Stumbling Towards Armageddon
There’s been much chatter these last few weeks about President Biden’s fist bump in Saudi Arabia, some attempts at analysis, and a most thorough avoidance of the conflict there that’s driving the region towards the edge.
The president praised the cease fire in Yemen, now in its fourth month, he warned Iran about their nuke program, but he wasn’t going to talk about the conflict at the heart of the Yemeni war. He crossed swords with what remained of Israel’s current government, calling for diplomacy in the face of Israeli “Defense” Minister Gantz’ claim that only military force will stop Iran from getting The Bomb. Israel certainly won’t mention the conflict that places a live powder keg under the region, or how they are exploiting it.
What is this conflict, what has placed the charges and rolled out the fuse? Astoundingly to western minds it’s an 800-year-old feud, a feud that just gets more deadly and dangerous every day.
When the first Prophet of Islam departed this earth, he left the succession to his position unresolved, and as you would expect in the course of human affairs, two factions laid claim to that mantle. Today we know those factions as Sunni and Shia, and their still roiling dispute is behind most of the conflict in the Middle East.
That cease fire in Yemen? Shia forces on the Houthi side versus Sunni in Saudi Arabia. The mosque bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq, mostly Shia congregations attacked by Sunni terrorists. Everybody remembers ISIS; they’re Wahhabist Sunnis who attack anyone not a member of their strict brand of Islam but reserve special fury for Shia Muslims.
And Iran? They're the only powerful Shia nation in the region.
Why did Iran come to Assad’s aid in the Syrian civil war? He is a Shia Muslim who protects the Alawite (Shia) minority who rule the country. Why did a Syrian political protest descend so quickly into “ultraviolence”? The battling ethnicities of government and protesters forced it to morph at warp speed into an ethno/religious war, with Sunni fighters flooding in from the region to back the rebellion against the Shia Assad government.
ISIS formed out of those Sunni fighters, and as they swept back towards Baghdad, taking city after city, the “Iraqi” military melted away. The Sunni majority populations of the cities viewed them as liberators. The Iraqi military, you guessed it, was Shia.
There are too many examples of this explosive feud to cite here, but the interesting new factor is the current Israeli and U.S. reactions to it.
Sunni Muslims vastly outnumber Shias on the globe, and as I have pointed out, Iran is the only powerful defender of minority Shia populations. Israel has decided to throw down with the majority, the Sunnis, striking deals with Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. In the U.S., our oil addiction has long kept us close to the Saudis, and the former president doubled down on this alliance, possibly from motives of personal profit as well.
The bottom line is that for whatever motives, we have joined a significant gang being assembled against Iran, ostensibly to contain their “terrorist” activities and regional ambitions, and if Iran were a weak nation it would make the perfect scapegoat. Iran is not weak, however, any more than a cornered bear is weak.
Had the former president not foolishly tossed the deal on nukes, so carefully constructed by the JCPOA members, had Israel’s right wing leadership not rattled the saber so constantly, moderates in Iran might have the upper hand and their government might not now be looking for a nuclear shield. Dangerously for the region and possibly the globe, the Sunni governments need scapegoats, the Israeli government needs a split among Muslim countries, and of course, it wants to be on the more powerful side of that split.
This is a dangerous replay of the cynical saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, with a large dash of divide and conquer thrown in. While Israel might benefit from a continual low grade war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, the constant threat is pushing Iran inexorably towards acquiring nuclear weapons.
With nuke saber rattling from Russia the world has enough worries about a nuclear conflagration; we need fewer nuclear weapons in scared hands, not more. We certainly don’t need a nuclear arms race between ethno/religious groups who have held a bloody grudge for 800 years. The wise course is obvious, if difficult. Wean ourselves off of oil to the point that Saudi Arabia goes back to the status of middling poor nation, strike a religiously neutral position in a religious conflict in which ALL participants are wrong, and refocus on the critical need for non-proliferation before some loose cannon leader assembles two sub-critical masses into a really big bang.