Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How America Contributed to the Saudi-Iran Flare-Up

How America Contributed to the Saudi-Iran Flare-Up

The flare-up between Saudi Arabia and Iran involves far more than another outburst of Shiite-Sunni rivalry, which dates back to the seventh century Battle of Karbala, though no doubt that ancient feud fuels resentment on both sides of this basic Muslim divide. Those who argue that it is no longer relevant are hard put to explain, for example, Sunni violence against Shiites in Pakistan, or long-standing tensions between Sunni and Shiite Arabs in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Nevertheless, it is the competition for leadership in the Middle East in general, and in the Gulf in particular, that is driving Tehran and Riyadh to the brink of war.

Religion has not been the primary factor behind Iran’s long-standing efforts to achieve hegemony in the Gulf. It was the forces of the secular Shah who in 1971 seized the islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs from Sharjah just as the United Arab Emirates was being formed. The Shah’s troops also supported the Sultan of Oman’s ultimately successful effort to put down the 14-year Dhofar rebellion in 1975; that rebellion had initially been supported by Saudi Arabia.

The fall of the Shah and the emergence of a new clerical regime in Iran in no way curtailed Tehran’s ambitions. Iran continued to claim Bahrain as its 14th province. It became Hafez al Assad’s leading regional ally, and was the post-1979 residence of Hasan Mahdi al-Shirazi, the Iraqi-born but ethnically Persian cleric who had declared the Assad family’s Alawi sect to be a branch of Shiite Islam. Most significantly, Iran became a major sponsor of regional and international terrorism. It was an early and consistent supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon; among its assassination targets were Saudi diplomats. This latter practice was revived once more when Iran sponsored an attempt on the life of Adel al-Jubeir, then the Saudi Ambassador to Washington in 2011.

During the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran responded to Saudi financial support for Baghdad by threatening the kingdom — as well as Kuwait, which was also financing the Iraqi operation — and by having its aircraft violate Saudi airspace. The two countries broke off relations after an incident during the 1987 Hajj, when Saudi security units fired on Iranian demonstrators and killed several hundred of them. In response to a Saudi ban on Hajj rituals, Iranian demonstrators ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, much as they have done in the past few days.

Memories are very long in the Gulf, and in many ways, the current crisis between Iran the Saudi-led Sunni Gulf states is a…

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