Is the battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran one that revolves around hegemonic designs or simply sectarian?

In the period since the Saudi execution of 47 people, including human rights activists such as Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, there has been a flurry of commentaries. Many of the self styled “experts” on western media platforms have resorted to putting it down as no more than a battle between Sunni Saudi and Shia Iran.

While there is an element of truth in it, to exclude the main factor would be a disservice to making sense of the explosive current hiatus. It is a factor which for obvious reasons makes leaders in Washington, Paris and London quite uncomfortable to acknowledge. Why? It has to do with the all important question of legitimacy.

Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy has never been addressed or appropriately dealt with. The Saud family dynasty owes its birth to British colonialism. Since the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate, which was engineered by the British, the Hejaz which hitherto was known as the Arabian Peninsula, became known as Saudi Arabia. Islam’s birthplace and the source of its history and power became the private fiefdom of an Arab warlord, courtesy of the English Raj. Instability in the Muslim world became the order of the day.

Overnight, the entire Middle East was carved up by colonial masters and puppet regimes installed. Concurrently, Palestine became a huge casualty following the ethnic cleansing and dispossession caused by Jewish Zionists whose political philosophy was and remains entrenched in settler colonialism. Around this time, in the Persian region, a democratically elected leader was deposed in a CIA engineered coup and as in the case of the Saud monarchy, the illegitimate Pahlavi dynasty was installed.

Though this brief overview doesn’t go into details, it certainly sheds light on the possible reasons for the current conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It reminds us of the fact that the present political map of the Muslim world was drawn by western colonial powers to ensure their continued domination over the lands and the people, the majority of whom are Muslim.

Against this background, a major change occurred when the massively popular Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew the Shah. This not only ended the Shah’s false dynasty, but also ended western dominated influence. The Shah was no different to various Saudi kings. In fact many of the region’s so called kings and emirs excel in the way they’ve allowed their kingdoms to function as extensions of western imperialism. Like the Shah, hardly any of them have ever lifted a finger in defense of Palestine, despite the intensity of the savagery visited upon the Palestinians by Israel. Indeed, it has become evident now that Saudi Arabia and the rest are not only dependent on Israel and the US for their security, but also resent the notion of a free and independent Palestine.

As for Iran, their narrative is different and evidently made a huge impact in the region, by way of inspiring regional activists to effect change. Ultimately the key to understanding what appears to be an ugly sectarian conflict, is embodied in the concept of “change”. It is exactly what the Arab Spring represented.

That “change” is frightful for these western client regimes is explained by the intervention made by Saudi Arabia to finance and aid Egypt’s military coup, which overthrew the democratically elected, Mohammed Morsi. This illustrates that the bogey of sectarianism which is currently deployed to discredit Iran as a “Shia” threat, did not exist in the case of Egypt. Despite this, and notwithstanding the fact that the Ikhwaan al Muslimeen or Muslim Brotherhood enjoyed close affinity with Saudi Arabia, it mattered not. What mattered was the change inherent in a process that would allow accountability, freedom of expression and participatory governance. True democracy would then be introduced.

What confronts the world is not the Sunni/Shia divide. Despite the danger of polarization and grim reality of unnecessary bloodshed, the real problem is political and the attendant question of legality.

Iran unquestionably would have powerful elements within various strata of its socio-political landscape, intent in the defense and promotion of Shia interests. That such conditions exist may be explained by them as a form of reluctant reaction to severe provocation. To Iran’s credit, its official stance as embodied by the leadership is one of “Wahdaniyya” or Unity of all Muslims. However, its engagement in Syria hasn’t done much to salvage its revolutionary credentials and commitment to “Wahdaniyya”.

The current tensions resulting from Saudi executions and its savagery in Yemen, in addition to Bahrain, will require Iran to step back and reassess their strategy which hitherto has been one of unconditional support for the freedom struggle of Palestine. Knowing that the Arab dictatorships have historically manipulated the Palestinian Liberation Organization, PLO, it is crucial for Iran to retain its unqualified support without resorting to any malicious string pulling. The common goal of all Muslims is the liberation of al Quds and Masjid al Aqsa. Neither Saudi Arabia, nor Egypt or any of the other Muslim regimes besides Iran has enjoyed the confidence of the Palestinians that they would move beyond rhetoric to secure freedom for a long suffering people.

Iqbal Jassat

Exec Member: Media Review Network

Johannesburg

Twitter: @ijassat

Iqbal Jassat

Iqbal Jassat is an acclaimed writer, analyst and commentator and one of the founder members of MRN. His analysis is featured regularly in mainstream and alternate media outlets around the world.