The Sunni- Shia
conflict ages back to more than 1300 years with tensions between the two Muslim
sects age way before the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the
Islamic Republic of Iran. After Prophet Mohammad, the founder of Islam, passed
away, his followers divided on who will be the successor of the Prophet. It is
important to note that both Sunnis and Shia share fundamental beliefs, and have
co-existed for centuries. The strong hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia is
better understood in terms of a fighting for power and influence in the Middle
East and beyond.

Despite this, the reality is that both of the regional powers are the
leading sides of the Sunni and Shia Islam in the world nowadays which shaped
their foreign policy based on it. Both sides have formed alliances with
countries that have similar religious and political interests while backing
militant groups in counties that don’t, which made the Middle East a field of
fighting for power and influence.

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Both KSA and Iran were client states of the
Western Powers post world war two, with America forming close relations with
KSA, and Britain favoring the overthrow of Mohammad Mossedeq and backing his
replacement Shah in 1953. As the Soviet threat on the USA became bigger, the
two countries started to gain more independence. The massive development of the
oil industry in both countries was witnessed with various geopolitical changes
around the Middle East. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran become powers in their own
right, proven in the Saudi oil embargo of the 1973 and, most forcefully, in the
Iranian Revolution of 1979 which deposed the Shah and introduced Islamist rule
in Iran.  This will mark a new era in the
Sunni-Shia conflict and will have its consequences on the Middle East and particularly
in Lebanon, which is religiously the most diverse country in the Middle East,
that could be the symbol of co-existence in the region, or yet another victim
of the Proxy war between Iran and KSA.

Research Methodology

This paper’s research question was
specified upon the results of the extensive literature review that was led to
study the historical background and origins of this conflict. To be able to answer this question, primary
and secondary data has been collected and analyzed to look at the geostrategic
interests also not only the religious differences. The primary sources of information,
was then reviewed through Notre Dame University – Louaize’s (NDU) library. A
wide range of information sources will be used, including electronic resources
and e-books, as well as books and journal articles. In order to get practical
and theoretical insight from organizations that work with dialogue in Lebanon, an
open ended interview was conducted with the Operational Manager of “Lebanon
Dialogue Initiative”, Ms Jasmin Lilian Diab.

 The research
question of this paper is “How does the proxy war between KSA and Iran affect
the possibilities of dialogue in Lebanon?”

The approach used was mainly a qualitative
one, focused on analyzing the interviewee’s statements, and academic
literatures. A deductive approach was used to answer the research question.

 

Historical background of the conflict

The root of the Sunni-Shiite conflict
started back in the year 632, with death of the prophet Mohammad. Islam back then was spreading very
rapidly in the region, and without an official leader. There were Muslims that
claimed that Abu Baker, the close friend and advisor of the prophet, was the
rightful leader or “Caliph” of Islam, prompting his supporters to be known as
Sunni Muslims. On the other hand, others believed that the successor of the
Prophet must be of his bloodline, prompting that Ali, the cousin and son-in-law
of the Prophet Muhammad, was the true Caliph. (Hall, 2016) Although both were
elected Caliphs (Abu Baker was the first, Imam Ali the fourth), this led to a
split in Islam, a split that has lasted 1,400 years. Imam Ali was assassinated
5 years into his tenure as Caliph. In the year 680, Ali’s son, Husain, and a
number of his companions were killed in Karbala, located in modern-day Iraq, by
the army of the second Ummayad Caliph, and Karbala became, and still remains, a
core element in Shiite Islam. In fear of uprisings and revolts as a result of
the events of Karbala, Sunni Muslims in power went on to prosecute and
marginalize Shiites in an attempt to disallow them to seize power.  (Council on Foreign Relations, 2016) (Kéchichian, 2010)

The origin of the
conflict proves the differences and historical tensions between the two sides,
but the fact that in the last two decades there was no direct conflict between
Shia and Sunni states around the world not until after the Islamic revolution
of Iran in 1979, which would shape a new era in the conflict but much more
political and interest based conflict, rather than a religious one.

 

The Islamic revolution of Iran   

In the beginning of 20th century, Iran had been ruled by the Shah monarchy
that was rich in oil and had close ties with Britain through the Anglo-Persian
Oil Company. This company monopolized the sale and production of the Persian
oil, which was highly beneficial for Britain during both World Wars. The year 1951
witnessed the election of Mossadegh as Prime Minister, who introduced reforms
that favored the Iranian’s interests over Western ones, which included the nationalization
of Iranian oil. Britain feared losing its power over the Persian oil, which it
was mainly dependent on. This pushed Britain to oppose Mossadegh in many means
and in particularly plummeting the Iranian economy. Mossadegh was forced to
resign but after mass Iranian protest to get him back, he reassumed his
position. Although the United States backed Mossadegh’s election at first, the
fear of communist threat made the US stick to its Allies and their interests
which led them to co-orchestrate a coup with the British in what is known as
the CIA’s “Operation AJAX” in 1953. The Shah was re-installed as the leader of
Iran, with promises of democratic societal values to be implemented, while he
maintained close ties with the West.

The year 1963 brought “The White Revolution”, a massive wave of
Westernization of Iran by the Shah was that greatly met with opposition. One of
the opposition was a popular nationalistic figure, Cleric Ayatollah Khomeini, who
was arrested and exiled to France. In 1978, the beginning of a large wave of
demonstrations and protests against the dictatorial rule of the Shah broke out.
Shah’s efforts to break it down were not successful forcing him to seek asylum
in the United States in 1979. Khomeini returns and encourages the revolution,
reaching its peek on the 1st of April 1979, when it was renamed as the Islamic
Republic of Iran. (PBS Newshour, 2010) The revolution brought out “Wilayat al
Faqih” or the Governance of the Jurist written by Khomeini which illustrated
their ideology. Khomeini’s objectives from the book were not only planned to be
implemented in Iran, but also to be exported and connect through it with the
Shiites around the world. The revolution swiftly rose tensions between Iran and
its neighboring Sunni-led countries, and in particularly Iraq, having already
had territorial dispute over the oil-rich bordering region of Khuzestan, which
had ethnic Arabs living in it. Fearing that the revolution could spread to Iraq, a Shiite
majority country, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein, launched an invasion on 20 September, triggering the Iran–Iraq War which lasted for eight years and killed at least
hundreds of thousands of people (BBC 1988). Saddam had already the Saudi support
for Iraq’s war effort. This was in addition to financial and military support Iraq received from neighboring leaders in Egypt,
Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, in part to contain Iranian power and prevent the spread
of its revolution. In order to create a stronger Sunni front to counter Iranian
influence in the region, the Gulf Cooperation Council was established in May 1981 in Saudi Arabia with a political and
economic alliance of six Middle
Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman. The purpose of the GCC is to achieve unity
among its members based on their common objectives and their similar political
and cultural identities, which are rooted in Islamic beliefs (GCC commencement
speech Riyadh May 1981).

American support for
Saddam was clear at the beginning but it later changed in the course of the Gulf
war when Saddam decided to invade Kuwait, a member of the GCC and a close ally
of Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia continued engaging in fierce competition
elsewhere, supporting different groups and organizations along sectarian lines
such as in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

Khomeini’s plan of
expanding the revolution didn’t take long to emerge successful with the
establishment of Hezbollah in 1982, a Shiite militant group in Lebanon that was
in the heart of its civil war and the surge of the Houthis in Yemen in the
1990s. Both of these groups will be vital instruments for Iran’s efforts to
expand its power in the Middle East, and particularly after the Arab Spring.

 

Lebanon

Lebanon is a small Middle Eastern country which is one
of the most religiously diverse countries in the region. It had been ruled by
the Ottoman Empire since the 16th Century, after which it was placed under the
control of the French mandate since World War One up until the independence in 1946.
After the establishment of the State of Israel and the
start of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a wave of Palestinian
refugees came to Lebanon.  The 1967 Six Day War also had its repercussions
on Lebanon with another wave of Palestinians coming to Lebanon. The Cairo
Agreement gave the Palestinians the right to arm themselves in Lebanon to operate
against the Israelis, which Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization
took advantage of. In response to that in 1968 Israel
attacks Beirut airport, destroying 13 Lebanese airliners, holding the Lebanese responsible
for their support to the Palestinians.

1975 marked the beginning of the
Lebanese Civil War when the tensions
between Muslims and Christians heat over into violence, fighting spreads
throughout the country. There were more than 15 parties involved in the civil
war. The main ones were the PLO, the Kataeb Forces, The Lebanese Forces, The
National Liberation Party, the Marada, Amal Party, and Hezbollah, which will
continue to be the parties in power after the civil war. The President at that
time, Mr. Suleiman Franjieh calls for the support of Syrian troops to help
control the Palestinians, which will prove to be costly for the Lebanese. In 1983, Israel agreed to withdraw its
forces from Lebanon on the condition that Syria does the same. Eventually
Israeli forces withdraw to the southern buffer zone, where they will remain, in
violation of UN resolution 425, for 17 years.

In 1988 President Amine Gemayel appoints a military led government,
by General Michel Aoun, commander of the army. Lebanon has two governments at
this point: Aoun’s military government in west Beirut and Huss’s Syrian-backed
civilian government in east Beirut.

 In 1989, Iraq, who had just finished its war
with Iran, intervened in support of General Aoun against Syria. This could have
led to a possible conflict between Iraq and Syria, which drove the Arab states
led by Saudi Arabia to hold a summit meeting in Casablanca and formed a
Tripartite Committee composed of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, King Hassan of
Morocco, and President Shadli Ben Jedid of Algeria to deal with the Lebanese
crisis. The Arab initiative in the Lebanese conflict was not only a way to
minimize the threat of regional escalation, but was also reflects Saudi Arabia’s
efforts to counterbalance Syrian influence in Lebanon. Although the Syrians
consolidated their influence over Lebanon, especially after the Gulf War, the
coming of the Lebanese-Saudi businessman Rafiq al-Hariri to power in 1992 was a
sign of a renewed Saudi role in Lebanon and by the signing of the Taif
Agreement that gave most of the executive powers previously held by the Christian
president to the Sunni prime minister. The Syrian occupation of Lebanon was
absolute with Bashar Al Assad in full control of Lebanese Politics while Hariri
was trying to form alliances to oppose the Syrians and their allies in Lebanon.
In 2005, Hariri was assassinated in a car bombing
leading to massive demonstrations that eventually forced the resignation of the
government and increased international pressure on Syria to withdraw its
troops. On 14 March, 2005 the Cedar Revolution was successful in forcing the
Syrian troops to withdraw from Lebanon. An anti-Syrian alliance led by Saad
Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia, son of the murdered former prime minister,
named 14 March coalition wins a majority in the first parliamentary elections free of Syrian involvement for 30 years. The
losing side of the election where the 8 March Pro-Syrian coalition, led by Aoun’s
Free Movement Party with his new alliance with Hezbollah, which will gradually
increase its power in Lebanon especially after the 2006 July war with Israel. However,
Lebanon’s fragile democracy will continue to be threatened by a series of bombing campaign targeting the leaders of the 14 March Coalition.

The Arab Spring

Revolutions started appearing
in the Arab countries across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, in
countries like Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria.
This was seen as a new era in the Middle East where the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
and Iran will be fighting for influence and power in the region.  Saudi Arabia urged for the formation of a
Gulf Union to strengthen relations within the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The objective of the Saudi government was the prevention
of possible uprisings lead by Shia minorities in the allied Gulf monarchies. The
union would have highly benefited the Saudi influence domestically granting it
greater control over military, economic, and political issues. The members rejected
the proposition with the exception of Bahrain, as members such as Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates were aware
that it would lead to Saudi dominance.

The Arab-Israeli conflict shifted to the Sunni-Shiite
one especially when GCC states have strengthened their economic
and security ties with Israel, who also regard Iran as the biggest threat in the
region.

The protests in Syria
started in 2011 to demonstrate against lack of human rights and dictatorial
rule of Al Assad family. The conflict escalated quickly after the Assad
government responded violently. Saudi Arabia along most of the GCC states have
provided various means of military and financial support to rebel militants,
with Iran assisting the Assad government. Syria has always been a crucial part
of Iran’s sphere of influence, and the Assad government has been considered a strong ally.

 The war in Syria highlights the elements of
the Proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.  Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies have sided
with Sunni rebels in order to overthrow the Syrian Regime, while the Iranian
forces alongside Hezbollah militants have been deployed and involved on the
ground, despite facing heavy casualties, in 2014, Iran increased its support
for Syrian regime, providing Special Forces, intelligence networks, and
training camps.

Bashar Al Assad formally
asked for Russian assistance in order to counter the rebel groups, while cooperating
with Iran by using their airbases to conduct airstrikes.

The intervention of Russia in late September 2015
helped in providing military support for the Assad regime and the aim was to
target rebel groups, working together with Iran by utilizing their air bases to
stage air strikes

In 2015, both Iran and
Saudi Arabia agreed to participate in the peace talks held in Vienna with the
participation of United States Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, but the talks inevitably failed.