The undeclared war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not going well for the more numerous Sunnis (led by the Saudis). At the end of 2016 the outnumbered (by more than five to one) Shia, led by Iran are winning in all the major fronts (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen). That’s a big change from the start of the year.
One could say that the shift began on January 2nd 2016 when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent local Shia cleric. Saudi Arabia has a large (over 15 percent of the population) Shia minority. Iran always stood ready to help their fellow Shia out. But that January execution 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 Sunni 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. Fundamentally it’s an ancient succession dispute (over who should rule the entire Islamic world) the flared up again in the 1980s when Sunni Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity to grab some valuable oil fields just across the border in Iran. With Iran in chaos after Shia clergy led a revolution to overthrow the Iranian monarchy it seemed like a reasonable risk. The disorder caused by the Shia clergy carrying out a violent reorganization of Iranian society was not divisive as Saddam believed once the Arab neighbor invaded. Saddam’s land grab failed big time 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. Iran was supposed to become a democracy after the monarchy fell but Saddam’s aggression gave the Shia clerics an opportunity to take control of writing the new constitution so that it replaced the monarchy with a religious dictatorship.
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 Saddam 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.
Then in 1990 Saddam Hussain, rather than repay the billions he had borrowed from Kuwait, invaded Kuwait and declared it the “19th province” of Iraq. In 1990 the Saudis joined a U.S. led coalition to liberate Kuwait. The Saudis demanded that the coalition 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. The Arabs really couldn’t blame the Americans about Saddam. 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 was what many 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 in Saudi Arabia 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 Shia rebels in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and much other clandestine mischief. For the Saudis it was downhill from there.
One of the more obvious Iranian moves was taking advantage of the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon. In the 1980s Iranian assistance turned most of the Shia minority there into a lethal pro-Iran militia and terrorist organization called Hezbollah. After 1990 Hezbollah came to dominate Lebanese politics. Meanwhile 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 threatened to reignite the civil war in Lebanon (where Arab Christians are the largest minority, followed by Shia, Sunni, and several smaller groups). The Iran-backed Shia Hezbollah militia took advantage of the situation and expanded their power. By 2016 Iran (via Hezbollah) had a veto over all major Lebanese government decisions, even though the Shia were a minority in Lebanon.
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. To many in the Persian Gulf it was tantamount to a declaration of war.
This led to Iran encouraging Shia tribal militias in Yemen to attempt a takeover of the government there. That almost succeeded in early 2015 and was avoided only when a Saudi led military coalition intervened. The Yemeni Shia were stopped, pushed back but not defeated and they remain defiant. The Arabs showed they could use all those high-tech weapons they had bought from the West, but lacked the skill and daring to crush the Shia militias. Iran and the Shia Arabs in Yemen believe that the Shia rebels can hold off the Sunni coalition (most Yemenis are Sunni) off long enough to get a favorable (for the Shia) settlement.
In Syria Iran also managed to do the seeming impossible and defeat the Sunni rebels. This was accomplished by persuading Russia to intervene militarily in mid-2015 in the name of defeating ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Everyone could agree that ISIL, a more rabid branch of al Qaeda that showed up in 2013, had to go. Less frequently discussed was the fact that al Qaeda began in Saudi Arabia and ISIL drew most of its recruits and much of its cash contributions from wealthy Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil states. This is a problem for the Saudis (as Sunni extremists have long been in Arabia) but they consider Iran a much larger problem and most Arabs agree with that.
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. Much to the distress of the Arabs Iran moves slowly, deliberately and usually wins when their scheme reaches a climax. Arabs have been on the wrong end of this before and do not approach the situation with nearly as much self-confidence. Most outsiders don’t appreciate all this but these ancient animosities, rivalries and conflicts mean everything to the people in the Persian Gulf.