Iran, Saudi Arabia and modern hatreds

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel write:

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement is likely to add fuel to the fires of sectarianism in the Middle East.

From the cataclysmic wars in Syria and Yemen to the volatile assemblages of Iraq and Lebanon, Sunni-Shiite relations are at a breaking point. But the cause of this spike in tensions is recent, not ancient. It is rooted in politics, not piety.

To stop it from aggravating, we need a clearer understanding of the forces driving sectarian conflict. The Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry is central to it, and the Trump administration — in both its rhetoric and its policies — is aggravating rather than ameliorating it.

Saudi Arabia and Israel had aggressively discouraged the Obama administration from pursuing the Iran nuclear deal. The Saudis were thrilled when Mr. Trump — who attacked the Iran deal during his campaign — was elected. Last May, during his visit to Riyadh, Mr. Trump echoed the Saudi view that Iran alone was to blame for all of the region’s troubles and must be stopped at any costs.

Ditching the Iran nuclear accord should be seen as a coordinated United States-Israeli-Saudi shift toward isolating and confronting Iran.

The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is widely described — by columnists, policymakers and journalists — as rooted in a primordial and intractable hatred that, as a Times opinion writer put it, goes back to “the seventh-century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.”

Even President Barack Obama, who staked a lot of political capital on the nuclear deal with Iran, invoked the specter of “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the Middle East. In his final State of the Union address, Mr. Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the region are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

Projecting current conditions back and imagining they are this way because they have always been this way is a grave mistake. This convenient, Orientalist narrative has become the new conventional wisdom in the West — one with very real political consequences. [Continue reading…]

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