Power game in the Middle East has gravely threatened peace in the region. The conflicts here are to be wider and broader in spectrum. The tensions in this important part of the world not only affect the entire region but also the whole Ummah and the world at large. As generally perceived, the whole Middle Eastern conflict is all about political rivalry between Sunni and Shia sects for domination and control over resources of strategic importance. The main players of this power struggle are Saudi Arabia and Iran; respectively the world’s most important Sunni and Shiite states. Moreover, Arab-Persian rivalry is also centuries old. If one the one hand, the former considers itself as the sole custodian of the rights of the Sunnis, the latter, on the other, spearheads the protection of Shia interests.
Although there exist centuries-old, deep and historic schisms between Sunnis and Shias throughout the region, yet safeguarding the sect is not the sole reason behind this chronic conflict. There are many more irritants that have marred the relationship. The heat of any conflict in the Middle East is felt across the globe because of the region’s importance in world affairs. Almost, all of the world’s powers have stakes in the region but game to control the region is dominated by Saudi-Iran rivalry. Washington and Moscow are the main international players in this game as they are out to pursue their vested interests. This power struggle will remain one of the defining and dominating features of the Middle East for decades to come.
Saudi Arabia and Iran remained as antagonistic allies until 1960s and 70s. Both were regarded as the “twin pillars” of Washington’s strategy to minimize Soviet influence in the Middle East. And, the sectarianism was not the issue of time due to convergence of interests. However, 1979 Islamic Revolution brought the two nations face to face as Arabs termed it as Shiite Revolution. Thus an ideological confrontation between the two nations got intensified. The two countries have fought numerous proxy wars since then but they’ve always stopped just short of direct conflict by agreeing to a cold reconciliation. The current standoff is as dangerous as it was in the 1980s when bilateral diplomatic ties remained severed between 1988 and 1991. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war; while the Saudi Air Force shot down an Iranian fighter jet in 1984 and claimed that it had violated Saudi airspace.
Furthermore, Saudi and other Arab governments in the Gulf accuse Iran’s post-Revolution government of an aborted coup attempt in Bahrain in 1981 and patronizing Hezbollah — a Lebanon-based militant group that issued a number of statements threatening the Saudi royal family. Hezbollah carried out several deadly attacks as well in the late 1980s as tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia touched new heights. The toppling of Saddam regime in 2003 disturbed balance of power in the region and created a leadership vacuum in Iraq which Tehran effectively filled as it used her ties with the country’s large Shiite populace to gain hold of power in Baghdad, pitting Riyadh and Tehran more openly against each other in the race for control over the region.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia again escalated recently in the wake of execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, — an opponent of the ruling dynasty who demanded greater rights for Saudi Arabia’s marginalised Shiite minority — by the latter; but the dispute goes much deeper. The Iran responded bitterly to the execution and threatened Saudi Arabia and even Saudi embassy in Tehran was torched. Iranian supreme leader remarked that Saudi Arabia will have to pay a heavy price for its deeds. Iran’s elite military force Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which have strongholds in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, vowed a “harsh revenge” from the ruling Al-Saud family.
Sheikh Nimr’s execution enraged the Shiites in different parts of the world. Iran’s reaction was harsher than what Riyadh could have expected. Riyadh severed diplomatic ties and Tehran reciprocated with a ban on import of Saudi products. Tehran also suspended all off-season pilgrimages to the country.
The current tensions spurred a severe diplomatic crisis for Tehran as countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Djibouti have severed their diplomatic ties with Iran. Moscow and Washington also urged both sides to show restraint. Islamabad and Ankara stressed both sides to solve their disputes trough dialogue. China also sent its deputy foreign minister to Saudi Arabia and Iran in a bid to defuse tensions. Pakistan has also launched vigorous efforts and both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif have paid fruitful visits to both countries and there are positive omens about future. The proposal to appoint the “focal persons” is indeed a welcome development in this regard.
In the Gulf States, there is a general scepticism about the Obama administration’s intentions and fast-changing priorities in the Middle East region. Saudi Arabia’s policy particularly has taken a hard line in case of Iran. It is believed that the primary threat from Iran lies in Iran’s support for militant non-state actors such as Hezbollah and, more recently, the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In such a supercharged atmosphere, the matter of adopting a moderate, middle course has been put on the backburner and a hard line approach holds sway in regional politics.
Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and the lifting of international sanctions, would theoretically give it desired political space to pursue its regional goals more effectively. In fact, a non-hostile Iran is more as a stabilizing actor than a hostile one.
Given the fragile peace in the Middle East and the interests of world’s superpowers in the region, at present, there is no margin for error. A fully-fledged conflict is something that is, in fact, dangerous for both sides. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince and defence minister, Muhammad bin Salman, has recently said that a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would mean “a major catastrophe in the region” and that his country “will not allow any such thing.” Moreover, speaking at a panel on Iran’s future at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said, “We should try our best, as Iran has done, to exercise self-restraint and to come to our senses and engage in serious discussions.”
Pakistan should also continue to play a proactive role in reconciliation efforts between the two countries.