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From Iranian strategic perspective the Sunni-Shi‘a divide is only part of its larger objective of exporting its revolution.
▲ Escena militar de un altorrelieve de la antigua Persia [Pixabay]
ESSAY / Helena Pompeya
At a first glance it may seem that the most important factor shaping the dynamics in the region is the Sunni-Shi’a divide materialized in the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran over becoming the main hegemonic power in the region. Nonetheless, from the strategic perspective of Iran this divide is only part of its larger objective of exporting its revolution.
This short essay will analyze three paths of action or policies Iran has been relying on in order to exert and expand its influence in the MENA region: i) it’s anti-imperialistic foreign policy; ii) the Sunni-Shi’a divide; and iii) opportunism. Finally, a study case of Syria will be provided to show how Iran made use of these three courses of action to its benefit within the war.
I. ANTI IMPERIALISM
The Sunni-Shi'a division alone would not be enough to rocket Iran into an advantaged position over Saudi Arabia, being the Shi’ites only a 13% of the total of Muslims over the world (found mainly in Iran, Pakistan, India and Iraq). Even though religious affiliation can gain support of a fairly big share of the population, Iran is playing its cards along the lines of its revolutionary ideology, which consists on challenging the current international world order and particularly what Iran calls US’s imperialism.
Iran does not choose its strategic allies by religious affiliation but by ideological affinity: opposition to the US and Israel. Proof of this is the fact that Iran has provided military and financial support to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Palestine, both of them Sunni, in their struggle versus Israel. Iran’s competition against Saudi Arabia could be understood as an elongation of its anti-US foreign policy, being the Saudi kingdom the other great ally of the West in the MENA region along with Israel.
II. SUNNI-SHI’A DIVIDE
Despite the religious divide not being the main reason behind the hegemonic competition among both regional powers Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shi’a), both states are exploiting this narrative to transcend territorial barriers and exert their influence in neighbouring countries. This rivalry materializes itself along two main paths of action: i) development of neopatrimonial and clientelistic networks, as it shows in Lebanon and Bahrain; ii) and in violent proxy wars, namely Yemen and Syria.
Sectarian difference has been an inherent characteristic of Lebanon all throughout its history, finally erupting into a civil war in 1975. The Taif accords, which put an end to the strife attempted to create a power-sharing agreement that gave each group a political voice. These differences were incorporated into the political dynamics and development of blocs which are not necessarily loyal to the Lebanese state alone.
Regional dynamics of the Middle East are characterised by the blurred limits between internal and external, this reflects in the case of Lebanon, whose blocs provide space for other actors to penetrate the Lebanese political sphere. This is the case of Iran through the Shi‘ite political and paramilitary organization of Hezbollah. This organization was created in 1982 as a response to Israeli intervention and has been trained, organized and provisioned by Iran ever since. Through the empowerment of Iran and its political support for Shi’a groups across Lebanon, Hezbollah has emerged as a regional power.
Once aware of the increasing Iranian influence in the region, Saudi Arabia stepped into it to counterbalance the Shi’a empowerment by supporting a range of Salafi groups across the country.
Both Riyadh and Tehran have thus established clientelistic networks through political and economic support which feed upon sectarian segmentation, furthering factionalism. Economic inflows in order to influence the region have helped developed the area between Ras Beirut and Ain al Mraiseh through investments by Riyadh, whilst Iranian economic aid has been allocated in the Dahiyeh and southern region of the country.
Bahrain is also a hot spot in the fight for supremacy over the region, although it seems that Saudi Arabia is the leading power over this island of the Persian Gulf. The state is a constitutional monarchy headed by the King, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, of the Sunni branch of Islam, and it is connected to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd Causeway, a passage designed and built to prevent Iranian expansionism after the revolution. Albeit being ruled by Sunni elite, the majority of the country’s citizens are Shia, and have in many cases complaint about political and economical repression. In 2011 protests erupted in Bahrain led by the Shi’a community, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates stepped in to suppress the revolt. Nonetheless, no links between Iran and the ignition of this manifestation have been found, despite accusations by the previously mentioned Sunni states.
The opposition of both hegemonic powers has ultimately materialized itself in the involvement on proxy wars as are the examples of Syria, Yemen, Iraq and possibly in the future Afghanistan.
Yemen, in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula, is a failed state in which a proxy war fueled mainly by the interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran is taking place since the 25th of March 2015. On that date, Saudi Arabia leading an Arab coalition against the Houthis bombarded Yemen.
The ignition of the conflict began in November 2011 when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand over his power to his deputy and current president Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi (both Sunni) due to the uprisings product of the Arab Spring.
The turmoil within the nation, including here al-Qaeda attacks, a separatist rising in the south, divided loyalties in the military, corruption, unemployment and lack of food, led to a coup d’état in January 2015 led by Houthi rebels. The Houthis, Shi‘ite Muslims backed by Iran, seized control of a large territory in Yemen including here the capital Sana’a. A coalition led by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority nations are supporting the government.
Yemen is a clear representation of dispute over regional sovereignty. This particular conflict puts the Wahhabi kingdom in great distress as it is happening right at its front door. Thus, Saudi interests in the region consist on avoiding a Shi’ite state in the Arabian Peninsula as well as facilitating a kindred government to retrieve its function as state. Controlling Yemen guarantees Saudi Arabia’s influence over the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Baab al Mandeb, thus avoiding Hormuz Strait, which is currently under Iran’s reach.
On the other hand, Iran is soon to be freed from intensive intervention in the Syrian war, and thus it could send in more military and economic support into the region. Establishing a Shi’ite government in Yemen would pose an inflexion point in regional dynamics, reinforcing Iran’s power and becoming a direct threat to Arabia Saudi right at its frontier. Nonetheless, Hadi’s government is internationally recognized and the Sunni struggle is currently gaining support from the UK and the US.
The Golf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a political and economic alliance of six countries in the Arabian Peninsula which fail to have an aligned strategy for the region and could be roughly divided into two main groups in the face of political interests: i) those more aligned to Saudi Arabia, namely Bahrain and UAE; ii) and those who reject the full integration, being these Oman, Kuwait and Qatar.
Fragmentation within the GCC has provided Iran with an opportunity to buffer against calls for its economic and political isolation. Iran’s ties to smaller Gulf countries have provided Tehran with limited economic, political and strategic opportunities for diversification that have simultaneously helped to buffer against sanctions and to weaken Riyadh.
Oman in overall terms has a foreign policy of good relations with all of its neighbours. Furthermore, it has long resisted pressure to align its Iran policies with those of Saudi Arabia. Among its policies, it refused the idea of a GCC union and a single currency for the region introduced by the Saudi kingdom. Furthermore, in 2017 with the Qatar crisis, it opposed the marginalization of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and stood as the only State which did not cut relations with Iran.
Furthermore, the war in Yemen is spreading along Oman’s border, and it’s in its best interest to bring Saudi Arabia and the Houthis into talks, believing that engagement with the later is necessary to put an end to the conflict. Oman has denied transport of military equipment to Yemeni Houthis through its territory.
A key aspect of Kuwait’s regional policy is its active role in trying to balance and reduce regional sectarian tensions, and has often been a bridge for mediation among countries, leading the mediation effort in January 2017 to promote dialogue and cooperation between Iran and the Gulf states that was well received in Tehran.
It has always been in both state’s interest to maintain a good relationship due to their proximity and shared ownership of the North/South Pars natural gas field. Despite having opposing interests in some areas as are the case of Syria (Qatar supports the opposition), and Qatar’s attempts to drive Hamas away from Tehran. In 2017 Qatar suffered a blockade by the GCC countries due to its support for Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and militant groups linked to al-Qaeda or ISIS. During this crisis, Iran proved a good ally into which to turn.. Iran offered Qatar to use its airspace and supplied food to prevent any shortages resulting from the blockade. However as it can be deduced from previous ambitious foreign policies, Qatar seeks to diversify its allies in order to protect its interests, so it would not rely solely on Iran.
Iran is well aware of the intra-Arab tensions among the Gulf States and takes advantage of these convenient openings to bolster its regional position, bringing itself out of its isolationism through the establishment of bilateral relations with smaller GCC states, especially since the outbreak of the Qatar crisis in 2017.
Iran is increasingly standing out as a regional winner in the Syrian conflict. This necessarily creates unrest both for Israel and Saudi Arabia, especially after the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. The drawdown of the US has also originated a vacuum of power which is currently being fought over by the supporters of al-Assad: Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Despite the crisis involving the incident with the Israeli F-16 jets, Jerusalem is attempting to convince the Russian Federation not to leave Syria completely under the sphere of Iranian influence.
Israel initially intervened in the war in face of increasing presence of Hezbollah in the region, especially in its positions near the Golan Heights, Kiswah and Hafa. Anti-Zionism is one of Iran’s main objectives in its foreign policy, thus it is likely that tensions between Hezbollah and Israel will escalate leading to open missile conflict. Nonetheless, an open war for territory is unlikely to happen, since this will bring the UyS back in the region in defense for Israel, and Saudi Arabia would make use of this opportunity to wipe off Hezbollah.
On other matters, the axis joining Iran, Russia and Turkey is strengthening, while they gain control over the de-escalation zones.
Both Iran and Russia have economic interests in the region. Before the outbreak of the war, Syria was one of the top exporting countries of phosphates, and in all likelihood, current reserves (estimated on over 2 billion tons) will be spoils of war for al-Assad’s allies.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps took control of Palmira in 2015, where the largest production area of phosphates is present. Furthermore, Syria also signed an agreement on phosphates with Russia.
Iran has great plans for Syria as its zone of influence, and is planning to establish a seaport in the Mediterranean through which to export its petroleum by a pipeline crossing through Iraq and Syria, both under its tutelage. This pipeline would secure the Shi’ite bow from Tehran to Beirut, thus debilitating Saudi Arabia’s position in the region. Furthermore, it would allow direct oil exports to Europe.
In relation to Russia and Turkey, despite starting in opposite bands they are now siding together. Turkey is particularly interested in avoiding a Kurdish independent state in the region, this necessarily positions the former ottoman empire against the U.S a key supporter of the Kurdish people due to their success on debilitating the Islamic State. Russia will make use of this distancing to its own benefits. It is in Russia’s interest to have Turkey as an ally in Syria in order to break NATO’s Middle East strategy and have a strong army operating in Syrian territory, thus reducing its own engagement and military cost.
Despite things being in favour of Iran, Saudi Arabia could still take advantage of recent developments of the conflict to damage Iran’s internal stability.
Ethnic and sectarian segmentation are also part of Iran’s fabric, and the Government’s repression against minorities within the territory –namely Kurds, Arabs and Baluchis- have caused insurgencies before. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States aligned with its foreign policy, such as the UAE are likely to exploit resentment of the minorities in order to destabilized Iran’s internal politics.
The problem does not end there for Iran. Although ISIS being wiped off the Syrian territory, after falling its last citadel in Baguz, this is not the end of the terrorist group. Iran’s active role in fighting Sunni jihadists through Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias in Syria and Iraq has given Islamist organization a motivation to defy Tehran.
Returning foreign fighters could scatter over the region creating cells and even cooperating with Sunni separatist movements in Ahwaz, Kurdistan or Baluchistan. Saudi Arabia is well aware of this and could exploit the Wahhabi narrative and exert Sunni influence in the region through a behind-the-scenes financing of these groups.
 El derrumbe del Status Quo en OM: Las estrategias de seguridad de Irán y AS, David Poza Cano, enero 2017.
 Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy in Lebanon and Bahrain, Simon Mabon, LSE 2018
 Iran and the GCC Hedging, Pragmatism and Opportunism, Sanam Vakil, September 2018
 Reuters ‘Yemen’s Houthis and Saudi Arabia in secret talks to end war’, 15 March, 2018
 Bayoumy, Y. (2016), ‘Iran steps up weapons supply to Yemen’s Houthis via Oman’, Reuters, 30 October.
 Coates Ulrichsen, K., ‘Walking the tightrope: Kuwait, Iran relations in the aftermath of the Abdali affair’, Gulf States Analytics, 9 August, 2017
 Kamrava, M. ‘Iran-Qatar Relations’, in Bahgat, Ehteshami and Quilliam (2017), Security and Bilateral Issues Between Iran and Its Neighbours.
 Confirman en Siria la derrota total del grupo terrorista ISIS, Clarín Mundo. 23 de marzo, 2019