Ever since the execution of Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi Arabia, the retaliatory attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the subsequent diplomatic and trade cut off between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the media has reported widely on the Shia-Sunni divide, including the theological differences between the two sects.
But how relevant is this? Are we really witnessing a Shia-Sunni division in Middle East or is it just another manifestation of the power politics in the region? In this piece I will look at the conflict-torn nations one by one, but first a quick background.
Oil and the Saudi-Iran conflict
In 1976, Saudi Arabia became the largest oil producer in the world, and by 1979; it developed close ties with United States of America in a change of foreign policy.
Iran will support any anti-American/Israel movement. That's why Iran treats both Hamas and Hezbollah equally.
In the same year, the revolution in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini ousted the US-backed Shah Reza Pahlavi. This led a fear among the other Gulf nations that the revolution might spread into neighbouring countries. Iraq was the first country to attack Iran in 1980, which led to an eight-year war between the two nations.
In 1981, Saudi Arabia along with other Gulf monarchies formed the GCC or the Gulf Cooperation Council, an organisation initially designed to counter and contain the influence of Iran's revolution, which Saudi saw as a threat to their rule.
The Arab Spring spread to Syria, where it didn't start off as a sectarian conflict but people rebelling against Bashar al-Assad's dictatorial regime. Iran's support of Assad is often explained using a sectarian perspective - the argument is that Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite sect, in a Sunni-majority country.
However, there is very little truth in it. Syria is a secular state unlike Iran which is an Islamic republic.Iran and Syria have had a strategic alliance ever since the Gulf war, when Syria supported Iran against Iraq. The two countries had a common enemy in the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and coordination against the United States and Israel. In late June 2011, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, stated in regards to the uprising: "In Syria, the hand of America and Israel is evident;" and in regards to the Syrian government: "Wherever a movement is anti-American/Israel, we support it."
Iran, being a Shia country supports Hamas, a Sunni Islamist group in Palestine fighting against Israel. Jerusalem also alleges that Iran and Syria have been imparting military training to Hamas soldiers. A leading UK newspaper published a report last year stating that Iran has sent Hamas tens of millions of dollars to help it rebuild the network of tunnels in Gaza destroyed by Israel's invasion in 2013.
As Khamenei noted, Iran will support any anti-American/Israel movement. That's why Iran treats both Hamas and Hezbollah equally.
It is supposedly a Shia vs. Sunni proxy war, where Shias are supporting the Houthi rebels, while Saudi Arabia intervened to support the Sunni government forces. But if we take a closer look into the sectarian issue, the Houthi rebels or the Zaydi-like Alawites are a branch of Shia Muslims -- however, they are the closest to the Sunnis and do not believe in the infallibility of Imams after Husain. So, why would Iran, a Shia country, support someone who is closer to Sunnis in theological terms?
Russia's direct involvement in Syria and its good relations with Iran has got nothing to do with a third person resolving the Islamic caliphate issue...
The Gulf of Aden is a major objective of the war in Yemen. Saudi fears that Iran occupation in Yemen would cut off their access Gulf of Aden from them, and thus, major venues for energy exports. As the New York Times points out, "Nearly all Saudi commerce is via sea, and direct access to the Arabian Sea would diminish dependence on the Persian Gulf -- and fears of Iran's ability to cut off the Strait of Hormuz." In such a scenario, Saudi has an option of using the Gulf of Aden and other Yemeni ports.
Bahrain, a Shia-dominated country ruled by a Sunni monarch, has a trajectory similar to Egypt or Libya, both Sunni countries once ruled by authoritarian Sunni heads who exercised power by suppressing the people.
Russia's direct involvement in Syria and its good relations with Iran has got nothing to do with a third person resolving the Islamic caliphate issue, that is, who should have been the successor to Prophet Muhammad. Syria was an ally of Russia (former Soviet) since the cold war era. The Russian naval facility in Tartus in Syria is Russia's only naval facility in the Mediterranean region and only remaining military facility outside the former USSR. Also, there are an estimated 2000 Russian nationals fighting alongside ISIS, something that Russia sees as a potential national threat.
Very rarely do the western media report on [Shia-Sunni] alliances to take on ISIS.
Russian strong ties with Iran are clearly a rebuttal to America's strong ties with Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. It is power politics.
Shia-Sunni alliances against ISIS
Both Shias and Sunnis are together fighting ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. Sunni battalions formed in the provinces of Anbar and Salahudeen in Iraq have linked with Shia military forces like Badr, Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib ahl Al Haq to take on ISIS. Very rarely do the western media report on such alliances to take on ISIS.
As for ISIS, a primarily Sunni-backed group, it has spared neither Sunnis nor Shias, and their acts have been strongly condemned from clerics of both sects.
A Shia vs. Sunni clash might be a common phenomenon in the bylanes of India and Pakistan, but the power struggle in the Middle East has never really been about religion or theology.