across the Middle East, almost all of it involving tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims — which are in turn fueled by a power struggle between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for regional supremacy.
And yet, as new and disturbing as these developments may appear, the linkage of sectarian and secular interests is a return to the classic geopolitics of religion in the Middle East. During the 18th and 19th centuries, great powers presented themselves as protectors of specific religious groups to expand their influence and provoke unrest and division in rival states.
This is also the case in the current conflict. Iran’s attempts to become the global defender of Shiite Muslims and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to lead the Sunnis have become central in their battle for mastery of the Middle East, transforming the region’s international system from an order of states to an order of faiths.
The West has reacted aimlessly to this development, supporting Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq while endorsing the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen. This strategy may help establish a sort of regional status quo, but it simply manages the problem without solving it.
More important, the international community must prevent any further escalation of the struggle between their main protectors, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Solving these problems will not be easy. Religious protectorates have proven remarkably persistent; yet they have also proven too dangerous to ignore.