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Countering the Sunni-Shia Divide

 Mazrak camp in the tough mountainous scrublands of Yemen's north-west border with Saudi Arabia is now home to more than 10,000 people displaced by the escalating war between the government and rebels from the Huthi clan. Photo: Annasofie Flamand / IRIN / 201003230854400244

Mazrak camp in the tough mountainous scrublands of Yemen’s north-west border with Saudi Arabia is now home to more than 10,000 people displaced by the escalating war between the government and rebels from the Huthi clan.
Photo: Annasofie Flamand / IRIN / 201003230854400244

By Ali G. Scotten

As Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) officials meet with President Obama at Camp David, their lobbying efforts are revolving around one question: In the event of a nuclear deal with Iran, what will the U.S. do to counter the Islamic Republic’s influence in the Middle East? The more important question, however — and one that Obama should ask them — is how they plan to stop the spread of sectarian warfare in the region.

The intensification of fighting along the Sunni-Shia divide should be of far greater concern than the challenge posed by Iran’s emergence from isolation. Sectarian hatred is drawing religious extremists from around the world to fight in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The longer that violence continues along religious communal lines, the harder it will be to arrive at political solutions to each conflict, and the more battle training foreign insurgents will receive — experience that can be used to wreak havoc when they return home.

The transnational nature of the current sectarian conflict is largely a result of the way a number of GCC countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have attempted to counter Iran’s increasing influence in the region. For over a decade, Arab leaders have been warning Western governments of the Islamic Republic’s nefarious plan to establish a Shia empire across the Middle East — an argument based on the assumption that all Shias are sleeper agents, mindlessly awaiting orders from Iran’s Supreme Leader. The irony is that, in employing sectarian rhetoric to thwart Shia community efforts to address local grievances, these leaders have galvanized Sunni extremists, whose violence often serves to push Shias into Iran’s arms as a last resort.

Iraq and Yemen provide just two examples.

Following the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Saudi Arabia and its allies feared that a new representative government in Baghdad would emerge as a Shia theocracy operating under Tehran’s thumb. This was despite the fact that the majority of Iraqi Shias align with the Najaf school of Shiism, which looks down on ayatollahs engaging in worldly politics, and that most Shias polled at the time didn’t see Iranian involvement in their political affairs as a positive development. However, anti-Shia rhetoric and funding from wealthy individuals in GCC countries — coupled with the U.S. de-Ba’athification program, which exacerbated Sunni fears of marginalization — drew Sunni militants to Iraq harboring the intent to spark a sectarian civil war. When the civil war erupted in 2006, Shia Iraqis had little recourse but to turn to Iranian-allied extremist groups for protection.

In Yemen, the Saudis have been bombarding Houthi rebels, whom they view to be Iranian proxies because of their Zaydi Shia faith. But Zaydis share more in common religiously with their northern Yemeni Sunni neighbors than they do with distant Iranian Shias; in fact, many Zaydis even consider themselves to be a distinct sect. As a result, until the past couple of decades, Yemen experienced relatively little in the way of sectarianism. The more assertive form of Zaydism that the Houthis follow, however, emerged in the early 1990s in response to the encroachment of Saudi Wahabbism—the brand of Sunni Islam that has inspired the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State—into northern Yemen, accompanied by attacks on Zaydi shrines and mosques.

This new tension, combined with the economic deprivations experienced by northern Yemenis, created the Houthi movement. During the past decade, the Houthis became more radicalized following Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh’s six military incursions into northern Yemen, which left thousands dead. The Saudis, who supported the attacks as a means of countering Iran’s supposed influence in the Arabian Peninsula, joined the fight against the Houthis in 2009, prompting emboldened rhetoric from Tehran in support of the rebels.

Ultimately, in attacking the Houthis as Iranian proxies rather than seeking to alleviate the social and economic problems afflicting northern Yemen, Sana’a and Riyadh pushed the rebels to seek Iran’s help. Moreover, Saudi intervention in the name of countering Tehran created an incentive for the Iranians to operate in a region that held minor strategic importance to them, largely in order to prevent the Saudis from claiming that they had dealt the Islamic Republic a blow. Today, multiple flights travel each week between Tehran and the Houthi-held Yemeni capital, with many likely carrying arms (although most analysts see Saleh’s about-face in support of the Houthis, rather than Iranian weaponry, as the key to the rebels’ recent success).

None of this is to say that Iran is blameless in the sectarianism game. The Saudis and Bahrainis, for instance, likely wouldn’t see their sizeable Shia populations as security threats if it weren’t for Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Khomeini’s call in the 1980s to spread the Islamic Revolution — a call that led to the establishment of pro-Iranian revolutionary groups throughout the Persian Gulf. One such group, Hijazi Hezbollah, is widely believed to have been behind the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia. And Iran’s failure to rein in previous Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s persecution of Iraqi Sunnis contributed to the widespread alienation that allowed the Islamic State to take over much of the country’s Sunni areas with such ease. The massacres being perpetrated against Sunni civilians by Iranian-backed Shia militias in areas liberated from the Islamic State do nothing to address this problem.

At today’s meeting with Obama, GCC leaders will ask for more military assistance. While Washington is likely to grant them their wish — perhaps providing them with a missile shield — it’s unclear what more weaponry will ultimately accomplish given that most of the fighting is being waged by non-state actors who can’t be defeated through conventional military means. Already possessing the world’s fourth-largest defense budget, the Saudis have been unable to achieve definitive success against the Houthis. Instead, the fighting is spreading into Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic State appears to have used the unrest to gain a foothold in Yemen.

It’s time for the GCC to accept that the years of containing Iran are over; the Bush administration’s decision to overthrow Tehran’s mortal enemy in Baghdad made that all but inevitable. Even in the face of the most crippling sanctions it has ever seen, the Islamic Republic has been able to preserve the Assad regime in Syria and increase its influence in Iraq. Is it possible that, following the lifting of sanctions, Iran could use the billions of dollars in unfrozen assets and increased oil revenue to intensify the fighting? Yes. But it should be painfully clear by now that none of the region’s most serious conflicts can be resolved without having Iran at the table. Ultimately, lasting security will have to involve the establishment of a new regional framework that binds the Islamic Republic and the other Persian Gulf countries into a relationship that elevates economic collaboration over geopolitical confrontation.

This is unlikely to occur, however, without domestic reform in the region. All of the conflicts raging in the Middle East today — with the exception of the U.S.-inspired chaos in Iraq — were sparked by protests against repression. In this regard, it’s important to note that Persian-led Iran has only made substantive inroads into the Arab world in times of instability. This was the case following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which provided the context for Hezbollah’s emergence, and it’s the case in Iraq and Yemen today. Meanwhile, GCC leaders’ policies that marginalize their Shia subjects, rather than integrate them into a pluralistic national project, have created the very susceptibility to Iranian influence that the Sunni monarchs fear.

For these reasons, when President Obama’s visitors ask him how they can best counter Iran, the most honest answer he can give is, “Get your own houses in order.”

Ali G. Scotten is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project and founder of Scotten Consulting, LLC, a company specializing in sociocultural and geopolitical analysis of the Middle East. Views expressed are his own.