Sunni-Shi’ite wars going global.
(photo credit: NABEEL QUAITI/REUTERS)
Shortly before the outbreak of the 1980 Iran-Iraq war, when it became apparent that the two countries were headed for a military conflict, then-prime minister Menachem Begin is rumored to have said, “We wish both sides success.”
Had Begin known at the time that the war would drag on for eight years and that as many as a million – including thousands of child soldiers – would lose their lives, he would have likely chosen his words differently.
Nevertheless, there is a strongly held belief, not just in Israel, that it is somehow advantageous when one’s enemies are at war with one another.
This can potentially hold true for the current tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis’ decision to execute top Shi’ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr sparked widespread protests across Shi’ite-majority countries like Iran and Bahrain. Al-Nimr was a central figure in Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ite minority until his arrest in 2012.
Mobs attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad, a holy city in northern Iran.
Iran’s political leadership claims the rioting was spontaneous, as if in a police state these sorts of demonstrations did not receive state sanction.
There was also unrest in the northeastern provinces of Saudi Arabia, where most of the country’s Shi’ites reside – between 10 percent and 15% of the population in Saudi Arabia is Shi’ite – and where a large portion of Saudi Arabia’s oil industry is located.
But while it might be a relief for Israelis who are so often the object of the Muslim world’s animosity to see Sunnis and Shi’ites at each others’ throats, Begin’s saying does not always ring true.
First of all, it is not at all clear that the present tension between the Saudis and the Iranians over al-Nimri’s execution will develop into a full-fledged conflagration. With falling oil prices and the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has an interest in opening another front. The two countries would most likely prefer to continue to fight one another through proxies, as they are doing presently in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Additionally, as the Iran nuclear agreement goes into effect, the Islamic Republic has no interest in drawing attention to another example of its regional aggression.
Indeed, the importance of the Saudi decision to close its embassy should not be overblown. The Saudis did not have such stellar relations with the Iranians in the first place.
But even if the current tension escalates, says Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, the ramifications – even for Israel – can be negative.
If Iran and Saudi Arabia openly clash, stability in the region will be compromised. And stability is important for Israel. The fragile situation on our northern border is an example of how conflicts in one area of the region metastasize to other areas. Fighting in Syria and Iraq has attracted thousands of extremists and has essentially given birth to the phenomenon of Islamic State.
Also, notes Guzansky, if Saudi Arabia and Iran were to be tied down in a fight, it would weaken the coalition against Islamic State. And fighting IS is, after all, an Israeli interest.
Finally, says Guzansky, the former head of the Iran desk in the National Security Council, while Saudi Arabia is certainly no friend of Israel, the two countries share their own common enemy – Iran. The Iranians, unlike the Saudis, have declared themselves to be enemies of the Jewish state and have threatened to “wipe Israel off the map.” Iran with nuclear weapon capability is as much a threat to Saudi Arabia as it is to Israel.
Perhaps one good thing might come out of the recent tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, says Guzansky. Yet another example is being provided of how absurd it is to talk of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the catalyst of all that goes wrong in the Middle East. It is the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, more than any other factor, that is driving unrest in the region, and clashes between Shi’ites and Sunnis are not an Israeli interest