How Saudis are trying to sift out “Good” Shias from bad ones in their fight against Iran

Iranian Diplomacy- How far from or close to Iran are you? In ideal circumstances, this could provide a measuring tool but it hardly works in the complex world of politics, where interests rule. At global and regional levels, relation with Tehran is a criterion of normal and abnormal behavior. A significant portion of Shias, more so those in Iraq, are going down on a gentle slope to distance themselves from Iran, in an attempt to make themselves accepted in the international system and among regional players. In return for their separation from Iran, they are trying to adopt a national approach to take over the fate of an independent Iraq, beyond religious and tribal issues.

The rise of the Safavid dynasty in early 17th century Iran challenged the power of Ottomans in Istanbul. Over centuries that followed, the Sunni world viewed Iran as an outsider. The Islamic Revolution changed that, as it backed Palestinians and declared the liberation of al-Quds as one of its goals. It staged Iran as the custodian of the most critical issue in the world of Islam, Palestine, or more precisely, the world of Sunni Islam.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution’s main foreign policy message was solidarity among Muslims and the liberation of al-Quds. For many Arabs and Turks, who found themselves true heirs to Muslim leadership, Iran’s new leadership status was unacceptable. An eight-year war imposed by Shia-majority Sunni-governed Iraq who enjoyed support from Arab and global powers failed to harness the Iranian Revolution.

After the war, the demise of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founder Ayatollah Khomeini, the absence of a charismatic figurehead raised hope among Iran’s rivals that through a gradual shift in methods, they could control Iran’s establishment, de-Islamicize it, and forge it into a mere representative of Shia Islam. Developments in the post-Saddam Iraq together with plots by Iran’s opponents and mistakes by Tehran and Iraqi Shias provided an opportunity for Sunni states in the region to implement their anti-Iran policies.

Following the collapse of Ba’ath regime in Iraq, Shias took over. The strategic convergence between Tehran and Baghdad tipped the scales of regional equilibrium in favor of Iran. Before and after this, Istanbul mooted the rise of Safavid thought and government, while Jordan brought up dangers of the so-called Shia crescent. Iranophobia was given a Shia color.

In open coordination, Middle East’s major powers agreed to present Iran as the culmination of Shia thought, trying to forge a united front against Tehran. Anti-Iran conferences held in Istanbul and Amman soon showed their fruit in the emergence of a serious challenge between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shias. As a result, Kurds who were allies of Shias moved away, leaning towardس the Sunnis. When Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi left Baghdad to settle in the Iraqi Kurdistan, his establishment of close ties with Ankara and Riyadh became a prelude for religious polarization of Iraq. Along a lack of governance experience among Shias, foreign provocations, and more importantly a conducive social context in Iraq and Syria, led to the emergence of Daesh and a full-fledged crisis in the two countries.

Iran’s reading of certain developments in the region was superficial at the same time. Tehran not only welcomed the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party led by Erdogan, in the least a prototype rival of Iran, but also followed Turkey in certain areas. Palestine was for Iran a strategic affairs, transcending religion, and the center of gravity for the Islamic perspective, but a tactical issue for Turkey only used to secure its interests, given the country’s close relations with the West and Tel Aviv. Iran backed Erdogan and Turkey’s policies during his show in Davos so fervently that it passed the flag of Palestine to Turkey. But Iran’s “From the River to the Sea” policy was quite different from Turkey’s which pursued an intermediary role between Palestine and Tel Aviv and transformation of the Palestinian revolutionary movement into a political party.

To take the Palestine card away from Shia Iran, along with propagation of cynicism among Islamic states and Muslim public opinion towards Tehran became a common strategic cause for Turkey and hostile Arab countries. In recent years, these countries have realized their goal with field conflicts that occurred between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, inflicting serious damage to the ideals of the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Today, this confrontation plan has entered a new phase that calls for Tehran’s full grasp of its aspects and impacts.

With successful separation of the Sunni world from Iran, there seems to be a plan to distance Shias from Tehran too. The further the distance widens, the larger will be material and immaterial support provided by the masterminds of the plan. The project is already launched in Iraq and will soon spread to Lebanon, Pakistan, and so on. While Iran is busy with its own domestic policies (and sometimes differences) and controversies around the nuclear deal, serious developments underway could inflict an enduring damage to the country’s geopolitical influence.

Understanding the new developments and the new roles defined for Ammar al-Hakim, Muqtada al-Sadr, Haydar al-Abadi, Nuri al-Maliki and others in Iraq and a holistic review of policies and their impacts is a strategic need for Iran. Hesitation is unforgivable.

War and crisis in Syria and Iraq, regardless of what comes out of them, have been heavy blows to the world of Islam. These have separated Sunnis from Iran and made them cynic about the country. Dividing Shias into Iranians, Arabs, and Turk, and into good Shias vs. bad Shias and attributing the supposedly bad ones to Iran, the Shia advocates of Iran could have the same fate as the Sunnis, in which case, Iran’s national security will be seriously weakened.