No Iraqi would have missed the subliminal message of al-Qaeda’s triumphant announcement yesterday. When the movement’s leaders claimed credit for two audacious prison breaks outside Baghdad, they declared how “months of preparation and planning” had culminated in these blows against a “Safavid government”.
The Safavids have not actually been in government for a while – for a good 300 years, in fact. They were a Persian dynasty that dominated Iran and its empire, including a big slice of present-day Iraq, in the 16th and 17th centuries. Under their founder, Shah Ismail I, the Safavids managed the extraordinary feat of making Shia Islam the state religion in Iran, while imposing their faith on conquered peoples living between the Tigris and Euphrates.
Iraqis will grasp the analogy: al-Qaeda’s Sunni zealots believe that the Shia politicians who dominate Baghdad today are heirs to foreign invaders. Once, the violence in Iraq was directed towards the Anglo-American occupiers; today, the killing has become a sectarian struggle between a Shia majority that holds the reins of power and a beleaguered Sunni minority.
Across the Middle East, tensions between Sunni and Shia are steadily being inflamed. No one was particularly surprised when Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the leading preacher of the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, claimed last month that Shias in general ~ and Iran in particular ~ were plotting “massacres to kill Sunnis”. In most countries, the struggle between the two sects is not fought with guns and bombs, but today the religious fissures criss-crossing the region are probably wider than at any time since the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire’s demise led to the birth of today’s states.
Why is this happening? Partly, it is explained by the “new regional Cold War” dividing the Middle East, to use the vivid phrase of Toby Dodge, a reader in international relations at the London School of Economics.
In this overarching struggle,Iran and Saudi Arabia are the key antagonists:the former representing the civilization of Shia Persia,the latter guarding the Sunni Arab heartland and its holiest places.Both use the language of sectarian loyalty to rally supporters and demonize foes.
Most of the rest of the region falls naturally into the Sunni Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia. Qatar tweaks the tail of its Saudi neighbour by pursuing a quixotic foreign policy with a finger in every pie, but, in the final analysis, it remains a loyal Sunni monarchy.
Then there are the contested countries: Lebanon, Bahrain and ~ most tragically of all ~ Syria. In Lebanon, a remarkable system of confessional politics excludes the Shia from the most powerful positions, reserving the presidency for a Christian and the Prime Ministership for a Sunni. The Shia may now be the majority – although there has been no census in Lebanon for generations ~ and they have responded by building Hezbollah into the most powerful military movement.
In Bahrain, a Shia-majority population lives resentfully under a Sunni monarchy; their fury spills on to the streets in the form of protests and stone-throwing almost every week. An uprising against the ruling Al-Khalifa family was crushed in 2011 with the aid of Saudi troops.
The message was unmistakable: Saudi Arabia will not tolerate the Shia seizing power in Bahrain, just a few miles across the causeway from the kingdom’s Eastern Province, where most of its oil reserves and, inconveniently, a sizeable Shia minority are both found.
Saudi Arabia has demonstrated that it would prefer to stamp out the sparks of rebellion in Bahrain lest they ignite a conflagration at home. And so the Al-Khalifas still reign, suffering the humiliation of being kept on their Bahraini throne by foreign bayonets.
The bloodiest battlefield in this regional Cold War is, of course, Syria. With every passing month, the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s autocracy has become a theatre of sectarian struggle. Assad’s regime is dominated by the minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shia Islam. Accordingly, the Assad clan has turned Syria into Iran’s most reliable ally in the Arab world. Iran and Hizbollah, loath to lose this asset, are doing their utmost to keep Assad in power: their direct military and financial help in the past few months has been instrumental in helping him to turn the tide.
Meanwhile, the rebels draw their support from the 70 per cent of Syrians who are Sunni. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are duly arming them, with Jordan providing vital supply lines.
In this struggle, Iraq has lined up behind Iran, with the Baghdad government allowing weapons to cross its territory to reach Mr Assad. If he goes, after all, his successor would almost certainly be Sunni. With his own Sunni minority close to open revolt, the last thing that Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, needs at the moment is a government of their co-religionists next door.
Our Cold War was about ideology and social organisation.
The Middle East’s is defined by religion.
If the Safavids could return, they would find the divides in their region strangely familiar.
ED Noor: No matter how you look at it, this is ALL "our" Cold War. The stakes are our lives and that of our planet. No matter how unaware one might be, we are all involved.