RIYADH – Inviting Iran to the next round of talks on the Syria crisis in Vienna, Austria – an invitation that was reiterated last week – has far-reaching implications. In fact, Iran’s current government is attempting to overthrow a balance of power that has endured for some 1,400 years – and Saudi Arabia, as the cradle of the Muslim world, will not allow it.
The divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s most prominent Shia and Sunni powers, respectively, has deep roots. If we are to understand what is really happening in the Middle East today – not just in Syria – one must consider the origins of the Sunni-Shia schism, the Arab-Persian divide, and past struggles over the governance of Islam.
Islam was divided between Sunni and Shia after the prophet Muhammad died and a new successor had to be chosen. Most of his followers, who became known as Sunni Muslims, felt that the faithful should base their decision on ability, and supported the Muslim elders’ choice of Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr. But a small dissident group, who would eventually become known as Shia Muslims, were adamant that the new caliph should be a blood relative of the prophet, and thus decided that Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib (the fourth caliph, according to Sunnis) was his rightful successor. Today, 90% of all Muslims are Sunni, and 10% are Shia.
While this disagreement was playing out, so was the Muslim conquest of Persia, which began just a year after the prophet’s death in 632. The Persian Sassanid Empire, exhausted financially and militarily from decades of warfare with the Byzantine Empire, endured a decisive defeat in the Battle of Qadisiyyah in 636.
The next year, the Persian emperor, Yazdegerd III, fled to the border province of Khorasan and the Arabization of Persia began, with Persians taking Arab names and converting to Islam. By 651, almost all major urban centers in Persia were under Arab control, adding momentum to the process.
The mass conversion to Islam among Persians was the first step toward the establishment of the first caliphate, a political-religious state comprising all Muslim lands. At various times in history, caliphates have extended into Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe. The effort by various forces seeking to control or restore the caliphate is a recurrent theme throughout Islam’s history. The so-called Islamic State is only the latest example of this.
Until the year 1500, almost all Persians were Sunni Muslims. Then, Shah Ismail – the first Shah and the founder of the Safavid Dynasty – began a brutal policy of forcing Persian Muslims to become Shia, in order to distinguish his iteration of Persia’s empire from the more powerful Constantinople-based and fervently Sunni Ottoman caliphate.
This history clearly informs Iran’s actions today. As Shia Muslims, Iranians are a minority within the Muslim community, a reality that has caused them to feel persecuted. Rather than accept their minority status, various Iranian governments have attempted to establish their country’s hegemony in the Arab world.
Of course, Iran not only represents only a tiny minority of Muslims; Iranians are not Arabs. It is thus unfathomable that they would dictate to Arab countries in any capacity. But this has not stopped Iran’s government from attempting to commandeer the main levers of Islam, both politically and theologically. Using Arab countries’ Shia communities, it is trying to wield control over them, with the ultimate objective of taking over Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, over which the Saudi monarch exercises authority as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
As the Sunni world’s most influential country, Saudi Arabia knows that it must do what it takes to limit Iran. In 2011, a Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council coalition had to neutralize an Iran-sponsored Shia insurgency in Bahrain. This year in Yemen (a predominantly Sunni country), a Saudi-led coalition is fighting the Zaydi Shia Houthi rebels, whom Iran armed in order to take over the country and gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula.
In Syria – a Sunni-majority country where, incidentally, a Sunni Muslim caliphate, the Umayyads, once prospered – Iran is spending billions of dollars to prop up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, dominated by members of a minority Shia sect, the Alawites (historically known as Nusayris).
Actions by Assad’s supporters have so far caused more than 270,000 deaths, displaced over seven million people internally, forced nearly four million people to flee, and left close to 12 million in need of desperate assistance. They have enabled – indeed, fueled – the rise of the Islamic State, and with it a growing threat to the global order, as the successive terrorist attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Beirut, and Paris tragically have shown. Given this, Saudi Arabia’s leadership – regardless of what temporary results are achieved through the Vienna talks – will continue to work hard to ensure that Assad is removed from power and that the mayhem is finally brought to an end.
The terrorism, proxy wars, arms shipments, nuclear ambitions, and grandiose delusions emerging from Iran are part of an age-old struggle with which the Saudis have had enough. That is why King Salman is overseeing the greatest military acquisition and expansion program in Saudi Arabia’s history. And Saudi Arabia will not stop until Iran – and its Shia proxies – abandons its revolutionary fantasies and begins working to bring peace and stability to the Middle East and the wider Arab world.
Nawaf Obaid is a senior fellow at King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies and a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
By Nawaf Obaid