The undeclared war between Saudi Arabia and Iran seemed to get hot on January 2nd when Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including a prominent Shia cleric. That one death generated anti-Saudi demonstrations in Iran and an attack on the Saudi embassy. This led the Saudis to break diplomatic relations with Iran. This was yet another skirmish in a conflict that actually began in 1979 when Shia clerics gained control of Iran and made it clear that Shia Iran should lead all of Islam, not Saudi Arabia. Iran also began talking about how the Saudis were not fit to manage the Moslem holy places in Mecca. If you step back a bit you can see how all this is yet another round in the 1,200 year old war between Shia and Sunni Islam. This round is being fought in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
This round of the ancient succession dispute (over who should rule the entire Islamic world) heated up quickly in the 1980s, when Sunni Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity while Iran was in chaos as the Shia clergy there overthrew the monarchy and began reorganizing Iranian society. To outsiders this was a messy revolution and Saddam thought he could seize several major Iranian oil fields just across the border. So Saddam invaded. That land grab failed and turned into a decade of war that caused over two million casualties and put the Shia clergy firmly in control of the Iranian government (which was supposed to become a democracy after the monarchy fell).
Once firmly in power the Iranian clerics saw this as an opportunity to cut the Sunni (80 percent of Moslems are Sunni and Saudi Arabia is sort of their leader) down to size. The Saudis had long feared this and that was why they supported keeping the Sunni minority in power in Iraq. That led the wealthy Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to finance Iraq as it struggled to deal with the Iranian counterattack in the early 1980s. Iran tried to strike back at Saudi Arabia by encouraging Shia attending the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca to cause trouble. In 1987 the Saudis cracked down hard and 275 Iranian pilgrims died (along with 125 others, mainly Saudi police). That led to mobs attacking the Saudi embassy in Iran, which left one Saudi diplomat dead. Iran and Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations for a while. A year later Iran accepted a stalemate and a ceasefire in Iraq. Iran wanted revenge and began organizing terrorist attacks against Saudi Arabia.
In 1990, the Saudis demanded that the American coalition organized to drive the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, not invade Iraq. This promise was no secret, but it made little sense to most Westerners (who knew little of the Sunni-Shia conflict). Thus the Saudis were not pleased when the Americans went into Iraq in 2003 and deposed Saddam and his Sunni dictatorship. Iran saw this as a win. After 1990, the Saudis agreed that Saddam was bad and said they would ease him out. After more than a decade of effort (and financing over a dozen assassination plots or coup attempts) Saddam was still in power which what the Saudis preferred. The Saudis thought if they could replace Saddam with another Sunni strongman all would be well but Saddam was extremely resilient. So were his Sunni followers, who kept fighting after 2003. But now Iran had an ally, rather than an adversary, in Iraq, where the Shia majority voted itself into power in 2005. For the first time in over five centuries the Shia were running this area once more. Meanwhile the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex, which left 18 American military personnel dead, was eventually (after a three year investigation) traced back to Iran. After 2001 Iran also began energetically supporting Shai rebels in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and much other clandestine mischief.
One of the more obvious moves was taking advantage of the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon to turn most of the Shia minority into a lethal pro-Iran militia and terrorist organization (Hezbollah) in the 1980s. After 1990 Hezbollah came to dominate Lebanese politics. Neighboring Syria, where a secular dictatorship was run by a Shia minority and constantly at odds with Saddam’s Iraq, became an ally (and client) of Iran in the 1980s. Syria had been a sanctuary for Arab terrorists (secular or Islamic) since the 1960s and was the main support base for the 2003-7 Iraq Sunni terrorist campaign. That one was crushed, but not destroyed, when most Iraqi Sunnis, fearing expulsion from Iraq, turned on the terrorists. That did not bring all the material benefits (government jobs and a larger share of the oil income) many Sunnis expected, and that enabled the Sunni terror groups to continue recruiting and killing. In Syria, the Sunni majority noted the persistence (if not success) of the Iraqi Sunni terrorists and were advised by Iraqi Sunnis how to organize to fight a hated government. That led to the current civil war in Syria. That, in turn, has reignited the civil war in Lebanon (where Arab Christians are the largest minority, followed by Shia, Sunni, and several smaller groups). The
Arabian Peninsula states (all of them Sunni run but with a lot of Shia subjects) were alarmed at this Shia expansion to their north. In effect, there was a “Shia wall” up there and to make matters worse the Iranian clerics were talking openly about how much better off Islam would be if Shia (led by Iran) protected (and administered) the most sacred Moslem holy cities of Mecca and Medina instead of the Sunni Saud family. Iran saw their demands justified when over 2,400 Hajj pilgrims (including 450 Iranians) died during the 2015 pilgrimage because of inept Saudi management of the event that led to a huge stampede. At this points Shia clergy were openly calling for a change in management (from Saudi to Iran) in Mecca and soon. The implication was that this was an emergency and “any means necessary” (including Iranian nukes) were justified to make it happen. So yes, there is very much another Sunni-Shia war going on and Iraq, Syria and Yemen are right in the middle of it as are all the Persian Gulf states that control so much of the world oil supply.
January 20, 2016