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The Sunni-Shi'a War
Saudi-Iran Update: Qatar Takes Saudi Arabia’s Side

As tensions escalate between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Middle East following the execution of Nimr al-Nimr and the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Iran, Qatar has joined the cavalcade of countries cutting diplomatic relations with Iran in solidarity with Riyadh. This is a notable development, because the Qataris are usually not considered close allies of the Saudis. Earlier this decade, the Qataris worked with Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood to build a separate power base that could rival Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Sunni world. In particular, the contest between the two blocs came to a head over the question of who should rule Egypt: Saudi- and U.A.E.-backed generals or the Muslim Brotherhood. Recently, though, Qatar has been moving, however fractiously, into the Saudi camp. As with the news that Sudan (once a major Iranian ally) is taking Riyadh’s side in this dispute, the Qatari announcement should be seen as a sign that the Sunni-Shi’a conflict is overtaking other regional dynamics, and sectarian battle lines are hardening.

Speaking of (non-metaphorical) battle lines, Tehran has also called out Saudi Arabia for intentionally targeting its embassy in Sana’a, amid some of the most intense bombing to hit the Yemeni capital to date. Though subsequent accounts from observers on the ground said that the embassy itself had not been harmed, and that rockets had merely fallen near it, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said that several guards had been hurt. Saudi officials said that the rocket salvo was targeting militants who were using abandoned embassies in the city for cover, while Iran was clearly suspicious that the strike was meant as retaliation for the ransacking of Riyadh’s own embassy in Tehran over the weekend.

Finally, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister arrived in Pakistan today to try to get the Sunni-majority nuclear power to take sides in the conflict. Pakistan, which has a sizable and restive Shi’a minority of its own, has been trying to position itself as a mediator in the fight, citing deep links to both countries. The Pakistani ambivalence likely comes down to the fact that it has, de facto, two governments: the elected civilians who run things day-to-day, and the military- and intelligence-dominated deep state, which has strong ties to the Saudis. It is widely, and likely correctly, thought that if things ever really hit the fan between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Saudis will call on the Pakistani military for major military assistance and/or nuclear weapons. As we have noted before, this would be the worst of all outcomes, the last thing either Pakistan or the Middle East needs.

Those who expect these sectarian tensions to die down of their own accord don’t understand the nature of religiously fueled rivalries. Unless the Obama Administration or other powers act to change the regional dynamics, expect to see Sunni-Shi’a battle lines continue to harden, and the risk of major conflict continue to grow, as 2016 wears on.

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  • lukelea

    “Unless the Obama Administration or other powers act to change the regional dynamics . . .” Right.

    • Fat_Man

      Like a dray horse running in the Kentucky Derby. Ain’t it?

    • Jim__L

      Except, Iraq was majority Shia.

  • Kevin

    I wonder if the Saudis will be able to shift to an Arab nationalist appeal against the Iranians. While we seem to be moving into an age of religion rather than nationalism (at least in that part of the world), nationalism could improve the Saudi’s strategic problems (potentially uniting their population, including the Shiites of the eastern provinces, helping peel away Iraq’s Shiite Arabs from Iran’s orbit and stirring up trouble among the Iranians Arabs and other minorities).

  • rheddles

    How long can we keep this going?

  • Andrew Allison

    I suspect that the Saudi rocket strike near the Iranian embassy was a warning not to repeat the attack on theirs.

  • Anthony

    In foreign affairs, it is important to distinguish between the gestures that are made and the underlying issues that are driving them. In that regard as 2016 wears on, George Friedman offers:

    “The underlying issue between Saudi Arabia and Iran is often represented as a conflict between two Muslim sects, Shiite and Sunni. That is certainly part of the equation, but the fundamental tension goes back to the question of the name of the Gulf which separates them. Iran calls it the Persian Gulf. The Saudis call it the Arabian Gulf. That issue was quite important in the 1970s when the Sunni-Shiite was dormant.”

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Western Culture and its Modern Civilization have a problem with the backward and barbaric Islamic Culture, in that it is continuously spawning Jihadists. With this in mind, a hot and bitter conflict between the Sunni Jihadists and the Shiite Jihadists which consumed all their resources, as well as all the continuously spawning Jihadists of both flavors, would be good for Western Culture, as innocents in the west would be protected as little or no resources would be left over for murdering them.

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