Hajj Controversy Highlights General Conflict Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Tehran’s announcement that it will not be sending pilgrims to this year’s hajj supposedly comes after the failure of the Iranian and Saudi governments to come to mutual agreements regarding transportation and security. In this sense, and as the Associated Press emphasized in its reporting, the announcement also reflects the broader deterioration in relations between the two Middle Eastern countries.

The connection between failed negotiations and recent regional conflicts was made evident by efforts to ascribe blame in the wake of the apparent failure of bilateral talks over the hajj. Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati was quoted as saying, “We did whatever we could but it was the Saudis who sabotaged” these talks.

Similarly one-side recriminations have surrounded both Iranian and Saudi commentary on regional conflicts, namely the Yemeni and Syrian civil wars, in which the two traditional rivals back opposite sides. Some analysts have argued that these Iranian-Saudi proxy wars in turn reflect upon a much larger, and steadily worsening sectarian conflict that spans the Middle East and beyond.

Whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran is a Shiite theocracy, the Saudi royal family supports Sunni Islam. The conflict between these two ideologies arguably came to a head in January when the Saudis executed a Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, whom they accused of espousing violence against the royal family. Iran quickly responded by portraying the execution as an assault on Shiism in general, thereby drumming up protests that led to attacks on the Saudi embassy and consulate. Iranian authorities were reportedly present at the gathering of these mobs but did not intervene.

Despite some international pressure for reconciliation between these two Middle Eastern powers, there has been little sign of progress in that direction. At the same time that Iran and Saudi Arabia have continued to fight a proxy war in Yemen, they have been described as being engaged in economic warfare as each refuses to cooperate with the other over the future of global oil output.

Last month, a gathering of OPEC and several non-OPEC oil producing countries took place in Doha with the intention of agreeing to a universal output freeze for the sake of stabilizing prices. But the Saudis scuttled the agreement after Iran, preoccupied with recovering market share in the wake of sanctions relief under last summer’s nuclear agreement, refused to attend.

The military and economic competition between Tehran and Riyadh is widely regarded a symptom of a wider competition for political-religious influence – a competition that has had an impact at least as far away as West Africa. This fact was detailed in an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in Thursday. It described the rapid recent growth of Shiism in such places as Nigeria, Chad, and Ghana, and it ascribed much of this growth to “Iran-backed conversions.”

The article quoted Vali Nasr, the dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, as saying, “The core of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation over power and territory is in the Middle East. But West African Shiites are of symbolic value to Iran, for it to be able to say that its vision of Islam is expanding rather than shrinking. They give Iran more of a claim that they’re able to speak for Muslims in the whole world.”

Such observations support the notion that Iran routinely exploits conflicts with Sunni Saudi Arabia, the state of Israel, and Western powers as a way to portray itself as a global leader of Shiite Islam. Last week, an article at Iran News Update highlighted the fact that Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan had met with the Palestinian terrorist organization Islamic Jihad as part of a broader project of advocating for global Muslim unity around the Palestinian cause.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have also found support from some of the African countries where Shiism has grown as a result of Iranian influence. The Wall Street Journal points out, for instance, that Sudan has even gone so far as to send troops to fight as part of the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.