Two weeks ago a poorly reported news item on the spat between Iran and Saudi Arabia on Radio-Canada Morning Show seriously ticked me off and started me on these posts about the Middle-East. The usual nonsense, the hysterical tone of Media reports, the inane comments by self-appointed experts made to reinforce our deep seated prejudice about anything in that part of the World.
Both countries Iran and Saudi Arabia broke off relations over the execution by beheading of Sheik Nimr al-Nimr who was a well known Shia Cleric in Saudi Arabia and a very vocal critic of the House of Al-Saud. The Saudi Royal Embassy in Tehran was attacked and burnt by Iranian protesters after the execution and at that point the Saudi Government decided to simply break off diplomatic relations, a very serious step. The Saudis knew that by executing Sheik Nimr al-Nimr there would be serious consequences but he was just a pawn in the long simmering dispute between these two countries. I cannot but feel that this was a pretext the Saudis were looking for to scuttle their already tense and frosty diplomatic relations with Iran, a country they fear in the region and who could easily displace the not much liked Saudis in terms of political regional influence. The Saudis who for decades have been financing various terror and extremist group to advance their political agenda are more and more isolated and are facing questions as to their involvement with ISIS. Saudi Arabia also knows too well that if it was not for the oil reserves, no one would pay much attention to them. In fact who was paying attention prior to 1920?
By way of introduction here is some background on the area and Iran.
The balance of power was altered with the First World War, the Ottoman Turk Empire collapsed, Egypt became a British Protectorate, Persia saw its ruler the Qajar Shah fall from power in 1921 in a coup d’État and replaced by his Prime Minister Reza Pahlavi who proclaimed himself Shah (emperor). In 1941 the British turned Iran into a Protectorate with Mohammad Reza Shah as the new ruler who simply replaced his father seen as a German ally.
Iran is an important country for the following reasons, it is the second-largest country in Western Asia and the 18th-largest in the world. With 78.4 million inhabitants, Iran is the world’s 17th-most-populous country. It is the only country that has both a Caspian Sea and an Indian Ocean coastline. Iran has long been of geostrategic importance because of its central location in Eurasia and Western Asia, and its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, beginning with the formation of the Proto-Elamite and Elamite kingdoms in 3200–2800 BC.
Iran exerts considerable influence in international energy security and the world economy through its large reserves of fossil fuels, which include the largest natural gas supply in the world and the fourth-largest proven oil reserves. Iran’s rich cultural legacy is reflected in part by its 19 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the fourth-largest number in Asia and 12th-largest in the world.
Iran is a founding member of the UN, ECO, NAM, OIC, and OPEC. A multicultural country comprising numerous ethnic and linguistic groups, most inhabitants are officially Shia, and Persian is the official language, though there are Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians living in the Republic since ancient times.
The name of the country was changed from Persia to Iran in 1935, Reza Shah Pahlavi requested from the international community to refer to his country by its native name, Iran.
I visited Iran in 2002 I was then on duty in Damascus, Syria and went to Tehran to replace a colleague. I was thrilled to visit Iran, I flew with Syrian Airways from Damascus to Tehran a 3 hour flight. Tehran is a surprising wealthy city on the foothills of the snow cap Alborz Mountains.
What I found on arrival was a sophisticated society, a cultured people and a beautiful city with great restaurants. I was largely on my own outside the Office and wandered around alone. Luckily many Iranians speak English or French so I could order food and find my way around. I also quickly noticed how Iranians were very much like Westerners in their way of thinking and so very unlike the Arabs which they do not like much, looking down at them as a little people. The difference between Damascus and Tehran and even in comparison to other cities like Amman and Cairo was startling, I could have been in a European city in Tehran. I also saw none of the negative images the media loves to present of Iran as anti-Western, dangerous and threatening, people were friendly, polite and ready to help.
So when the Canadian news media gave out the usual poorly informed narrative on Iran and Saudi Arabia and this latest spat, I do not see it as a crisis, the two countries are not equals, I though here we go again with the usual nonsense seen from our backyard, with our pre-conceived prejudices and superiority complex.
Saudi Arabia provoked this crisis with the execution of the cleric, something they could have easily avoided but wanted to provoke Iran. All of it has to do with the crisis in Syria, Yemen, Irak where Saudi Arabia has been trying to impose itself and its Wahabite religious agenda, championing the Sunni cause against the Shia.
Our Media in Canada and in the West presents it as a Shia (Iran) against Sunni (Saudia) quarrel as if that explained it all. Saudi Arabia is very worried of the rapprochement or thawing of relations between the USA and Iran. Up until recently the Saudis had the ear of Washington and Iran was on the outs. With King Salman ben Abdelaziz of Saudi Arabia, who succeeded his half-brother in January 2015, the relationship with the USA can be described as correct but difficult, there is no great warmth or easy cooperation.
But the regional conflict in Syria and the threat of ISIS in both Irak and Syria has changed matters and a re-alignment is gradually taking place. Saudia is weary of any warming to Tehran by the West.
This week the International Sanctions in place for many years because of the Nuclear program of Iran were lifted, some 46 Billion dollars will be returned to the Central Bank of Iran, assets that belong to Iran and were frozen as part of the sanctions. Normal relations will allow more trade and more involvement by Iran with Western nations. Iran has a lot to offer and can with ease outshine Saudi Arabia, which has not much to offer outside of oil, is a closed xenophobic country, with a population living on oil welfare, poorly educated and inward looking. Many Arabs will tell you that the day oil runs out in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis will return to the desert and that will be the end of it.
Oil may not run out for another 40 years but technology is changing our lives and the World today is less dependent on oil given the new environmental awareness in governments and climate change which threatens us all. In the fight against ISIS, Iran is fully engage, we cannot say this of Saudi Arabia who is on the margins playing a dubious role with many shadowy figures.
I would not be surprised to see a dominant Iran in the region in the next 5 to 10 years, one that has replaced the old order and provided a solution to the turmoil in the area. Saudi Arabia cannot offer anything of the sort.
Iran could, per example, offer asylum to Basher Al-Assad, their political ally, this could facilitate change in Syria, though the opposition groups would have to present a more united front. Iran can with the help of Western countries crush ISIS or be instrumental. In Irak it can foster more stability if ISIS is defeated or chased out of the country. Iran also has influence with the Shia majority, there lots of new opportunities in the region and the world.
It is also important to explain the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims are not based on Faith or on beliefs, they believe the same thing, far more so than Christians who will fight amongst Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants on doctrine, that is not the case of Shia or Sunnis. The dispute is on who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad.
Shia Muslims believe that just as a prophet is appointed by God alone, only God has the prerogative to appoint the successor to his prophet. They believe God chose Ali to be Muhammad’s successor.
Sunni Muslims believe that the successor of the prophet can be either elected or selected by a committee from among those capable of exercising the function.
That is the difference, it is very similar to the divide between what Christians Catholics and Christian Protestants have on the authority of the Pope as supreme pontiff. The Pope is the successor of Peter say the Catholics and the Protestant reject that notion completely seeing the Pope as nothing more than the Bishop of Rome. We had our wars of religion on that basis.
Tehran in the evening with the Alborz mountains in the background.