They sometimes pretend otherwise, but the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Iran hate each other. Both are heavily influenced by theocratic impulses, and their particular ideologies are at war.
In short, the Saudi government uses its oil wealth to export Sunni fundamentalist Wahhabism, and Iran’s ayatollahs use their oil proceeds to export Shia-Khomeinism. And while the rot of political Islam runs deep in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s mutual hatred is a major catalyst for regional chaos.
It’s a uniquely problematic relationship. While Iraqi politics are more complicated than “Sunni vs. Shia,” Iran and Saudi Arabia embrace explicitly sectarian worldviews and competing zero-sum assumptions about power. Emphasizing this extremism, Iran in 2011 attempted to blow up a crowded restaurant in Washington, D.C. It did so because it wanted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador. Think about that for a second. Iran was willing to commit an act of war against the United States in order to kill one man, who wasn’t even an American.
The Saudi–Iranian relationship ebbs and flows in ferocity. Today, it is boiling over. At issue is Saudi Arabia’s death sentence against Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. A longtime critic of Saudi Arabia’s restriction of Shia rights, al-Nimr is profoundly unpopular with the House of Saud. Last Wednesday, he was sentenced to death on insurrection charges.
As a Saudi preacher in the vein of Khomeinism, al-Nimr is held in high regard in Iran, which has reacted furiously to his sentence. In addition to threatening Saudi Arabia with retaliation if the sentence is fulfilled, Iran has mobilized a global media campaign in al-Nimr’s favor and has also apparently detained a number of Sunni clerics.
While it’s true that Saudi Arabia discriminates against its minority Shia population, Iran is simply using al-Nimr as a pretext for its broader anger. Blaming Saudi Arabia for the rise of the Islamic State, Iran is increasingly furious about sporadic ISIS attacks along the central Iraq–Iran border. In turn, Saudi Arabia is highly concerned by the looming advent of an Iranian nuclear weapon and by Iran’s sponsorship of Assad’s genocide. Reciprocal Saudi–Iranian hatred is overflowing into policy reactions.
That makes this a significant new problem for America. It fuels a growing security nightmare. As I argued last Tuesday, exploiting U.S. hesitation, Iran is re-consolidating its sectarian influence in Baghdad. Indeed, on Saturday, Iran scored a major victory with Iraq’s appointment of a pro-Iranian interior minister. That’s a deeply concerning development. After all, during the bloody years of 2005–2006 in Iraq, Iran used the interior ministry to wage terrorism against Sunnis. Now, seeking to force Sunnis to its own banner, the Islamic State will hope that the interior minister initiates new abuses.
It gets worse. If Iran unleashes its sectarian proxies against Iraqi Sunnis, Saudi Arabia will likely respond with its own support for unpredictable Sunni terrorist groups. This is no small issue. In recent years (and in contrast to Qatar), Saudi Arabia has restricted its support for the most extreme Salafi-jihadist groups. But beyond all other considerations, it’s fixated on preventing Iran’s empowerment.
America is facing a powder keg of regional politicized sectarianism. If it blows, the Middle East could go up in flames.
— Tom Rogan is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute, is based in Washington, D.C., and tweets @TomRtweets.