The ongoing rift is heating up between the biggest Arab player in the Gulf and the mighty Persian neighbor across the waters. What’s at stake is hard to describe — and parsing out what is bluster and what is real is always difficult — but the latest fires actually concern water.
According to news reports, the second annual Islamic Solidarity Games — scheduled for April in Tehran — are being called off after commemorative medals prepared by Iran for the games referred to the “Persian Gulf,” which Saudis and other Gulf Arabs strenuously insist is the “Arabian Gulf.” Seriously.
A more intense issue is the alleged mistreatment last year of Shiite pilgrims while at Saudi holy sites. The AFP reports that in response to what it calls systematic harassment, Tehran has suspended travel for Iranians headed to Mecca, Medina, and other Saudi points. Iranian officials told the AFP this move isn’t political, it is religious.
But around here, that’s not necessarily a good thing. (After all, whether you’re Sunni or not is a lot more important than how much you do or do not love whatever ruling regime you call home. Episcopalian Democrats versus Baptist Republicans this is not.) Look for the issue of Iranian pilgrims to Saudi to surface again, and again — especially as next year’s hajj and Shiite holy days approach.
So what does all this really mean? What seems like trifling name games over the Persian/Arab gulf is actually connected to moves on the larger regional chessboard. One prevailing theory suggests that the mighty Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt are feeling vulnerable, seen by the Islamic world to be too close to Israel (and the U.S.) to continue proudly bearing the Muslim banner. This weakening, as the thinking goes, is opening up the chance for Iran to take the lead.
But is Tehran really taking over the Islamic imagination? Not so much, most likely. And how consequential is the Saudi-Iran rift? It’s arch enough to revolve around name-game stuff like the official title of a shared sea, true. But the greater Sunni-Shia power shifts are hugely important to the world — and to American readers back home. Think about it this way: All that talk about whether Yemen is a proxy war for a Saudi fight with Iran is a lot more urgent when Yemeni-influenced Nigerians are trying to blow up Detroit. By “aiding” Yemen’s security effort against northern rebels and alleged Al Qaeda cells, which may or may not have Iranian backing, as the U.S. has acknowledged doing, we’re now implicated in even this small part of the game.
Should be another interesting year for the ever-explosive, can’t-play-with-friends Middle East! Hopefully it won’t soon be coming to an aisle seat near you.
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