There are many conflicts that have seized the attention of the world today – Ukraine vs Russia, Gaza vs Israel, even Hong Kong vs China. There is also an Ebola epidemic and a general failure of the world’s economy to gain traction.
But there is one conflict simmering just below these headlines which has the potential to affect the entire world more profoundly than any of them – the growing conflict between Sunni and Shia Moslems, now stretching across the Middle East.
It has taken many forms on many fronts, but they all point to a potential for a much wider and nastier war than we have ever seen. And the US, as usual, has a position that might only encourage instability and ultimately make us one of the great losers if things get much worse.
The most visible conflict between Shia and Sunni involves ISIL, the radical conservative Sunni group that has caused so much havoc across Syria and Iraq. There is little doubt that they got their start with fighters and weapons that came from the largest Sunni nation, Saudi Arabia. Their support for the revolt against Bashar al Assad in Syria, a Shia aligned but secular Baathist government, has openly been criticized as the real genesis of the problem.
Other conflicts may not seem as important, but show how the fight is spreading. A Shia led revolt recently toppled the government in Yemen. The ongoing demand for rights by Shia groups in Bahrain has led them to boycott the next national election, fueling an escalation of that crisis. And Iraq has now been split by the arming of Shia and Sunni militias that are growing in both violent capabilities and stature as the central government wobbles.
But it is Saudi Arabia that remains at center even as the conflict highlights the role of the largest defender of Shia Islam, Iran.
Saudi Arabia sentenced to death, by beheading, a leading Shia leader, Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, whose only crime appears to be speaking openly about the rights for Shias. But they are also pulling back from the conflict by suddenly banning citizens from fighting in foreign wars, a complete reversal from their stand of encouraging fighters in Syria until recently. They are clearly scared by the monster they have created and the potential for it to turn on them.
That’s where Iran comes into the picture, a nation previously known for exporting their own conservative religious views by armed conflict. That has clearly abated as Iran has settled into a much more constructive role as a vocal but cautious defender of Shias everywhere. Their role in Iraq fighting ISIL has been restrained. Both sides of this conflict have come to understand that radicalization ultimately threatens their own power as much or more than it has the potential to advance it.
Part of the problem throughout the region has been that the US has actively encouraged Saudi Arabia as its main ally to take a more active role in the region – which included opposing our main enemy, Iran. That puts the US firmly on the Sunni side but with one important caveat – we are on the side of the Sunni power structure that has consistently been corrupt while capriciously flirting with dangerous radicalism.
If the recent action in Saudi Arabia has come because they are legitimately scared about a potential threat from the radical Sunni wing that they created and supported, the US is very likely to wind up on the most pathetic and unsupportable side of a nasty revolt.
Again, that takes us back to Iran. The US has never been willing to do what it takes to open a real dialogue with Iran and normalize relations, which is terrible. The big stumbling block has always been Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which are impossible to ignore. But Iran’s status as a rogue nation supporting conflict is waning and there is a lot of room for the US to normalize relations as fast as possible.
There are also many good reasons why this is essential, stretching even into the need for a source of natural gas for Europe that isn’t Russia.
What should the US do in this situation? It’s clear that we have to back away from Saudi Arabia as a high risk liability and open up relations with Iran as soon as we can. I have long felt that a trust building exercise is in order. Last year, we admitted the CIA’s role in the 1953 revolution that installed the Shah in Iran. We should fully declassify all of that material and apologize for what we did. Following that, Iran should apologize for seizing our embassy in 1979. We can then apologize for shooting down Iran Air 655 in 1988. Iran can then apologize for supporting terror.
Something like this as a way of clearing all the bad blood between us and starting over might be the breakthrough that we need to open up the negotiations over nuclear material and bring Iran back into the family of nations as a full, normal member. And it would open an outlet for cooling down the problems between Sunni and Shia that the US is sorely on the wrong side of no matter what happens.
No matter what, this conflict has the potential to cause a tremendous amount of destruction if it continues to become worse. Saudi Arabia may be in the process of falling at the hands of the monster that they created. We should not appear to back them as our only source of stability in the region, especially if this leads to an open free for all between Sunni and Shia. We have to have legitimate standing on both sides if we are going to have any hope of being a force for peace and propsperity.
But as it stands now, events are spinning far beyond anyone’s control. That isn’t good for anyone. An open war between Shia and Sunni should be prevented, and that means that the international community led by the US is going to have to make some very important changes.