The Middle East is, by far, the most unstable region in the world. Its natural resources and position as a bridge between Europe, Africa and Asia make it also one of the most important regions in the world. A proper understanding of the region dynamics is hence fundamental to anybody even vaguely interested in world affairs. In this series, I will try to disentangle the mess that the Middle East appears to be at first glance. Underlying the chaotic history of the last half a century of Middle Eastern Politics is a power struggle between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia for religious and territorial primacy. Every conflict in the region is just a theatre where this conflict has been and is being played out time and time again.
One can’t understand the present without looking at the past. In this case, to understand the sectarian power struggle in the region it’s necessary to go back to 632, at the death of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia. The Prophet and his Muhajirun (the Arabic term for the first converts to Islam) had fled Mecca ten years before in the event remembered as Hijrah. When they arrived in Medina, those who were to be called the Ansars (the Arabic term for “the supporters”) gave them shelter and food. The Muhajirun and the Ansars would form the Sahabah (the Arabic term for “the companions”), the group of the earliest and closest supporters of the Prophet Muhammad. When the Prophet died, the Ansars made their claim for the succession, as they were the largest group of the two and the one that had helped the Prophets and the Muhajirun. But once Omar pledged to Abu Bakr, lifelong friend of the Prophet whose daughter the Prophet had married, Abu Bakr became the First of the Four Rashidun (the Arabic name for “the Rightly Guided”) Caliphs. After two years as Caliph, the modest and pious Abu Bakr died, and Omar took his place for the successive ten years, in which the expansion of the Rashidun Caliphate continued relentless, conquesting Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo and Ctesiphon along the way. Omar, who first organised properly the Caliphate as a State, was to be assassinated and Uthman took his place. Then again, Uthman was assassinated twelve years later after a rebellion that had started after a division of spoils of war gone wrong. The fourth and last of the Rashidun was Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin. He fought and won against Aisha, one of the Prophet’s wives, and Talah and Az-Zubair in what was to be first civil war inside the Caliphate. Yet, he was assassinated as well as he was gathered in pray in the Grande Mosque of Kufa, Iraq, by one of the Kharjites, a group of supporters of Ali that had later rejected his leadership when he conceded to negotiate with Muawiyah, a general who had turned Governor of the Levant, that he would hold the political power as long as he wouldn’t choose his successor after the battle of Saffin. Muawiyah became the founder of a new Caliphate, the Ummayad Caliphate, that succeeded the Rashidun. Hassan, the eldest son of Ali , abdicated approximately six or seven months after the beginning of his caliphate. Ali’s second son, Husayn, never managed to become Caliph: he was killed in the Battle of Karbala by Yazid, Muawiyah’s son, who had been appointed as Caliph by his father before his death. For more on this interesting story, I suggest by the always marvellous Tom Holland In the Shadow of The Sword, which covers in detail the history of the three Caliphates.
The Shia-Sunni split originates from the matters above described: trying to be as succinct as possible, the Sunni believe that Abu Bakr, the first of the Rashiduns, was the rightful “heir” to the Prophet as the leader of the Muslims while the Shia believed that Ali was the rightful “heir” to the Prophet as the leader of the Muslims.
The split, essentially, originates from the question whether the successors to the Prophet were always to remain inside the Prophet’s family or if the leadership could be assigned to other individuals based on other merits.
Because the Shia believe in the “bloodline”, for example, they do not consider Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman as legitimate caliphs: instead, the succession starts with Ali, who becomes the first Imam, continues with Hassan, the second Imam, and Husayn, the third Imam. Nine more Imams follow until Muhammad al-Mahdi, the twelfth Imam. Both Shia and Sunni believe that there will be a Mahdi (the Arabic term for “the Guided One”) that will come before the Day of the Resurrection to rid the world of evil but Sunnis do not believe him to have been born yet. Still, on more than 90% of things, Sunni and Shia are actually in agreement. And indeed, for the largest part of Muslim history, the divide wasn’t particularly troublesome. Of course, the two factions weren’t always sending roses one to the other, but, broadly speaking, the situations of peaceful coexistence have been many more than the ones of all-out war. So where this sectarian divide we can clearly see being played out in the Middle East does come from?
Fast forward to 1979. February 1st. Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran, Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returns from exile to a country that had been lacking effective government for months. The Shah had flown away from Iran for a couple of weeks to the United States, which was the most important backer of his brutal ruling style. Khomeini wanted to get rid of Western influences in the Middle East and, especially so, in Iran, where he want to establish an Islamic Republic. By doing so he challenged all the Kings in the Middle East, particularly so the House of Saud, which ruled Saudi Arabia. The storming of the American Embassy was due mainly to the fear that the United States would try to re-establish the Shah whom, in the meantime, the United States had enter a hospital to cure his cancer, as the ruler of Iran. The support that the Ayatollah Khomeini gave to the storming can be viewed as the first step in the state-building process: acquire legitimacy in front of the people by openly confronting the power that was allowing the brutal dictator to escape his trial. Religion made its way forcefully in all the issues: Sharia would be applied and a cleric (the Imams), chosen directly from God, would be in charge of its application. Khomeini, effectively, politicised what was a particular Shia religious/spiritual doctrine (also called “The Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”), different from a more standard Shia doctrine like the one professed by Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, whereby a religious scholar (or a number of religious scholars) could take over not just a state but, a series of states and effectively be the ruler of the Muslim world. And the religious scholars would be Shia espousing “The Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist”, just like the Ayatollah Khomeini. As a matter of fact, while he declared that the Revolution was for all Muslims, it was very much a Shia phenomenon, which is also what limited its reach in that the neighbouring Sunni kingdoms stressed the Shia traits of the Ayatollah’s message in an effort to delegitimise him to make sure that the Revolution wouldn’t spread around.
Saudi Arabia is one of them. Before 1979 they used to have excellent relationship with Iran: both were oil-rich, Western-backed monarchies. Not to mention that it was a Saudi interest to have Iran on its side so that it balanced out with a radical Iraq. When the Supreme Leader of one of the two started declaring that all Kings in the region should be toppled as the Iranians had toppled the Shah, the story changed. It was a direct affront to the leading nation in the Muslim world by the virtue of housing the two holiest places in Islam, Mecca and Medina (I didn’t go into such details in the first paragraph for no reason). Saudi Arabia had become home of Wahhabism, a doctrine of Islam that preached a strict interpretation and an equally strict application of Sharia law. Wahhabism is really about a direct connection between God and the believer. This clearly goes against Shia’s beliefs about clerics, saints, icons and anything of the sort. And it’s not a coincidence that Wahhabism preaches that Shia are, effectively, not Muslims. And Wahhabism, which in the previous decades had gradually lost its power in the country, was to come back with a bang. A group of almost 500 religious hardliners led by Juhayman al Otaybi seized control of the Masjid Al Haram, the Great Mosque in Mecca, the holiest place in Islam. For two weeks they held it in their hands. They were later decapitated but their reasons were not lost: they were lamenting that the Al Saud family had become corrupt as the oil boom of the 1970s had not just brought piles of cash to Saudi Arabia, but luxury goods, theaters, music, pop culture and western brands. The Kingdom had lost its way, they said. The religious authority took notice and a substantial amount of the money that was pouring in the Kingdom was diverted to fund hardline religious education, as Iran and internal zealots were breathing down their necks.
The religious education wasn’t limited to Saudi Arabia. The Shah Faisal Masjid in Islamabad, Pakistan, was for roughly ten years between the end of the 1976 and the mid 1980s the largest mosque in the world. It’s nowadays the National Mosque of Pakistan. Nothing would be unusual about it if wasn’t for the fact that Faisal, after whom the Mosque is named, wasn’t a Pakistani. Faisal bin Abdul Aziz was a King. Of Saudi Arabia. He spent 120 million dollars of his own State money to build the largest mosque in the world in another country. Talk about marketing. It’s no coincidence that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s President Zia ul-Haq (whose agenda was supported by the Saudis with public support of the United States) teamed up for a hardline Sunni joint venture in neighbouring Afghanistan as the Soviet Union invaded the country. These religious lines were seen with favour by the US, who considered them as a sort of break against Communism. Hence, the US and the Saudis financed the Afghan Mujaheddin passing, often from Pakistan which, inevitably, soaked in much of the Wahhabism that the Saudis carried along with them. As the old saying “like attracts alike” suggests, the Pakistanis, in turn, financed and supported the most radical elements among the Mujahideen because the most radical groups were more probably than not going to get along better with an increasingly Wahhabist nation. The support to the Mujahideen continued, of course, during the Reagan Administration and the Saudis matched the Americans every step of the way. And not just that: the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, the most important religious figure in the country declared the war agains the Soviet Union a jihad, a holy war, encouraging Muslims from all over the world to go to Afghanistan to fight against the godless soviets. And, of course, when the Mujahideen won and the Americans said to the Saudis and Pakistanis “we’re outta here boys, do whatever the hell you want”, the door was blown right open to the Talibans. For more on the Soviet-Afghan War, from its beginning to the aftermath, I suggest by Pulitzer Winning Journalist Steve Coll Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001.
After Afghanistan, another state in the Middle East would be the stage for the power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Many of the Shia Lebaneses minority lives in the South, on the border with Israel. Their numbers had always been substantial, but their political power had never been such. From the southern region of Lebanon, in 1982, the Palestine Liberation Organization had been bombarding Israel for a while. Israel, evidently not okay with being bombarded on a daily basis, invaded Lebanon to drive out the PLO. After succeeding in this regard, Israel not only stayed, but it “marched” on Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. Khomeini, not to leave his primary enemy take over an Arab capital, sent a conspicuous number of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon to train and arm the most radical Shia groups that would soon coalesce into the revolutionary group known as Hezbollah. Immediately afterwards, the first suicide attacks against Israeli and Western forces in Lebanon occurred. As the death toll increased, the invaders pulled out of Lebanon, which gave Hezbollah a position of absolute prestige, given how it had succeeded where so many other Arab forces had failed. Hezbollah has boomed ever since, becoming more powerful than the own Lebanese army, being declared by Israel its number one enemy and being categorised by essentially the entire Western World plus a bunch of other countries as a terrorist organisation.
The third Middle-Eastern conflict of the 1980s that involved Iran was the eight-years long Iran-Iraq War. The year after the Revolution, Saddam Hussein decided that it was better to get rid of his uncomfortable new neighbour sooner rather than later. What was thought to be a blitzkrieg turned out to be a tediously long affair in which for more than two years the unprepared and outnumbered Iranian army stood up to the Iraqi army in an effective fashion until it was able to push it back within its own borders. At that point, Iran could either opt for a ceasefire or advance into Iraqi territory. Khomeini chose the latter: Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, was ruling over a country in which Shias were a majority and in which two of the holiest places in Islam, the Masjid Ali in Najaf and the Masjid Husayn in Karbala (where the graves Ali and Husayn, First and Third Imam), are located. So, the Iranians pressed on. At that point, all the other Middle Eastern states (plus the United States and a bunch of European countries) that had stayed away from the conflict poured into Iraq: their financing and weapons permitted Saddam to keep the war, that turned nastier by the day, going. Chemical weapons were employed. Both countries were utterly devastated by the war, with economic losses in the hundreds of billion of dollars. Eventually, after six years, Khomeini gave up, public reversing his hatred against, of all countries, Saudi Arabia. The war taught Iran a very powerful lesson: they could take on everybody, the entire world if necessary without having to compromise with their position. In turn, the world’s approach to Iran would be shaped by the war like nothing had ever done: Iran’s international isolation started in 1988. Iran would have to wait fifteen years for his next chance to meddle with his closest neighbour.