With Saudi Arabia regarding itself as the leader of Sunni Muslims and Iran considering itself the protector of Shias, the game has geo-political as well as religious overtones.

A new great game seems to be on. The locale is West Asia and the principal protagonists are Saudi Arabia and Iran. Unlike the original great game of the late 19th-early 20th century, the current great game has geo-political as well as religious overtones. Saudi Arabia regards itself as the leader of the Sunni Muslim community and Iran is the self-appointed protector of Shias. The Umma technically applies to the entire Muslim fraternity but, in practice, the two branches of Muslim faith do not regard themselves as belonging to the same Umma. They might do so when dealing with or confronting non-Muslims, but between themselves they are antagonistic. The two powers are also engaged in a bitter and determined struggle for dominance in the region.

The Arab-Persian divide cuts across, at least partially, the Shia-Sunni rivalry. At the risk of slight oversimplification, it can be said that as a general rule, an Arab Shia is likely to be more loyal to his Arab identity than to the Shia faith if the latter would imply acting against the interests of his country. This was conclusively demonstrated when the Shias of Iraq fought alongside their Sunni brethren in the war against Iran for eight years.

There are a billion-plus Muslims in the world. Indeed, Islam is the fastest growing religion. Sunnis are in a majority by far; Shias might constitute no more than 15 per cent though most Sunnis would place the figure much lower. Every Sunni majority country has a Shia minority and vice-versa, but the size of the minority varies. There are four Shia majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. The rest are Sunni majority states, with some having significant Shia minorities. In Pakistan, 20 per cent of the population is Shia, Kuwait has about 25 per cent Shias, and Yemen slightly more. In Lebanon, Shias form 35-40 per cent of the total population, while in Egypt the percentage is negligible. Afghanistan has a significant Shia population in its western part, along the border with Iran.

The differences between the two schools emerged soon after Prophet Muhammad's death in 632 over his succession. One group, later known as Sunnis, wanted an elected successor and chose Abu Bakr; the other group, which eventually came to be called Shias, insisted that the succession pass through the Prophet's bloodline and wanted his nephew and son-in-law Ali to be the successor. The two parted company after the death of Ali who became the fourth caliph, more particularly after Hussein, Ali's grandson, was killed by the Sunni caliph of Baghdad. Ever since, the hostility amounting to enmity between the two groups has claimed many lives.

In several Sunni majority countries, Shias may not even be recognised as Muslims. This was the case in Saudi Arabia until a few years ago. In Pakistan, Shias are regularly targeted and killed by Sunni extremists. Even today, the sub-sects of the Shias, such as Ismailis (Seveners) and Ithnasharis (Twelvers), are considered heretics. In Tehran, a city of 16 million, the small Sunni population does not have a single place of worship of its own; there are differences in the rituals of the two groups. When this writer visited Iran some time ago, the locals invariably referred to fellow Shias as Muslims and the others as Sunnis or Sunnas.

The tensions between the Shias and the Sunnis got greatly exacerbated after the American intervention in Iraq in March 2003. The majority Shia community had been repressed since the state of Iraq came into existence in 1932. This continued during Saddam Hussein's reign though he did place some Shias as well as Christians — Tariq Aziz being the most well-known example — in prominent positions. The Shias suddenly found themselves in power for the first time ever and decided to take their revenge on the Sunnis. The result was a bitter and bloody sectarian strife which claimed thousands of lives. Entire neighbourhoods were ethnically, or rather communally, cleansed and people changed names. Most of those who sought refuge in Jordan and Syria were Sunnis. But the most significant consequence of the American intervention, not intended by any means but anticipatable, was the increased space it created for Iran to interfere in the affairs of the region and to become a significant regional player.

The situation today is that Iran has a major voice in Iraq, Lebanon through its proxy Hezbolla which is a predominantly Shia group, and Palestine through its support to Hamas which is a 100 per cent Sunni movement. In Afghanistan, Iran has vital interests as well as influence, and any solution to the Afghan problem would need Iran's cooperation which it is willing to offer but only on its terms which have a lot to do with its dispute with the U.S. and others over its nuclear programme.

Ever since the Islamic Republic was born in 1979, it has boldly pronounced its policy of exporting the Islamic revolution. When the Egyptians poured into the Tahrir Square in January-February this year, Iran claimed the phenomenon as success for its revolution, but clamped down sternly on its own people wanting to demonstrate in Tehran's Azadi Square. The ‘Arab Spring' of 2011 has opened up fresh opportunities for Iran in its neighbourhood, especially Bahrain. Bahrain's ruling family is Sunni, while the Shias account for 65-70 per cent of the population. When the Shia community protested peacefully at the Pearl Square, there were credible reports that Iran was not involved in the beginning. Once external forces, primarily from Saudi Arabia, entered the scene and used significant force to suppress the protests, Iran made its intentions clear. Although it continues to deny any involvement, it is entirely believable that Iran is doing its best to help fellow Shias in Bahrain by whatever means, short of physically sending its militia. It is noteworthy that many Iraqi voices are expressing strong disapproval of the crackdown of the Shia population in Bahrain, especially the Saudi intervention. Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has warned that the Saudi action could launch wars of religion in the Middle East. Ayatolla Ali Shistani, the most powerful leader of the Shia community in Iraq and beyond, has demanded that the Bahrain authorities not use force against the protesters and has called for a dialogue.

In the years immediately following its attack on Iraq, the U.S. tried to cobble together a coalition of ‘moderate' Sunni states to contain Iran's growing influence in the region. Israel could not obviously be a part of this grouping but it fully supported the effort. During the visits by this writer to the countries in the region, it was made clear to him that Iraq's neighbours would not remain silent and inactive if the Sunnis there came under serious danger. The situation did not escalate to that level; neither of the regional powers wanted to risk war.

The interesting point is that it is Iran, the lone Shia superpower which does not have the economic clout of Saudi Arabia, which has adopted an aggressive posture whereas the Sunni states seem to be on the defensive. Iran feels isolated, encircled and threatened by hostile American forces as well as by what it might perceive as antagonistic Sunni states. It is this which perhaps makes the Iranian regime more motivated and forceful in its diplomacy and actions. The feeble attempts by the Americans to discourage Saudi Arabia from sending its troops into Bahrain not only did not succeed but also led the Saudis to the conclusion that they must be on their own when it came to defending their regime and checking Iran's growing influence. If Bahrain's Shias succeed in gaining a share in the power structure, the Saudis will feel truly threatened, given that its Shia community, accounting for about 10 per cent of the population, is concentrated in its eastern territory where its oil assets are located. Any prospect of Iranian influence on the mainland of Saudi Arabia will be a nightmare to its ruling dynasty.

It is perhaps too late to soften the Shia-Sunni, Iran-Saudi tensions. Even if the Sunni-ruled states satisfy the demands of their Shia populations to some extent, Iran will continue to press home the advantage that has come its way recently, consolidate and build on it. The Americans will certainly not watch this game passively.

It will be fascinating to watch how this new great game plays out. We in India do not have much to worry about its implications domestically, since we are the most inclusive multicultural and multireligious society in the world, bar none. But externally, this great game will demand an agile foreign policy approach, which might demand a new form of non-alignment or dual alignment.

Correction

(* * Two errors were pointed out by readers in the fourth paragraph of the Editorial Page article, “The new great game in West Asia?” (April 28, 2011).

One pertained to the reference to Ali as the nephew of Prophet Muhammad. Ali is the Prophet's cousin.

The other pertained to the reference to Hussein as Ali's grandson. In fact, Hussein is Ali's son and the Prophet's grandson.

The author has regretted the errors.)

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