On Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Muslim rulers beheaded their country’s leading Shia Muslim cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, on charges of seeking “foreign meddling” in the kingdom.
On Saturday, an angry crowd of Iranians – all Shia Muslims, of course – attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. And Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, put a cartoon on his website comparing Saudi Arabia’s head-chopping orgy on New Year’s Day (46 other executions on the same day) to the mass executions carried out by the Sunni extremist ‘Islamic State’ group.
So on Sunday, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran – and all the pundits started talking about the Sunni-Shia “war of religion” that is about to engulf the Middle East.
This raises two questions. First, what would a Sunni-Shia war of religion actually look like? And second, has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses?
The first question is best answered by looking at the history of the Christian wars of religion, ca. 1520-1660.
The Muslim world now, like “Christendom” in the 16th century, is made up of many independent countries. And the current phase of the Muslim wars of religion is being fought out between Shias and Sunnis in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, just as the first phase of the Christian wars of religion was fought out mainly between Catholics and Protestants in individual countries.
From the start of the conflict in Europe, however, each European state tried to help its co-believers in neighbouring countries as well, and alliances were increasingly shaped by religious considerations. In the second phase, these alliances dragged most of Europe into the catastrophic Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), fought mostly in the middle of Europe but involving armies from as far apart as Sweden and Spain.
The main battleground, Germany, lost between one-third and one-half of its population. Nobody won, of course, and in the very long run everybody just lost interest in the question. But it was a very great waste of lives, time and money.
The Muslim world is already caught up in the first phase of a comparable process, but it is not condemned to go the whole distance. One big difference is that the Sunni-Shia split is ancient – more than 1,350 years old – whereas the Catholic-Protestant split was new and still full of passion at the time of the Christian wars.
More than 99 percent of today’s Muslims were simply born Sunni or Shia, whereas many 16th-century Christians had made a conscious choice about their religion. The current killings in the Muslim world are mostly driven by state policy, so maybe Muslims will not throw away a couple of generations following the same foolish, bloody road that the Christians took 500 years ago.
Those who live at the geographical extremes of the Muslim world – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh in the East; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa and even Egypt in the West – will certainly not suffer the same fate, for there are only tiny Shia minorities in these countries. But for those who live in the heart of the Muslim world, from Yemen to Turkey and from Lebanon to Iran, the future may be much darker.
And so to the second question: has everybody in the Middle East taken leave of their senses? Not exactly, but many players have lost sight of the bigger picture.
George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed the sectarian demon in the region. The “Arab Spring” of 2011 frightened the region’s dictatorships and absolute monarchies into increased repression and greater reliance on appeals to sectarian loyalty. Then King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died a year ago, and the kingdom spun out completely.
Saudi Arabia under its previous monarchs was very cautious and conservative in its foreign policy. It subsidised various extreme Sunni groups in other countries, but it clung tightly to its American alliance and never engaged directly in adventures abroad
The new Saudi king, Salman, is 80 years old and infirm, so in practice most decisions are made by his nephew, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef (aged 56), or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (aged only 30). There is intense competition between the two men for the succession to the throne, and the decisions coming out of Riyadh have been much bolder than ever before.
The past nine months have seen a major Saudi Arabian military intervention against the Shia side in the Yemeni civil war, the creation of a Saudi-led alliance of almost all the Sunni-majority Arab states, and now the execution of a Shia leader in Saudi Arabia that was clearly calculated to cause a diplomatic breach with Iran.
It’s just dynastic politics, in other words, not some inevitable geopolitical juggernaut. But it was similar dynastic politics half a millennium ago that triggered the worst phase of the Christian wars of religion.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The Muslim…ago”)
The thing to bear in mind about Tuesday’s deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) is that without it Iran could get nuclear weapons whenever it wants in a short tme. It has the technologies for enriching uranium, it could make the actual bombs any time it likes (every major country knows how), and the sanctions against Iran could not get much worse than they are now.
If you don’t like the current deal, and you really believe that Iran is hell-bent on getting nuclear weapons, then your only remaining option is massive air strikes on Iran. Not even the Republican Party stalwarts in the US Congress are up for committing the US Air Force to that folly, and Israel without American support simply couldn’t do it on its own.
Then what’s left? Nothing but the deal. It doesn’t guarantee that Iran can never get nuclear weapons. It does guarantee that Iran could not break the agreement without giving everybody else at least a year to respond before the weapons are operational. Sanctions would snap back into place automatically, and anybody who thinks air strikes are a cool idea would have plenty of time to carry them out.
So the deal will survive. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu can fulminate about how it is a “an historic mistake” that will give Tehran “a sure path to nuclear weapons,” but he cannot stop it.
Netanyahu is obsessive about Iran, but even his own intelligence services do not believe that Tehran has actually been working on nuclear weapons in the past decade. The Israeli prime minister has burned all his bridges with US President Barack Obama, and his Republican allies in the US Congress cannot stop the deal either.
John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said that the deal will “hand a dangerous regime billions of dollars in sanctions relief while paving the way for a nuclear Iran,” and he can probably muster a majority in Congress against it. (Congress, as Washington insiders put it, is “Israeli-occupied territory.”) But he cannot muster the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override Obama’s inevitable veto.
There will be a 60-day delay while Congress debates the issue, but this deal will go through in the end. So far, so good – but this is not happening in a vacuum. What are the broader implications for Middle Eastern politics?
Ever since the victory of the Islamic revolution 36 years ago, Iran and the United States have been bitter enemies. They have not suddenly become allies, but they are already on good speaking terms. Since almost all of America’s allies in the Arab world see Iran as a huge strategic threat, they are appalled by the prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement.
That is not a done deal yet. While Iran strongly supports Bashar al Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria, Washington still advocates Assad’s overthrow and arms some of the “moderate” rebels. It even supports Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels who now control most of Yemen, and publicly accepts the Saudi claim that the Houthis are mere pawns who are being armed and incited to revolt by Iran.
But nobody in the White House, the State Department or the Pentagon really believes that the civil war in Yemen is an Iranian plot. Very few believe any longer that Assad can be overthrown in Syria without handing the country over to the Islamist fanatics who dominate the insurgency there. And the most powerful force among those fanatics is “Islamic State”, whose troops are already being bombed by the United States in both Syria and Iraq.
The highest US priority in the Middle East now is to prevent Iraq and Syria from falling into the hands of Islamic State and its equally extreme rival, the Nusra Front. Iran is giving both the Syrian and the Iraqi governments military support that is essential to their survival, so there is obviously the potential for closer US-Iranian cooperation here.
By contrast Saudi Arabia and Turkey, currently America’s two most important allies in the region, are pouring money and weapons into the Nusra Front in Syria, which is why it has been winning so many battles against the Assad regime in recent months. The prospect of an Islamist regime in power in Damascus is acceptable to Riyadh and Ankara, but it is deeply unwelcome in Washington.
So yes, a grand realignment of American alliances in the Middle East is theoretically possible now that the long cold war between the US and Iran is over. In practice, however, it is most unlikely to happen. The long-standing military and economic ties between Washington and its current allies will probably triumph over cold strategic logic, and American policy in the Middle East will continue to be the usual muddle.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Iraq”)
Once upon a time big military operations were given obscure names so the enemy wouldn’t guess what the plan was. The German plan for the invasion of France in 1940 was called “Fall Gelb” (Case Yellow); the American counter-attack in the Korean War that recovered Seoul was “Operation Chromite”. But then the PR guys got their hands on it.
By the 21st century we were getting dramatic titles like “Desert Storm” (the 1991 Gulf war), and then aspirational ones like “Operation Iraqi Freedom”. So it was only natural, when Saudi Arabia decided to bomb the Houthi rebels who had taken over most of Yemen, to name the operation “Decisive Storm”. That sounds nice and decisive, and stormy too.
And when the Saudi military spokesman, Brig-Gen Ahmed al-Asiri, announced on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia was calling the bombing campaign off after one month and 2,415 bombing sorties, he naturally claimed that it had been a decisive victory. The bombing had destroyed 80 percent of the Houthis’ “transport lines” (colloquially known as “roads”), and they had also knocked out all of the rebels’ ballistic missiles.
Ballistic missiles? Yes, the Houthis had captured a base outside Sana’a that was home to some Scud B ground-to-ground missiles (range 300 km., vintage 1965), although they might not actually fly after half a century of Yemeni-style maintenance, and they could barely reach the country’s own borders if they did.
Anyway, the Saudi Arabian Air Force took them out, so we can all rest easier now. A Saudi billionaire has even promised to give each of the 100 Saudi pilots involved in the bombing campaign a Bentley (sort of a down-market Rolls-Royce) in gratitude for their efforts.
Moreover, said General al-Amiri, the Houthi militia is no longer in a position to harm civilians. He didn’t actually say so, but you would assume from the context and his manner that Yemen is now at peace, and the Houthis have all gone home to their own tribal territory in the north of Yemen, and Yemen’s legitimate president is safely back in Sana’a, the capital.
What’s that? The legitimate president is still in exile in Saudi Arabia? And the Houthis haven’t gone home either? They still control most of Yemen right down to Aden. And the remainder of the country is now ruled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, except for the bits run by its even nastier Islamist rival, ISIS. How is that a victory?
Have some pity for poor General al-Asiri. He had to say something positive; he works for the government. But the one scene that defines the event was a television studio in Sana’a where a Yemeni news anchor was running a clip of Asiri’s speech. When the anchor comes back on the screen and picks up his script, he can’t say anything. He’s trying to, but he’s corpsing.
He giggles, he snorts, he fans himself with his script, he puts his head on the desk, he completely loses it. And then the people behind the camera start laughing too. This is known in PR-speak as “abject failure”. When you are trying to convince your audience that your bankruptcy was actually a canny tactical move, you do not want them to collapse in hysterical laughter.
What can have possessed Saudi Arabia to launch this foredoomed aerial campaign, and rope in practically every other Sunni Arab state to send a few planes along to help? Mostly, it was simple paranoia. The Saudi Arabian authorities have convinced themselves that the “Shias” (by which they usually mean Iran) are on the offensive, and gobbling up any Arab territories where they can find fellow Shias. The Houthis are Shias. Q.E.D.
There was a lot of talk about Iran supplying arms to the Houthis at the start of the bombing campaign, and the Saudis managed to get almost every other Sunni Arab counry to send a couple of planes along to help. At the end of it, General al-Asiri didn’t mention the Iranians at all. Maybe they all went home (although it would be hard to leave with all the airports shut and the coast under naval blockade). Or maybe they were never there.
Bigger countries have made bigger mistakes and paid quite small prices: the United States invasion of Iraq, for example. Saudi Arabia won’t pay a big price either, for it appears that the grown-ups in Riyadh have intervened after a month and turned the military machine off. No follow-up ground invasion, just a smooth transition to “Operation Restore Hope”, the humanitarian aid they would have provided after they’d won, if they had won.
Saudi Arabia is well out of it, and as outcomes go, it’s less bad than many. Just a bit of advice. Stop using those American-style names for operations. When the United States started using them is when it started fighting dumb wars, and losing them.
STOP PRESS: On Wednesday, the Saudis started bombing again, but just a bit, they said. Oh, well…
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Anyway…efforts”; and “There was…there”)
“This (Arab) nation, in its darkest hour, has never faced a challenge to its existence and a threat to its identity like the one it’s facing now,” said General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, now the ruler of Egypt.
And you wanted to say: Not the Crusades? Not the Mongol invasion? Not even the European conquest of the entire Arab world between 1830 and 1920? You really think the gravest threat ever to Arab existence and identity is a bunch of tribal warriors in Yemen?
Sisi was addressing the Arab League summit in Cairo last week that created a new pan-Arab military force to confront this threat, so overheated rhetoric was standard issue, but still…. The air forces of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbours are blasting Yemen from the air, and there is talk of Saudi Arabian, Egyptian and even Pakistani troops invading on the ground, but it all smells more of panic than of strategic calculation.
The panic is due to the fact that the status quo that has prevailed in the Middle East since approximately 1980 is at an end. Iran is back, and there is great dismay in the palaces of Riyadh – especially because it was Saudi Arabia’s great friend and ally, the United States, who finally set Iran free.
It was the agreement in Lausanne last Thursday between Iran and the group of 5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) that marked the end of the status quo. It was about ending the various trade embargoes against Iran in return for ten to fifteen years of strict controls on Iran’s nuclear power programme, but it will also let Iran out of the jail it has been confined to since the 1979 revolution.
Initially that revolution was quite scary for Iran’s Arab neighbours, because Iran’s example in overthrowing the local pro-Western ruler and taking a stronger stand against Israel was very popular in the Arab street. The solution was to paint Iran as a crazy terrorist state and isolate it as much as possible from the rest of the region.
The other tactic that the conservative Arab states deployed was to stress the religious gulf between Iran (which is 90 percent Shia) and the Arab countries (whose people are at least 85 percent Sunni). The doctrinal differences are real, but they do not normally make ordinary people see one another as natural enemies unless somebody (like state propaganda) works hard at it.
Those measures worked for twenty years, assisted by some really stupid Iranian actions like holding US embassy personnel hostage for 444 days, but by the end of the 20th century they were losing credibility. What saved the “quarantine” policy in 2002 was the discovery that Tehran had been working on nuclear weapons design.
The work was a revival of research that had been started during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88 (when Saddam Hussein certainly was working on nuclear weapons), and was shut down afterwards. It was restarted in 1998, almost certainly in response to the nuclear weapons tests by Pakistan, Iran’s eastern neighbour. It was Iran being stupid again, but it was probably never about Israel.
The alleged Iranian nuclear threat provided the basis for another decade and more of political quarantine and trade embargoes that have crippled Iran economically and isolated it politically. All that came to a sudden end last week with the agreement in principle in Lausanne (unless the Saudi Arabian and Israeli lobbies in Washington manage to torpedo the deal in the next few months).
Iran has about the same population and GDP as Egypt, the biggest Arab country by far, but it is far closer both to the Arab Gulf states and to the Sunni-Shia battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria (both of whose governments are closely linked to Tehran). That’s what Sisi was really talking about when he spoke of an existential threat to Arab existence and identity. However, he’s still talking through his hat.
Arab existence and identity are nowhere at risk, and Iran has no need to paint the Sunni Arab countries as enemies. The Iranian regime may be losing its support among the young (or maybe not), but it has absolutely no need to inoculate them against the attraction of Arab political systems and foreign policies by promoting an Arab-Iranian confrontation. They hold no attraction whatever for young Iranians.
As for the notion that the Houthi militia that now controls most of Yemen is really an Iranian tool (which is the main justification for the military intervention there), it is nonsense. The Houthis, like the Iranians, are Shias, but they have their own local interests to protect, and Iran has no plausible reason to want some sort of strategic foothold in Yemen. It is a safe bet that there is not now even a single armed Iranian in Yemen.
If the United States could send troops into Iraq in 2003 in the delusionary belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, then Saudi Arabia can believe that it is fighting Iranians in Yemen now. No country has a monopoly on stupidity, and Riyadh will probably have ample opportunity to regret its mistake.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7 and 9. (“And you…Yemen”; “The other…at it; and “The work…Israel”)