On January 2, 2016, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric, in the company of 46 others, had his head suddenly removed in a Saudi public square pursuant to a sentence by a Saudi court. In the few days that have elapsed since then, the situation has begun to spiral completely out of control. In Tehran, angered by the death of the Shiite cleric at the hands of Sunni Saudi Arabia, a mob (translation: Iranian government employees) torched the Saudi embassy. Saudi Arabia promptly severed all relations with Iran and was joined shortly thereafter by Bahrain and Sudan. In addition, the United Arab Emirates, a major Iranian trading partner, has withdrawn its ambassador from Tehran. Given the ramifications of the various confusing alliances among the parties, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen cannot help but worsen, bringing the United States even more headaches.
I heard a radio news reporter state that the beheading occurred amid the “worsening” conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. As if this were a new thing. Sunnis and the Shias have been at loggerheads since the death of Muhammad in 632 C.E. — not exactly yesterday. Following Muhammad’s death, a majority of his followers wanted his father-in-law, Abu Bakr to be his successor. But a smaller group refused to recognize Abu Bakr as the boss, instead believing Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was the successor. Abu Bakr and the Sunnis won; Ali and the Shiites lost. Therein lies the basis of the contretemps. It was political then and it is political now.
What it boils down to — what it has always boiled down to — is who will have the greater influence over the billion-and-a-half Muslims who are spread over the earth? Sharia law (observed as the supreme law by both sects) calls for a caliphate, ruled over by one caliph. Thus it was in 632 C.E. and thus it is now. (Islam is not famous for accepting change.)
Saudi Arabia, a primarily Sunni nation, controls Mecca, the seat of Islam, which makes the Saudis major players within Islam. Iran, the preeminent Shiite nation, believes they are the true representatives of Islam and thus they should dominate the Islamic world. The late Sheikh Nimr was the proverbial fish out of water — a Shiite barracuda in a sea of Sunni sharks. The Saudis did not take kindly to the barracuda. Meanwhile ISIS, a Sunni entity, is gaining credibility as the nascent caliphate. It is gaining respect in the Islamic world, partially because they appear to be setting records for beheadings. Saudi Arabia does not easily cede that crown to these upstarts.
How does this affect the U.S.? It has been stated (correctly, in my view) that the parties in the Middle East are playing three-dimensional chess, while our president is playing checkers. Sheikh Nimr’s execution sparked two “bold” actions by the Obama White House: First, they issued a statement expressing concern that the Saudis’ actions were “exacerbating sectarian tensions”; second, Secretary of State John Kerry called Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (the father of his Iranian son-in-law’s best friend), urging him to try to de-escalate the crisis. Most experts believe that neither of these actions caused either side a great deal of concern.
Remember the Iran/Iraq War of the 1980s? This was also a Sunni/Shia sectarian conflict. Two million people lost their lives (not one of whom was an American, to the best of this writer’s knowledge). However, the situation is very different now. Ronald Reagan was president during much of the Iran/Iraq War and under his leadership, the U.S. led from strength. Now, President Obama is in the Oval Office and has a much different perspective.
In the Arab world, respect stems from fear. It has become a cliché that when an Arab sees a strong horse and a weak horse, he favors the strong horse. Our president is the weakest horse imaginable. As a result, in part, of the botched nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia no longer trusts the U.S to have its back. Iran laughs in Obama’s face, takes the unfrozen $150 billion dollars and cries “death to America.” We have little or no influence and we will not curb either party. As icing on the cake, Russia has offered to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran! When Russia obtains a foothold in the Middle East, it is never good for America.