Regional Sectarianism and Iran’s Existential Choice

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East Policy Council

The tense stand-off between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to attract the attention of regional observers, whose views and positions typically reflect the divide in the Middle East. Most continue to see Iran as the main culprit for the rise of sectarianism in the region, and thus the growing instability. Some wonder whether Iran’s leadership is caught between two impossible choices: preserving the legacy of the 1979 Revolution and reintegrating into the international system. Either way, there is no doubt the stakes of the stand-off are high, as mirrored in the volatility of the financial markets. Meanwhile, some commentators in Turkey are warning against picking sides between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In an op-ed for the Khaleej Times, Mohammed Baharoon points his finger directly at Iran as the main culprit for the growing divide between the countries in the region: “Iran has always accused Arab countries of pursuing sectarian policies against their Shia minorities. However, only Iran benefits from this perception of sectarian division…. Iran’s influence in the region depends on maintaining and supporting Shia dissidents in Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi and Bahrain. Accordingly, in Iran there seems to have been real concern that Al Nimr’s execution may have sent other Shia dissidents a worrying message that Iran cannot completely protect them….Iran’s religious agitation over the execution reveals the extent to which Shia religious discourse continues to shape political decision making in the Islamic Republic. Iran’s threats to Saudi Arabia warrant much closer consideration of its ability to become a partner in regional security once the international nuclear deal is implemented.”

Asharq Alawsat’s Amir Taheri suspects that Iran’s inchoate policies are due to the fact that Iran’s political establishment is caught between its commitment to the Islamic revolution and its need to be part of the international community: “Once again, the incident highlights the schizophrenia that Iran has suffered since the mullahs seized power in 1979. There are two Irans, one that sees itself as a vehicle for the Khomeinist revolution and the other which hopes to return to the international community as a nation-state….The reaction to the current crisis shows that both versions of Iran are present even within the Khomeinist establishment. Those still drunk on the witches’ brew of “revolution” hope that the attack on the Saudi missions and the subsequent crisis would help them mobilize and win in the next series of the regime’s internal elections in February. In fact it is possible they planned the attacks for that very purpose as they had done in similar cases close to previous elections. As long as schizophrenic Iran is not at peace with itself, it cannot be at peace with anyone else.”

But if Iran is to be welcomed back as a respected member of the international community, then, as Maha Samara suggests in an op-ed for the National, it ought to cease the provocative policies that have rarely served it well: “Children around the region were once taught that the Arab-Israeli conflict was its biggest problem. Now we are discovering that the dispute between Iran and Saudi Arabia has the potential to be a worry of greater magnitude. The two countries are at loggerheads over ideology, strategy and their respective roles in the region. Saudi Arabia is fed up with Iran meddling in Arab affairs in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon….Iran’s superiority complex has only appeared to harden over the years. When the shah was ruling Iran he wanted to become the Gulf’s policeman. Iran also occupies three UAE islands in the Strait of Hormuz….Iran’s chief political players may be better served by looking inwards and attempting to improve the lot of their hard-pressed citizens rather than seeking to export revolution to others. Their tactics of destabilization and meddling do not serve them well. They do not encourage cooperation, respect or recognition. On the contrary, they encourage defiance and hatred.”

The gravity of the situation and the economic consequences of the continuing Iranian-Saudi rivalry are such that they cannot be ignored, argues Gulf News’ Cleofe Maceda: “The Saudi-Iranian tensions could impact not just the economy of Iran, but also that of the wider Middle East and Africa (MEA) region, analysts have said. It could also affect investors’ appetite for risk, ‘spell increased volatility’ in the financial markets and create pressure on oil prices….Chebib noted that the two countries have import-export ties, with the trade exchange between them exceeding $266 million (Dh977 million) in 2014. By the end of 2014, the volume of Saudi exports to Iran reached about $102 million, while Saudi imports from Iran hit $181 million….Another bank said a flare-up in the row between Saudi and Iran, along with other ‘geopolitical risks,’ could upset global financial markets and have broader economic and political ramifications.”

One wonders, as Rami Khouri does in an op-ed for Jordan Times, whether avoiding or softening that adversarial relationship is even possible, considering the variety of factors that seem to fuel that rivalry: “At least a dozen different dynamics shape the deteriorating situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the consequences this will have across much of the Middle East for some time….The situation is made all the more complex by the fact that all these forces and several others around the Middle East as well (social marginalisation of some groups, economic disparities, environmental distress) usually all converge. They converge in regional ideological confrontations like this one, or in conflicts within single countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Lebanon. Most of the contentious issues in play reflect man-made policies and decisions that can be reversed or tempered, thereby resolving both regional clashes and local confrontations….Neither global nor regional big powers are available this time to step in and restore order, because they are all in the ring punching away. Our best hope to step back from the brink of wider regional conflagrations is for sensible and responsible people in all concerned lands, especially around the Gulf region, to grasp the catastrophes that will engulf much of the Middle East if current trends continue.”

Given the inherent dangers that exist in this environment, some regional actors are questioning the wisdom of taking sides, which is why Hurriyet Daily News’ Yusuf Kanli believes that the “Saudi Arabia-Iran row [is] bad news for Turkey…. Rather than jumping onboard in haste, Turkey should have thought twice before joining the Saudi-led Riyadh-based alliance against dangerous or not-so-welcome elements in the Muslim world. Would it be a Sunni alliance? Would it include Iran? What would be the meaning of establishing a Sunni alliance in this Middle East cauldron, which is already boiling with the inferno of ethnic and sectarian conflicts?…The unity of the Islamic world – very much like the repeatedly failed ‘Arab unity’ slogan – may have been a reality during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. But ever since the tragic assassination of three of the first four Islamic caliphs, it has been little more than rhetoric….Turkey must wake up to the reality that its “Sunni alliance” moves might cost it very dear at the end of the day.”

In Turkey’s case, Verda Ozer goes even further by recommending a pivot back into its NATO-based alliances so as to avoid becoming too caught up in regional entanglements: “The region is going through its worst sectarian crisis in the last three decades. This conflict, which will certainly have a long life span, had cast its shadows long before….We are going through a historic and critical crossroads when the Sykes-Picot order built after World War I is collapsing and Iraq and Syria are dissolving. Therefore the tension between two regional countries spreads ten times throughout the region….Keeping in mind that this fire will burn in the region for a long time, Turkey also needs to secure its position as much as possible. It needs to strengthen its relations with the West and the countries in the region who are not part of the Sunni-Shia dichotomy, namely Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan and Egypt.”

Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus


Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Scroll to Top