The religious roots of Iran’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia

SHAUN HEASLEY REUTERS Then Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy Advisor Adel-Al-Jubeir gestures during a press conference in response to U.S. engineer … Continued



Then Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy Advisor Adel-Al-Jubeir gestures during a press conference in response to U.S. engineer Paul Marshal Johnson’s beheading at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, in this June 18, 2004 file photo. U.S. authorities broke up an alleged plot to bomb the Israeli and Saudi Arabian embassies in Washington and assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, court documents and a U.S. official said on October 11, 2011.

The furor over the alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States has made one point clear: The most important strategic divide in the Middle East today is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At issue is religion and power. Iran’s clerical rulers see their regime as the product of the first and only Islamic revolution, and the true vanguard of Islamic politics in the Muslim world.

For it’s part, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam; the Saudi king carries the title of the keeper of the two holiest shrines in Islam (those of Mecca and Medina). The Saudi monarchy was also born of a puritanical religious revolt and continues to see itself as the true standard bearer of Islam.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two most avowedly religious states in the Middle East. But they are not of the same creed. At issue between them is not which is more religious and truer to the spirit of Islamic law, but rather whose Islam is the true faith. The majority of Iranians are followers of Shiism, the smaller of the Islam’s two main branches, and Saudis are predominantly followers of Sunnism.

Since the Iranian revolution the two have competed over leadership of the Muslim world and claims over who speaks for Islam. Ayatollah Khomeini denounced the Saudi monarchy in his will, and Saudi clerics have reciprocated with fatwas declaring Shias as heathen. The rivalry between the two has divided Islamists into warring camps. In Pakistan, it ignited a sectarian war that continues to rage and over the past three decades has claimed thousands of lives.

The Iraq war transferred power from Iraq’s minority Sunni regime to its majority Shia population. That emboldened Iran and angered Saudi Arabia, which continues to support that country’s Sunnis and shun its Shia leaders.

The same pattern has since unfolded in Lebanon where Iranian-backed Shia Hezbollah is now accused of murdering that country’s popular Saudi-backed Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, and more recently, of ousting his son from office and replacing him with a Sunni politician of its own choosing.

The familiar narrative of the Arab Spring is its call for democracy, but behind that hopeful dynamic lies the specter of more Saudi-Iranian competition, this time to decide what comes after faltering dictatorships. Saudis drew a line in the sand when Bahrain’s Shia protesters looked poised to topple the Sunni monarchy in that island kingdom, and Tehran and Riyadh are now supporting opposite sides in Syria.

After Iraq, the West took refuge in the false hope that the worst of Middle East’s sectarian conflicts were over. But the Washington plot shows that the fundamental divide at the heart of Islam continues to shape regional politics. This is a struggle shaped by identity that is defined by sect; but it is not a battle waged in books or at mosques and seminaries. It is now high politics intermingled with rivalry between states. Iraq’s sectarian war was a paroxysm of violence; the Saudi-Iranian rivalry burns on a much slower fuse. This is battle over who garners the political power of Islam; but also which claimant to leadership of the Muslim world and the sect of Islam that it represents, will decide the future of the Middle East.

Vali Nasr is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. From 2009 to 2011, he was an advisor to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. He is the author of many books, including, “The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future.” Follow him on Twitter @vali_nasr.

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  • sglogan1

    Successive European, US and other governments in the international community have gone out of their way to help the theocratic tyranny change its terrorist and belligerent policies and in particular its thirst for the nuclear bomb. The US administrations of all colours have gone as far as placing the main Iranian democratic opposition on the FTO list as well as letting the mullahs get away literally with murder of thousands of US soldiers in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq by the Iranian regime’s proxy terrorist groupuscules of whatever religious persuasion, not to mention keeping quiet on the terrorist regime’s cooperation with the Al-Qaeda in shedding the blood of 3000 innocent civilians in the twin towers. Does any sane person wonder why the regime does not understand the modern world? Theocratic rule belongs to the Dark Ages and we won’t want it in our own home countries, and nor do the Iranian or other Middle Eastern people want it in theirs as evident in the tens of thousands of Iranian democracy campaigners who’ve given the ultimate price to bring freedom to their country. It’s high time we stop meddling in the Iranian affairs on behalf of the religious fascism and help the Iranian people and opposition to bring about freedom and sanity to their homeland and peace and stability to their vitally important region.

  • bobaluchowdury

    “keeping quiet on the terrorist regime’s cooperation with the Al-Qaeda in shedding the blood of 3000 innocent civilians in the twin towers.”

    If it was so quiet then why do you know about it? I’ve never heard of any legitimate source claim the Iranians had a hand in 911. I don’t like defending the Iranian regime but lets stay grounded in truth.

  • Esther_Haman

    Our bumbling Zionist infested government can’t come up with anything better than this half baked scenario to start a war between Iran and the Saudis?! They really are desperate and must be hearting bad to sell more weapons to these guys who can actually pay for it too! Why would Iran plan to kill the Saudi ambassador, why NOT the King himself? And why here in the US while they are less than 20 minutes away from each other on each side of the Persian gulf?! Doesn’t Saudi have enough enemy in Bahrain or Yemen or Palestine or Lebanon or Syria etc etc that could take of the business then and there?!

    Iran is not the only Shea country and Saudis are not the only Sunni country, but they actually have never fought on that basis. If we are trying to create a new Northern Ireland/Belfast conflict and start a new religion war, we are whistling Dixie, it will never work.

    Get rea

  • ccnl1

    Dear Sunnis and Shiites,


    Saving Yourselfs from needless bloodshed!!!

    The Five Steps To Deprogram 1400 Years of Islamic Myths:
    ( –The Steps take less than two minutes to finish- simply amazing, two minutes to bring peace and rationality to over one billion lost souls- Priceless!!!)

    Are you ready?

    Using “The 77 Branches of Islamic “faith” a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true “faith” (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings.” i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

    The First Five of the 77 Branches:

    “1. Belief in Allah”

    aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your cleansing neurons.

    “2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence.”

    Evolution and the Big Bang or the “Gi-b G-nab” (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the “akas” for Allah should be included if you continue to be a “crea-tionist”.

    “3. To believe in the existence of angels.”

    A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No “pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies” ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and “tin–ker be-lls”. Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

    “4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore.”

    Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written

  • ccnl1

    Ooops, make that “Saving Yourselves”

  • mbintampa

    Nonsense, the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is all about politics. The revolutionary Iran v.s. the monarchist feudal Saudi. The Iranian revolution inspired sunni uprising against their governments in the early days of Iranian revolution. The Shia-Sunni rivalry was concocted by the Saudi regime in early 1980’s with their own paid Sunni scholars to save themselves and redirect the political/religious force against them in a different direction. The result was hyper-extremism and groups like Al Qaeda, uncontrollable and hating everyone.

  • Secular1

    Oh! come on mbintampa. BTW are you child of tampa, as in Tampa, Florida? Just curious, back to the silliness you are trying to spread. This rivalry has been going on for past 13 – 14 hundred years. It all started because the whiny Ali thought, because he is MO’s son-in-law he should become the Caliph. Of course then there were everyone else in the “Anyone But Ali” camp – that included MO’s favorite nubile young thing Ayesha.

    This went on for a few generations, where Ali’s two sons were slaughtered by the Sunnis and the feud continues. Funny thing is that political leader of the Sunnis was Abu Sufiyan MO’s nemesis, who although accepted Islam when he had no where else to go, had the final laugh. His children and grand children could not cast away Islam but for their own selfish and practical reason, but couldn’t care for MO one bit. Sunnis are the seed of Abu Sufiyan and Shia are the seed of MO.

  • heinpe

    Sounds like Gulliver’s Travels… the war between the “Big-Endians” and the “Small-Endians”, referring to which way they broke their soft-boiled eggs.

  • Secular1

    Hmm! I always thought small/big endian was how the two hex digits were given the place values in the cpu/hardware architecture.

  • cs9243

    Why the US should get involved in this fight between sunnis and shias?
    US should stay away from this. No more meddling in the middle east by the US and the european allies.

  • sglogan1

    bobaluchowdury – I only got to know a couple of weeks ago when I read about 200 families of the 9/11 victims who’s taken the terrorist regime to court for its role. I also heard about the Congress report which stated this but the US admins never followed up its recommendations.