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The cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that's tearing apart the Middle East, explained

The supposedly ancient Sunni-Shia divide is in fact very modern — and it's not really about religion.

An Iranian woman holds an anti-Saudi placard at a protest outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Behind her is a photo of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whom Saudi Arabia executed.
An Iranian woman holds an anti-Saudi placard at a protest outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Behind her is a photo of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whom Saudi Arabia executed.

Only a few days into the new year, the Middle East has already taken a significant turn for the worse. The region's greatest rivalry, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, has become rapidly and significantly more toxic in the past few days, and it could have repercussions across the Middle East.

On Saturday, protesters in Tehran attacked the Saudi embassy, ransacking and burning it as Iran ignored or refused Saudi requests to protect the building. Saudi Arabia formally broke off diplomatic relations with Iran on Sunday, on Monday saying it would cut commercial ties and ban Saudi travel to Iran as well. Sudan and Bahrain, both Saudi allies, severed ties as well.

In some ways, this sort of diplomatic confrontation was perhaps inevitable: Saudi Arabia and Iran see one another as enemies, and are locked in an escalating competition for influence and dominance of the Middle East. That rivalry goes far beyond just words, with both countries backing militant groups and proxy forces throughout the region, particularly in Syria. Their competition is a major driver of conflict in the Middle East, including the growing violence along Sunni-Shia lines.

There had been hints that Saudi Arabia and Iran, perhaps exhausted by their conflict, might be willing to deescalate in 2016, maybe even finding peace deals for the wars in Syria and Yemen. But this week's events have ended those hopes, and suggest things may rather get worse. That's not just bad for Saudi Arabia and Iran — it is bad for the entire Middle East, as both regional conflicts such as Syria and generalized Sunni-Shia tension are likely to increase.

We are only four days into 2016, and already it is a year in which things in the Middle East have taken, impossible though it may seem, a significant turn for the worse. Here's how it happened and why this has Mideast analysts so worried.

This began with an execution in Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced on Saturday that it had executed more people in a single day than most death penalty countries, including the United States, kill in an entire year: 47, at 12 different sites across the country. Some were killed by beheading, according to the Guardian, and others by firing squad.

What makes the mass execution most significant is not its scale but rather the name of one man among the 47, many of whom were Sunni jihadists and al-Qaeda terrorists. That name is Nimr al-Nimr: a prominent religious leader from Saudi Arabia's Shia minority.

Nimr's execution outraged the Middle East's Shia communities and the leaders of Shia-majority countries. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi condemned the execution, warning of "repercussions" for regional security. Iran threatened vague consequences, with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards telling Saudi Arabia to expect "harsh revenge." Protests broke out in Bahrain, Pakistan. In Iran, protesters set fire first to a Saudi consulate building in Mashhad and then to the embassy in Tehran.

The government's choice to kill Nimr wasn't just about this one religious leader. For Saudi Arabia, Nimr represented the danger of internal Shia dissent, behind which it saw Iran's nefarious hand — and perhaps also an opportunity to generate more support for its struggling war in Yemen. For Shia throughout the region, though, Nimr was a symbol of Saudi Arabia's oppression of Shia, and of the dangers that Shia face in the mostly Sunni Middle East.

Who was Nimr al-Nimr, and why did Saudi Arabia kill him?

houthis nimr baqir al-nimr
Yemeni Shias protest the Saudi death sentence for Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shia cleric and protest movement leader. (Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Nimr al-Nimr was a Shia cleric from Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, home to many of the country's Shia minority, who are about 15 percent of the population and have long been marginalized by the officially Sunni government.

Nimr is not a mainstream Shia figure, but he attracted a following for his anti-government rhetoric. While other Saudi Shia leaders tried to improve Shia conditions by working within the political system, Nimr opposed the system, and made no secret that he saw Iran — Saudi Arabia's enemy — as his ally in this. While he did not call for a violent Shia uprising, he didn't much discourage it, and he hinted that he might support Iran intervening in Saudi Arabia to protect Shia there.

In 2008, for example, Nimr met with US officials at the American embassy. One of the officials, in a diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, wrote that Nimr had downplayed violence but nonetheless implied support for it:

Al-Nimr's private remarks were consistent with his previous public statements in their disregard for the [Saudi government], their support of foreign intervention on behalf of the Saudi Shi'a, and their inferences that the Sheikh at the very least will not denounce the idea of violent uprising. ... [S]ome local analysts ... believe that al-Nimr would not hesitate to join Iranian agents in a possible uprising.

Nimr became more widely known in 2011, when he harshly criticized the Saudi government (in a sermon after Prince Nayef died, he said, "Nayef, where are your guards to protect you from your maggots in the grave") and supported Shia protests in Saudi Arabia.

While the Shia protests were initially inspired by the Arab Spring, they were focused less on democracy per se than on demanding better treatment of Shia. That was initially a distinction with little real difference, but Saudi security forces cracked down on the protests, "leading parts of the movement to turn toward militancy," Cambridge-based Middle East scholar Toby Matthiesen wrote this summer. "Saudi security forces, which also suffered casualties in frequent shootouts, shot more than 25, mainly young, Shiite men."

In 2012, Saudi authorities arrested Nimr as part of its largely successful campaign to put down both violent and peaceful Shia unrest. They blamed him for inciting the violence and accused him of firing on the police who arrested him (Nimr's family denies this, and it indeed seems suspect). They also accused him of aiding "foreign meddling."

He was sentenced to death in 2014. Many outside observers hoped that Saudi leaders, who let Nimr's death sentence dangle for more than a year, would never actually carry it out, or might even pardon him. But they carried it out.

The bigger story behind Saudi Arabia's execution of Nimr al-Nimr

The Saudi government appears to view Nimr as someone who committed two major crimes: stirring up Shia sectarianism and encouraging Saudi Shias to side against their own country and with Iran.

That's a grave fear for Saudi Arabia. Since Nimr's arrest in 2012, Saudi Arabian tension with Iran has increased — they are supporting opposite sides in Syria's civil war, and Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the war in Yemen.

BuzzFeed's Borzou Daragahi quotes an "influential former Saudi official" explaining the government's official view:

"He’s directly responsible for having encouraged demonstrations that led to several fatalities among Saudi policemen in 2012, 2013 and 2014. He also encouraged a youth group to attack the police offices in Qatif with assault rifles."

"He’s also on record advocating for sedition as well as — absurd as it sounds — the break up of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. [He was also] receiving funds and guidance from Iranian foundations."

But there is real reason to be skeptical that this is the whole truth. One clue: If Saudi Arabia were really motivated by a desire to tamp down sectarianism, it would have spared Nimr's life rather than executing him, which it had to know would provoke a major international incident and a global Shia backlash, including among its own Shia.

In fact, it seems more likely that this execution is meant to promote sectarianism within Saudi Arabia. Vali Nasr, a scholar and former State Department senior adviser, tweeted that the "sectarian narrative helps Saudi rulers at tough times: rally Sunnis at home and in region against Shia challenge."

"The execution, both its timing and that it happened at all, was very calculated," says Toby C. Jones, a Middle East scholar at Rutgers who often writes on Saudi-Iran issues.

He especially pointed to Saudi Arabia's now months-long war in Yemen, where Saudi and allied forced are bombing a Shia insurgency that has taken over the government. Saudi Arabia — which views Yemen as its backyard, sort of how Russia views Ukraine — is convinced the insurgents are Iranian puppets.

"It's no secret that the war there is going terribly," Jones says, adding that dropping oil prices have hurt the economy. "One way to deflect attention away ... is to find a way to sustain ideological commitment to the campaign. The Saudis have never really developed a coherent kind of nationalism, but they sure have gotten traction out of anti-Shiism."

Jones called Nimr's execution "red meat to the sectarian radicals," including the Saudi clerical establishment, hard-line religious scholars, and the judiciary. By promoting "anti-Shiism, anti-Iranian fervor, anti-Houthi passions, and so on," Saudi Arabia likely hopes to promote its official narrative of the Yemen war and "help diminish any pressure to stop the war."

Saudi leaders have, in the past, oscillated between protecting the country's Shia minority at home and indulging anti-Shia sentiment among its clerical and hard-line establishment, for example by closing Shia mosques. By executing Nimr, Saudi Arabia appears to be indulging anti-Shiism so as to rally that hard-liner and clerical establishment to the government's agenda.

"Sectarianism is really no longer a radical project. Probably better to call it a mainstream one," Jones told me. "It used to be for the crazies. No longer."

Sure enough, the same day that Saudi Arabia announced it had executed Nimr, it also announced it was formally ending the latest ceasefire in Yemen. To be clear, Jones isn't saying this is all about Yemen. Rather, it's that Saudi Arabia's foreign policy priorities happen to line up with sectarianism, and today that priority is Yemen.

The Sunni-Shia conflict isn't about religion. It's about the Iran-Saudi cold war.

khamenei sentences
Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gives a speech in Tehran. ( - Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

One of the biggest drivers of conflict in the Middle East today is the enormous tension and violence between Sunni and Shia. The wars in Syria and in Yemen split largely between Sunni and Shia. In Iraq, the country and its politics are divided between Sunni and Shia, which is part of what allowed ISIS to rise among the Sunni minority there. And the split this week between Iran and Saudi Arabia is along Sunni-Shia lines as well, starting with Saudi Arabia's execution of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

But that conflict isn't really about religion, even if it's expressed along religious lines. Rather, it's driven by the cold war struggle for influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Because both are theocracies, and Iran claims to represent the world's Shia and Saudi Arabia claims to represent its Sunnis, they have sought to fight one another on Sunni-Shia lines — thus making that religious division much more violent and fraught.

There is indeed a religious division between Sunni and Shia Islam, going back to the first generations of the religion's founding in the seventh century. You can read about those ancient religious differences and how they opened here, but the truth is that this is not terribly relevant to today's violence.

Sunni and Shia have gotten along fine for much of the Middle East's history, and the Sunni-Shia divide was just not so important for the region's politics. In the 1980s, for example, the biggest conflict in the Middle East was between two Shia-majority countries — Iran and Iraq — with Sunni powers backing Iraq.

That changed in 2003, when the United States led the invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. Saddam was hostile to both Iran and to Saudi Arabia (despite Saudi support for his 1980s war against Iran), and those two countries saw him as a wild-eyed threat. He held the Middle East in a precarious sort of balance.

When the US toppled Saddam, it removed that balance, and opened a vacuum in Iraq that both Saudi Arabia and Iran attempted to fill so as to counter one another. Because Iraq was mostly Shia (Saddam had been Sunni), Iran tried to exploit sectarianism to its advantage, backing hard-line Shia groups that would promote Iranian interests and oppose Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia. It also put pressure on the new Iraqi government to serve Iranian interests, which came to be equated with Shia interests.

In this way, political maneuvering in post-Saddam Iraq that was not primarily about religion came to be expressed as about religion. It helped deepen the Sunni-Shia divide there so severely that this divide today defines Iraq.

If the Sunni-Shia conflict isn't about religion, how did it get that way?

syrian rebel aleppo
A Syrian rebel fighter in Aleppo. (Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)
(Baraa al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

In 2011, when the Arab Spring began upending governments across the Middle East, both Saudi Arabia and Iran again tried to fill the vacuums, and that often meant supporting violence. It also meant deliberately amping up Sunni-Shia sectarianism to serve their interests.

In Yemen, for example, Saudi Arabia saw the Shia Houthi insurgency as an Iranian puppet (Iran did support the insurgency, though this support is easy to overstate). So to isolate Iran's influence in Yemen and to gin up support for Saudi Arabia's intervention there, it tried to make the war about Sunni versus Shia. Iran played a role in this, as well (albeit a smaller one), aiding insurgents whose Shia identity it hoped would make them effective anti-Saudi proxies.

This is a big part of why the Middle East is so divided today between Sunni and Shia: In weak states, Iran and Saudi Arabia have tried to position themselves as the patrons of their respective religious clans so as to assert influence, and they have ginned up sectarianism to promote fear of the other side. Sectarianism is just a tool. But that sectarianism has become a reality as Middle Eastern militias and political parties line up along sectarian lines and commit violence along those lines.

In Baghdad after 2003, people who had once lived in mixed Sunni-Shia communities divided themselves into Sunni neighborhoods and Shia neighborhoods. Sunni areas formed Sunni militias, and Shia did the same, at first to protect from one another, then to drive out the other group, and eventually to kill one another.

You can see the same thing unfolding on a national scale in Syria. The violence at first had little to do with religion: It was about the Syrian people versus a tyrannical government. But the Syrian government is allied with Iran, which means it is hostile to Saudi Arabia, so the Saudis see it as their enemy. The Saudis and other Sunni Gulf states armed Syrian rebels who are Sunni hard-liners, knowing their anti-Shia views made them more hostile to Iran and more loyal to Saudi interests.

Iran used much the same strategy, portraying the Syrian war as a genocidal campaign against Shia. This helped Tehran attract Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon that would fight for Iranian interests. Making the Syrian civil war as sectarian as possible also ensures that the Syrian government, which is Shia, will remain loyal to Iran.

It's important to understand that the Middle East is mostly Sunni. So for Saudi Arabia, it might seem like a winning strategy to promote sectarianism, and to align itself with Sunnis and thus force Shia to align themselves with Iran. By forcing a Sunni-Shia divide, the Saudis can make sure they are on the stronger side. You can see this, for example, in how Saudi Arabia funded Sunni extremists in Syria, helping to turn an initially non-sectarian civil war into a sectarian conflict. (Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, though Shia, did this as well, cynically hoping to make the opposition toxic and force Iran to back him, which worked.)

But Iran has used sectarianism as tool as well. While you could argue that Iran was at times backed into this strategy by Saudi Arabia — if the Saudis support Sunnis to isolate Iran, Iran could be expected to back Shia to hold on to some influence — it also pursued it aggressively, for example in Iraq and now in Syria. It did not always begin the sectarian competition, but it was happy to join Saudi Arabia in playing that game.

Why do Saudi Arabia and Iran hate each other?

A billboard depicting Iran's Islamic revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran in 1996. (Scott Peterson/Liaison via Getty)

This conflict began in 1979, when the Iranian revolution turned secular Iran into a hard-line Shia theocracy. My colleague Zack Beauchamp explains:

After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution toppled the pro-Western shah, the new Islamic Republic established an aggressive foreign policy of exporting the Iranian revolution, attempting to foment Iran-style theocratic uprisings around the Middle East. That was a threat to Saudi Arabia's heavy influence in the Middle East, and perhaps to the Saudi monarchy itself.

"The fall of the shah and the establishment of the militant Islamic Republic of [founding leader] Ruhollah Khomeini came as a particularly rude shock to the Saudi leadership," University of Virginia's William Quandt writes. It "brought to power a man who had explicitly argued that Islam and hereditary kingship were incompatible, a threatening message, to say the least, in [the Saudi capital of] Riyadh." In response, Saudi Arabia and other ultra-conservative Gulf monarchies formed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an organization initially designed to counter and contain Iranian influence.

It's important to understand that the Saudi monarchy is deeply insecure: It knows that its hold on power is tenuous, and its claim to legitimacy comes largely from religion. The Islamic Republic of Iran, merely by existing, challenges this legitimacy — not because it is Shia, but because its theocratic revolution was popular, it was presenting a claim to represent Muslims better than the Saudi monarchy.

And Iran, in its first years, did try very deliberately to foster such revolutions abroad, including in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis saw this as a declaration of war against their very monarchy and a serious threat against their rule.

But note that, at first, this conflict had nothing to do with the Sunni-Shia divide, and in fact it was a conflict in which both Iran and Saudi Arabia saw themselves as representing all Muslims.

Iran isn't trying to export its Islamic Revolution abroad anymore, particularly not to Saudi Arabia. But both governments still see each other as illegitimate in their claim to represent all Muslims. Saudi Arabia's government is premised on its religious authority over Islam's holiest sites. Iran's government is premised on its 1979 revolution ostensibly championing Islamic independence against a hostile world. But they can't both be the true representatives of all Muslims.

In response, Saudi Arabia helped support Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's 1980s war against Iran, which killed perhaps a million people and inflicted terrible trauma on Iranian society. In Iran, the war with Iraq is remembered as if it occurred yesterday, and Saudi Arabia is often blamed.

You can still see this divide play out whenever there is a deadly accident during the Hajj (the annual religious pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, holy Muslim cities in Saudi Arabia). Any such accident brings harsh condemnation from Iran, which is implicitly criticizing not just the Saudi government but the very premise of the Saudi state.

Over time, the revolutionary roots of the Iran-Saudi rivalry have faded a bit. But the nature of conflict is often less about the root causes than about the sheer momentum of conflict itself. Both countries still see one another as terrible threats. Both countries see their own actions as defensive and the other side's as offensive. Both countries see the broader Middle East as the battleground for this competition, and have fought one another by sponsoring competing sides in Lebanon in the 1980s, in Iraq in the 2000s, and today in Syria. Both recruit regional governments to their side and insist on hostility to the other side.

And because these proxy struggles have often played out on Sunni-versus-Shia lines, it has contributed tremendously to the sectarian fear, distrust, and violence that today drives so much of the Middle East's turmoil.

This week's escalation poses a tremendous danger to the Middle East

US Secretary of State John Kerry, then-UN Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva in 2013. (LARRY DOWNING/AFP/Getty)

Over the past six months, the United States and other Western powers — even, at times, Russia — have tried to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together to discuss a peace deal for Syria. Peace isn't possible in Syria until both Saudi Arabia and Iran back down from supporting their proxy forces there. And Western countries know they can't defeat ISIS and end the refugee crisis, which is now threatening European unity, until they end Syria's civil war.

Those peace talks were looking, impossibly, like they might actually come together. Even Moscow was getting on board. At the same time, in Yemen's civil war peace talks were scheduled for later this month, a glimmer of hope for the humanitarian crisis there.

So in a sense, everything rests on Saudi Arabia and Iran being willing to come together. They were at least getting willing to sit down with one another at peace talks — an early but crucial step in the right direction. But this week's escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran has probably undone that progress. And it thus makes the prospect of peace in Yemen or in Syria — and thus the prospect of ending the refugee crisis and defeating ISIS — a good deal dimmer.

In Yemen, for example, the Carnegie Endowment scholar Farea al-Muslimi warns that sectarianism is "poisoning" the country. In the past, "religious coexistence and intermingling was taken for granted by most Yemenis and seen as a normal feature of everyday life." But the war that broke out with 2011's popular uprising and has since become increasingly sectarian, due in part to foreign meddling along sectarian lines, has changed that. Now it is "reorganizing Yemeni society along sectarian lines and rearranging people's relationships to one another on a non-nationalist basis." It doesn't just make peace less likely in the present conflict; it makes the entire Yemeni state less viable in the long term.

It also means that grassroots Sunni-Shia violence, which often spins out of control far beyond what even Saudi Arabia or Iran wants, becomes likelier.

Saudi Arabia's sectarian strategy puts even Saudi Arabia at risk

Saudi police at the scene of an ISIS bombing in May that targeted a Shia mosque. (AFP/Getty)

Even though this week's crisis began with Saudi Arabia executing Nimr, probably to deliberately promote sectarianism, it's a crisis that puts Saudi Arabia itself at risk

Anti-Shia sectarianism might help drive Saudi-backed Islamist militias, but it also feeds into ISIS, which poses a real threat to Saudi Arabia.

ISIS frequently targets Shia, including in Saudi Arabia itself — this May, it claimed a Shia mosque attack within Saudi Arabia that killed 21. But it's not just that.

Shortly after the May attack, Matthiesen, the Cambridge scholar, wrote that Saudi Arabia was facing a choice. If it continued to foment anti-Shia sectarianism, he said, it would invite more violence within Saudi Arabia itself:

Saudi Arabia may have to choose between using anti-Shiism as a political tool at home and abroad and the very real threat that extremists taking anti-Shiism too seriously will bring the fight back home – with unpredictable consequences for the stability of Saudi Arabia and the wider region.

This is a threat to Saudi leaders as well. ISIS explicitly seeks to destroy the Saudi government. Though it is a common misconception among Americans that Saudi Arabia supports ISIS, in fact the two are very much enemies.

If you will forgive the cliché, sectarianism has always been a double-edged sword for Saudi Arabia, serving short-term political aims while also creating potentially terrible long-term problems for the Middle East and Saudi Arabia itself. Sectarianism did not cause the war in Syria, but it is making that war a lot worse. Sectarianism also did not cause ISIS, but it was a factor, and one in which shortsighted Saudi policies did not exactly hurt. Matthiesen again:

The Islamic State can feed on decades of anti-Shiite incitement in Saudi schools, Islamic universities, and the media. Indeed, many of the militants that join the uprisings in Syria and the insurgency in Iraq are driven by a desire to counter Iranian and Shiite influence, foreign policy goals that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are also working towards.

This is all to say that Saudi Arabia's execution of Nimr al-Nimr shows an escalation of its already-disastrous strategy of exploiting sectarianism for political ends at home and abroad. It's a strategy that is not just cynical and short-termist — it's a real contributor to extremism and violence in the wider Middle East and in Saudi Arabia itself, ultimately putting even the House of Saud royals who ordered Nimr's death at risk.

As Marc Lynch, a Middle East scholar based at George Washington University, tweeted, "Saudi execution of Nimr mirrors its Yemen war: reckless, poorly conceived, counterproductive and forcing everyone else to pay grisly price."