By Geneive Abdo, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Geneive Abdo is a fellow at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of the New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of Shi’a-Sunni Divide. The views expressed are her own.
Of all the items optimists are placing on their wish lists for newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, one stands out as among the least probable: reconciliation between his Shi’a republic and rival Sunni monarchies in the Gulf.
Shortly after his election, Rouhani said the Persian Gulf has “strategic significance” for Iran, as well as political and economic importance. “We are not only neighbors, we are brothers,” Rouhani said of Saudi Arabia. “We have had very close relations, culturally, historically and regionally.”
Yet although Saudi Arabia congratulated Rouhani on his election – a far cry from 2008, when King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz encouraged the United States to confront Iran in order to “to cut off the head of the snake” – relations between the two countries are worse than ever. Indeed, Rouhani’s statements ignore the fundamental changes that have occurred since the Arab uprisings began. Indeed, fourteen years since the historic day in 1999, when former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami became the second highest-ranking official to visit Saudi Arabia since the 1979 Islamic revolution, there is much that divides Iran and its two neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
First and foremost, the war in Syria has sharply divided Iran and its Sunni neighbors. Iran is providing strong backing – including arms shipments and most likely fighters from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp – to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a conflict it considers vital to its influence and survival in the Levant. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is backing the opposition. As long as the proxy war continues, there can be no rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Just last week, at a news conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jeddah, Prince Saud al-Faisal said Saudi Arabia “cannot be silent” about Iranian intervention in Syria and called for a resolution to ban arms flows to the Syrian government. “The kingdom calls for issuing an unequivocal international resolution to halt the provision of arms to the Syrian regime and states the illegitimacy of the regime.”
The second reason for the current animosity is that even if the Syrian conflict is resolved, the sectarianism between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims spreading across the Middle East as a result of the war – and Saudi Arabia’s fanning of the flames – has taken on a life of its own. This was on full display in the recent anti-Shi’a invective from the influential Sunni cleric Youssef Qaradawi, who called on Sunni Muslims to join the rebels fighting al-Assad while hitting out at all Shi’a Muslims, not just al-Assad’s Alawite sect. The remarks were praised by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz ibn al ash-Shaikh.
In the eyes of many Sunni, the Arab uprisings have provided an opportunity to undercut the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis. Yet, they still see Iran’s skilled and often mendacious hand behind every twist and turn, in particular efforts to prop up al-Assad. To listen to many Sunni in Arab states, particularly in the Persian Gulf, all Shi’a are iron-clad Iranian loyalists. And no matter how much Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tried to convince the world of a coming pan-Islamic awakening, many Sunni states are seeking to further distance themselves from Tehran. Meanwhile, the Muslim street remains conflicted. In religious terms, the assertion of an Iranian connection is also an effective Sunni tactic for casting doubt on the Muslim credentials of the Shi’a.
Third, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have benefited domestically and in the region from demonizing Iran. Both Saudi and Bahraini officials claimed in the spring of 2011 that it was necessary for the Saudis to send troops to Bahrain in order to quell a Shi’a-dominated uprising in Manama, Bahrain’s capital. Of course, they also did so for domestic reasons – if the uprising in Bahrain had succeeded in forcing the government to implement fundamental reforms, this would have encouraged Saudi’s Shi’a, centered in the important oil-producing region, to do the same. Rather than address the political and socio-economic grievances of the Shi’a, it is more effective for the Saudis to discredit them outright as being manipulated by arch-rival Iran.
The Middle East was a different place when incendiary former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a brief visit to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and met King Abdullah. According to Saudi reports, the two leaders agreed that the greatest danger facing Muslims was the “attempt to spread strife.” Yet since then, both countries have spread strife in earnest.
All this suggests that whatever the intentions of the congenial Rouhani – known as the quintessential statesman – in talking affectionately about his “brothers” in the Gulf, the window of opportunity for reconciliation is, at least for now, firmly closed.