The Islamic Republic and the Kingdom

This morning’s news confirms that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has jinned up a Sunni alliance (including Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan as well as several other countries) to battle the (sort of Shia) Houthi rebellion in Yemen, which the Shia-majority Islamic Republic of Iran backs. No one likes to label wars sectarian, but avoiding it doesn’t make them less so.

Sectarian wars are identity conflicts, which makes them particularly difficult to resolve. No one likes to compromise their identity. During conflict, the multiple (and sometimes common) identities we all sport in more normal times are often shorn in favor of a single one. Middle East experts will all tell you that seeing what is going on exclusively through a sectarian lense is a mistake. But it is a mistake that in a first approximation comes all too close to reality during conflict.

It is increasingly clear that it won’t be possible to manage the conflicts in the Middle East country by country, which is the way diplomacy normally works. War does not. Syria and Iraq are one theater of operations for the Islamic State and for the Iranian-backed militias fighting it. Lebanon could be engulfed soon. Iran supports the Houthi rebellion in Yemen in part because of the Sunni rebellion in Syria.

The Sunni/Shia dimension of these conflicts puts the Americans in an awkward spot. They don’t want to take sides in sectarian war. Their major concerns are not sectarian but rather nuclear weapons, terrorism and oil. So they find themselves supporting Iranian militias in Iraq and as well as their (allegedly moderate) Sunni opponents in Syria and Yemen. The result is that Sunnis feel abandoned by their erstwhile ally even as Iranians accuse the Americans of originating Sunni sectarianism in the Middle East. We are in a lose-lose bind.

Getting out of it is going to require more skilled regional diplomacy than we have demonstrated so far. We need to be able to do two things at once:

  1. bring home a serious product from the nuclear talks with Iran early next week, and
  2. counter Iranian aggression and proxies in Yemen and Syria

If the nuclear talks fail, expect to see escalation on all sides: in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. But if the nuclear talks succeed, that will not mean peace in our time, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will seek a free hand in pursuing its activities abroad to compensate for limits on the nuclear program. Only preparedness to counter the IRGC will convince it otherwise.

The Administration has wisely kept the nuclear talks focused mainly on the Iranian nuclear program. But the time is coming for a wider discussion with Iran of its interests in neighboring countries and the counter-productive way in which it is projecting power through Shia proxies. We’ll also need to be talking with America’s Sunni friends, especially Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, about the opening they provide to Iran by discriminatory and exclusionary treatment of Shia in their own populations.

A classic security dilemma has emerged between Sunni and Shia in many parts of the Middle East. What one group does to make itself more secure the other group sees as threatening. Escalation is the consequence, but that won’t work. Neither Sunni nor Shia will win this war. Eventually the Islamic Republic and the Kingdom will need to reach an accommodation. How many will die before they do?


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