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Monday, January 4, 2016

The King and Ay(atollah): Examining the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Mark Twain, the famous American author, once said "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."

It seems to have rhymed with itself again in the Middle East.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Iran have formally severed diplomatic ties.

The diplomatic decision comes amid steel and fire. On January the 2nd, Saudi Arabia executed forty-six people. Most of them were terrorists belonging to Al-Qaeda.

One of them, however, was a Shi'a cleric named Nimr Al-Nimr.

Al-Nimr was a Saudi Shi'a critical of the Saudi government who even at one point suggested Saudi Arabia's populous Eastern Province (pictured below) should secede from the Kingdom if the country would not give its Shi'a minority, which is around 10-15% of the population and mostly concentrated in the Eastern Province, its deserved rights. Al-Nimr also called for free elections in Saudi Arabia. As Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, it does not include a national legislature as part of the structure of its government. Elections do occur, but only at the very local level and they cede little power away from the royal family.

Provincial map of Saudi Arabia. The Eastern Province is shown in red. 
Map from Wikipedia. 

Across the Persian Gulf, Iranians reacted with terrible rage and fury. In Tehran, Iran's capital and largest city, thugs stormed the Saudi embassy, ransacked the compound and set entire rooms ablaze. The Saudi consulate in Mashhad, a large city in Iran's northeast not far from the border with Turkmenistan, saw similar damage. The rioters allegedly chanted "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Greatest!) and "Marg Bar Al-Saud!" ("Down with/Death to the Al-Saud family!") as they torched the buildings. 

If the rioters were indeed chanting "Allahu Akbar!", it sheds light on one of the main reasons Saudi Arabia and Iran are not very friendly with each other. Both are predominately Islamic countries, but Saudi Arabia is mostly Sunni Muslim, where as Iran is mostly Shi'a Muslim. The two sects of Islam branched off from each other centuries ago over a dispute regarding who should succeed Mohammed, Islam's holiest of prophets, and have been at odds ever since. 

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran claim to speak for their respective sect of Islam. The Saudi flag contains in beautiful, sweeping Arabic calligraphy the shahadah, or testament of faith that is central to Islam: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet." 


Iran's flag, since the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei to power, has contained a stylized version of the various Farsi (Persian) words that make up the first part of the same testament, "There is no God but Allah". The green and red stripes of the flag are also bordered with the phrase "God is Greatest" multiple times. 


For two countries that claim to speak for God, it's hard to find any moral high ground in this explosion of tension. In fact, the entire thing is rife with double standards and hypocrisy. Iran 's outrage is understandable when you think about the average person, but it's hard to argue on behalf of the government sitting in Tehran. Both countries carry out public capital punishment, but Iran does it a whole lot more than the Saudis and in an equally gruesome fashion. While Saudi Arabia beheads their criminals with a swing of the sword, Iran hangs their corpses off of construction cranes like some sort of sadistic pinata. Executions have actually gone up in Iran since Hassan Rouhani was elected president. 

Furthermore, it's ironic Iran would complain about the execution of political dissidents. In the 2009 Green Uprising, when Iranians flooded the streets of major cities all across their countries, the security apparatus responded with deadly force. The government claims around three dozen were killed in the unrest, but opposition figures claim between seventy and 150 were killed. Dissidents are tortured and imprisoned regularly in Iran. 

As for the religious dynamic, Sunnis live in Iran just as Shiites live in Saudi Arabia. Like the Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Sunnis do sometimes face discrimination, but Iran's diverse ethnic background does result in more recognition of the minority religion. Iran's Kurdish, Lari, Balochi, and Turkmen populations are predominately Sunni Muslim, and President Rouhani has pledged to reach out to the Sunni minority. Iran also enjoys very friendly relations with Tajikistan, a Sunni Muslim country, because of the strong cultural ties the countries share: Tajiks speak Tajik, a language very similar to Iran's official language, Farsi, and President Ahmadinejad claimed once that "Iran and Tajikistan are one spirit in two bodies."

Furthermore, smaller religious minorities in Iran such as Christians and Jews are also allowed to practice their respective faiths in the country and possess a small handful of reserved seats in the Iranian Parliament. By contrast, if one wishes to become a Saudi citizen, they must convert to Islam. 

The prime suspects in the arson attack on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran seem to be the Basij. The Basij is a paramilitary volunteer group which has often been maligned as more of a branch of the Revolutionary Guard designed to cause trouble. Indeed, when Iranian students loyal to Ayatollah Khomenei's new government stormed and took hostages in the American Embassy, Khomenei offered his support to their actions. 

There is an anti-Saudi sentiment among ordinary Iranians as well. The two countries' respective strength and development make them natural rivals vying for influence in the Middle East, and Arabs and Persians have had a rocky relationship with each other for centuries.

The chances of a permanent solution between the two countries were elusive before and looks near impossible now, and the Sunni-Shi'a divide only further complicates matters. If religion was to take a smaller or much-revised role in both countries with a real decentralization of power in Saudi Arabia, things may be able to change. But with the stubbornness on both sides, that's unlikely.

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