Shiites vs. Sunnis: A Region at War
By Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror
January 25, 2016
SUMMARY: Three important events in the fight between Sunnis and Shiites took
place this week, including the removal of global sanctions on Iran, and
Pakistan's announcement that it would respond to any attack on Saudi Arabia. Is
the world's only Muslim nuclear nation about to intervene in the Middle East
Three very important
events took place recently in the Sunni-Shiite battle of titans being waged
across the eastern part of the Arab world, the region between Turkey to the
north, Saudi Arabia to the south, and Iran in the east.
The most important
event is the removal of sanctions from Iran. As part of a process that began
when the agreement on its nuclear program was signed, Iran is returning to the
world with an American stamp of approval as a regional power. Iranian
intellectuals understood this as soon as the interim deal was signed between
Iran and the world powers in November 2013 and explained at conferences
throughout the world that that recognition was a clear right of the Iranians
given their country's importance, strength, history, and achievements in the
region in general and in the nuclear negotiations in particular.
sense of power and international legitimacy in Iran jumped following the final
nuclear deal and the removal of sanctions this week. This means that from now
on, Iran will keep growing economically and militarily while living up to the
agreement, as least until its economy improves significantly.
During this upcoming
period, Iran will behave like a regional power, and anyone who does not accept
its status will have to deal with its increasing power and the strength of its
emissaries in the region. The American move in making the deal, and its
ramifications for Iran's stature, serve as a kind of proof for the Sunnis of an
American decision to align with the Shiite side of the struggle.
heads of state see it an American license, if not an overt one, for Iran to take
more aggressive action that will pose a risk to the Sunni world, led by Saudi
important event was the response of the Saudis. The Kingdom executed a Shiite
preacher who was imprisoned after a trial (the sentence was handed down a year
and a half ago) to send a clear message to the Iranians, as well as to Saudi
Arabia's own allies in the Sunni world, that Riyadh would not give up on its
fight against the Iranian Shiites - certainly not when it comes to Iran's
attempts to attack Saudi Arabia's intactness by stirring up its Shiite minority.
This decision was
similar in principle to an earlier Saudi decision to employ force in Yemen and
battle against the Houthis, whom the Saudis perceived as agents of Iran.
Saudi Arabia has
undoubtedly changed its behavior under its new king, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al
Saud, and steered by his son Mohammed bin Salman, the country's 30-year-old
defense minister. This means that Saudi Arabia is prepared to take risks and pay
prices that it was not prepared to pay in the past. In this case, the price of
severing relations with Iran, a step the Saudis decided to take after Iranian
demonstrators set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran in protest over the
execution of the Shiite preacher.
Other Sunni states
followed, breaking off relations with Iran -- the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait,
Qatar, Bahrain, and Sudan -- while Egypt, which is receiving substantial
economic aid from Saudi Arabia, has not. Sudan, which had former ties to Iran,
has actually cut it off entirely.
The Saudis are
spearheading a Sunni challenge to the Shiite efforts of the past 35 years, which
the Sunnis have thus far been able to check. The results are clear in Iraq and
Lebanon, and are the underlying cause of the ongoing war in Syria and the
conflict in Yemen.
The third event
slipped under the radar of most of the Israeli media. This was an announcement
by Pakistan made during a visit to that country by the Saudi defense minister
and heir to the throne. The host declared that Pakistan would respond severely
to any attack on Saudi Arabia.
This declaration is
of utmost importance, since this is the only Muslim country that has nuclear
weapons. It is generally accepted that Pakistan has a special obligation to
Saudi Arabia in the field of nuclear weapons, because Saudi Arabia funded part
of Pakistan's investment in and development of a nuclear bomb.
Whether or not that
is true, the Pakistani threat comprises an interesting development. Thus far,
Pakistan's nuclear weapons have been portrayed as an element of the conflict
between Pakistan and India, and now all of a sudden they're being used in a
Middle Eastern context, in a conflict between the Shiite superpower and the
entity who wants to be perceived as its Sunni counterpart.
This is a real
change in the balance of power throughout the entire Middle East. If Pakistan
moves from a one-time declaration to actual intervention in these tussles, the
regional balance of power will change, but past experience indicates that they
will be very careful about committing themselves.
What will be the
ramifications of the intensifying conflict? First, it is quite clear that it
will be much harder to deal with the war in Syria properly. That war is not just
a civil war between different factions of Syrian society. It is a war between
Shiites and Sunnis, with Iran standing behind one side and Saudi Arabia and the
Gulf states, and Turkey, to a certain extent, backing the other.
Even if there were
some agreement in Syria about peace talks, which is unlikely to happen in the
foreseeable future, Iran and Saudi Arabia will not take any steps toward each
other, so the Syria war will continue. The Iranians will also seek out Saudi
Arabia's soft underbelly, probably via the many Shiites in Saudi Arabia and in
some Gulf states, and the Saudis will respond with all their strength, mainly
through economic and other forms of aid to anyone in the Middle East who opposes
The Saudis' success
in winning Sudan's heart and removing it from Iran's circle of influence should
be noted and is very important, to Israel as well, because Sudan was a key stop
on the weapons smuggling route from Iran to the Gaza Strip
The very possibility
that a nuclear nation will join this bitter struggle raises serious questions
and concerns about the consequences of a possible deterioration, since it's very
hard to control endless battles colored by religion.
Pakistan moving its
attention to the heart of the Middle East does not bode well for an already
complex and conflicted region. A Pakistani change like this one, if it is not a
one-time case of lip service for its Saudi friend, could make the regional
reality even more complicated and could eventually turn out to be very
influential for the region. In the meantime, it appears to be a one-time event,
not a turning point, even if it is important in and of itself. It will be
necessary to keep constant tabs on whether Pakistan is headed toward that kind
of direct intervention.
The lesson Israel
should learn from all these recent events is clear: Israel must not be drawn
into such a complex and deep-running battle as the intra-Islamic conflict
between Shiites and Sunnis, or between the Arabs and Persians in the Gulf
region. Israel must take care to safeguard its own interests, including taking a
risk if force should be exerted, but after great consideration, without
arrogance, and with precision.