The Middle East has turned itself into a battlefield in which the age-old fault-line within Islam – the unbridgeable divide between the Shi’ite and Sunni traditions – is being made manifest in bloodshed and terror. The main protagonists, all professing profound allegiance to the Islamic faith, have engaged themselves in a life-and-death struggle with opponents not only outside their own camp, but sometimes within it.
The Islamic Republic of Iran, proclaiming itself the leader of Shia Islam, declares that its ultimate objective is to become the dominant religious force within the Muslim faith and the dominant political force in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, which contains within its borders the two great bastions of the faith, Mecca and Medina, is acknowledged as the custodian of the Sunni tradition of Islam.
Challenging Saudi Arabia for Sunni dominance is the Johnny-come-lately, self-styled Islamic State (IS), which claims to be on a mission to create a new caliphate to embrace first the Middle East and eventually the whole world. It demands the allegiance of every Muslim, Sunni or not.
The Saudis have been on a collision course with Iran, their powerful Shia neighbor, ever since it was revealed, more than a decade ago, that the Ayatollahs were working on a clandestine program to develop nuclear weapons. Acquiring an atom bomb would allow Iran to become the region’s undisputed superpower and facilitate the spread of its Shia principles. So Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been consistently opposed by Saudi Arabia, and the two countries are now engaged in fighting a proxy war for supremacy throughout the Arab world.
Nowhere is this bitter dispute more keenly felt than in Yemen, the chunk of territory lying at the base of Saudi Arabia and bordering the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. In 2009 Yemen became the seat of AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), an off-shoot of Osama bin Laden’s terror movement. AQAP set about provoking ethnic, tribal and social tensions until it brought the country to a state of open civil war. Meanwhile the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were smuggling weapons to the Houthi rebels, the Shia minority in the north of the country, as well as providing expert military training. The result? The Shia Houthi militia finally succeeded in seizing control of Yemen’s capital city, Sana’a. Its fall sent shock waves across countries on the Red Sea, fearful of Yemen becoming an Iranian hub. The time for action by Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Sunni world had arrived. So in mid-March, in a move that took the world by surprise, Saudi Arabia launched a series of air strikes against Houthi rebel positions in Yemen.
The situation is not without its irony. As Saudi opposition to Iran explodes into open warfare, the US is heading a coalition in support of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq, as they attempt to recapture the strategically important city of Tikrit from IS.
Nor is this all. In addition to co-operating with Iran on the battlefield, the Obama administration seems intent on fostering close relations in other ways. For many years both Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, have featured on Washington’s annual National Intelligence Estimate, which lists the numerous threats America faces around the globe. This year they do not appear. Obama has turned a blind eye to the fact that Iran has been boosting Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles and rockets in preparation for its next assault on Israel, to say nothing of Iran’s direct logistical support of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. No doubt he was aiming not to upset the final stage of Iran’s delicate negotiations with the US and other world powers about its nuclear program.
Placating Iran is a profoundly short-sighted, not to say skewed, policy. As veteran foreign correspondent Con Coughlin observes, no matter how much the Obama administration would like to put its relations with Iran on a more even footing, Iranian objectives in the Middle East are in direct conflict with those of the West. It is only by the merest chance that in Iraq their interests happen, for the moment, to coincide.
The fact is that Iran pursues its own political and religious agenda, and will not be deflected from it. In Iraq, for example, it is fighting IS because it wants to cultivate the large Shi’ite stronghold in the south of the country, which it views as its natural sphere of interest. This area strategically controls the gateway to the Persian Gulf, and contains about half of Iraq’s oil reserves. In short, Iranian intervention in Iraq represents one aspect of its broader strategy to achieve dominance in the region. In Syria it is fighting IS because it wants to preserve Assad in power as a key element in its Shi’ite axis.
Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Muslim world are not fooled. The new Saudi ruler, King Salman, a man apparently with backbone, quickly took the lead. Putting aside differences that had previously vitiated attempts at coordinated Sunni action, such as Qatar’s and Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, he initiated a summit meeting of the Arab League to endorse his air strikes, and to formulate a concerted plan of action.
At a summit meeting of the Arab League on March 29, Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby said that Yemen had been “on the brink of the abyss”, and that the Saudi air strikes had been the only option left “to end the Houthi coup”. He said that not only would the Saudi-led bombing raids continue until the Shia rebels withdraw and surrender, but that a joint military task force was being created to tackle the threat from Iran and from IS jihadists across the region. Egyptian officials said the planned reaction force would be made up of 40,000 elite troops, backed by jets, warships and tanks.
And indeed IS has taken advantage of the chaos in Yemen to continue its expansion across the Middle East. A group calling itself the Yemeni Representative of the Islamic State has appeared on the scene. On March 20 it claimed responsibility for attacks on two Shia mosques in Sana’a, killing at least 160 people in an act of sectarian violence unprecedented in the country.
If the armed coalition of Arab states that Saudi’s King Salman has masterminded is successful in Yemen, he – unlike the pusillanimous Obama administration and the West – will have dealt a blow to the expansionist ambitions of Iran’s Islamic Republic, to say nothing of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. King Salman is emerging as the resolute leader of the Sunni world, and perhaps of the moderate Muslim world as a whole.