The struggle is essentially geopolitical. The Saudis and Iran are vying for dominance in the Middle East’s empire of oil and political influence in the Muslim world beyond. The competition took off in 1979, when the Shiite Islamic revolution triumphed in Iran. The mullahs of Iran began to spread its influence both by setting itself up as a rival to the US, an enemy of Israel and by supporting of non-state militias, foremost among them Lebanon’s Hezbollah. They solidified their hold on Iran with harsh Islamic moral and social restrictions.
Saudi Arabia, which harbored its own designs for Middle East leadership, reacted by intensifying the spread its own ultra-conservative Islamic ideology, Wahhabism, throughout the region. The Saudis funded mosques, trained preachers and supported insurgent and terrorist groups in places as far afield as Palestine and the North Caucasus. Saudi Arabia had long been ruled by restrictive, conservative notions of Islam.
This competition evolved as am ignored subtext to the intermittent interventions by the US in the Middle East and the chronic instability in the region. Following the disastrous Iraq adventure and the withdrawal of the US from its dominant position in the Middle East, the Sunni Saudi vs. Shiite Iran conflict is taking center stage.
From the Saudi point of view, the Sunnis are on a long losing streak: Iranian dominance in Syria; the rise of Hezbollah as an armed state-within-a-state in Lebanon (exemplified by the assassination of Saudi client, prime minister Rafik Hariri, by Syrian operatives), the Iranian-backed Shiite rebellion in Yemen, a Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and the failure to create a Palestinian state (with Hamas now supported by Iran).
And there is a second front: both Iran and Saudi Arabia maintain internal control through persistent repression of Muslim dissidents. While the Western press paid most attention to the execution of a Shiite i9mam in Saudi Arabia, the 46 other victims were by and large opponents of the royal regime.
The religious aspect of the struggle is especially devastating to coexistence among Muslim civilians. Leaders of both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran consider themselves the carriers of true Islam with aspirations to spread their beliefs world wide . This concept has helped fuel conflicts between Sunni and Shiite communities wherever they meet. It is reflected in the vicious religious cleansing taking place in both Iraq and Syria. Christians, largely bystanders in this conflict, are nonetheless victims as each side seeks to purify its area of control.
In the old days (i.e. from World War I to the end of the US occupation of Iraq), some foreign power might have been willing and able to step in and impose some sort of self-interested, colonial order on such a situation. Not now. The US is unwilling, Great Britain and Europe are effectively in retirement, and Russia is weak, despite its recent flexing of muscle.
The best anyone can do it to try and keep the Saudi-Iran conflict from exploding into total war.
Council on Foreign Relations recounts history of Shiite-Sunni schism.
Financial Times and the role of oil in Saudi-Iranian tensions.
Patrick Cockburn in The Independent looks at ethnic cleansing in Iraq.
Me on the Shiite Crescent war.