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Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course
Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course
Report 45 / Middle East & North Africa

The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia

From Saudi Arabia's establishment in 1932, its minority Shiite population has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement. Beginning in the early 1990s, with then Crown Prince Abdullah's active support, the government took steps to improve inter-sectarian relations.

Executive Summary

From Saudi Arabia's establishment in 1932, its minority Shiite population has been subject to discrimination and sectarian incitement. Beginning in the early 1990s, with then Crown Prince Abdullah's active support, the government took steps to improve inter-sectarian relations. But the measures were modest, and tensions are rising. The war in Iraq has had a notable effect, strengthening Shiite aspirations and Sunni suspicions and generally deepening confessional divisions throughout the region. King Abdullah needs to act resolutely to improve the lot of the two-million strong Shiite community and rein in domestic expressions of anti-Shiite hostility.

While resisting calls from tribal warriors to suppress Shiites violently, the Kingdom from the outset pacified and marginalised them. Shiites remain under-represented in official positions, and students complain of open hostility from Sunni instructors. Jobs in the police and military are rare and promotion prospects there rarer still. While restrictions have loosened, Shiites continue to face obstacles to the free and open observance of their faith.

During much of the nation's history, Shiites were passive but stimulated by events in neighbouring Iran in 1979, their leaders mobilised youth around a message that directly challenged the regime, resonated with feelings of religious and community oppression, and triggered significant mass civil disobedience. Although this phase lasted less than a decade, the events, and the state's heavy-handed response, figure prominently in collective memories.

The Shiite leadership gradually moderated its views, recognising the limitations of agitation and violence and seeking improved ties with a regime whose legitimacy it came to acknowledge and whose role as a bulwark against more extreme Sunni militants it came to accept. In a 1993 meeting, King Fahd promised Shiite leaders to relax political restrictions in exchange for their ending active opposition from abroad. The relative quiet that has prevailed since reflects the enduring impact of that agreement and acknowledgment by Shiite leaders that violence is unlikely to yield results. But it is a quiet that, without further concrete progress, risks exhausting itself.

Saudi Arabia faces a new opportunity and a new urgency, both fuelled in part by external events. The 11 September 2001 attacks and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's subsequent terror campaign inside the Kingdom focused government attention on the most militant forms of religious extremism. They also spurred rapprochement between non-violent Islamists and liberals, Sunni and Shiite, who, faced with the threat of violent Sunni militancy, joined in calling for political and religious reform.

But if al-Qaeda's activities offered a chance to improve sectarian relations, the war in Iraq has pulled in the opposite direction. Emboldened by the example of Iraqi co-religionists, some Saudi Shiites believe they ought to press further, while the sight of Shiite dominance in a neighbouring country heightens Sunni suspicion. Ominously, a rising number of Saudi Sunni jihadi militants have been drawn to Iraq, motivated by opposition to the U.S. but also to the Shiites' increased role. The eventual return of perhaps several hundred battle-tested Saudi mujahidin seems inevitable, raising the possibility that -- like their predecessors from Afghanistan -- they will seek a new battlefield and threaten Western and governmental targets, as well as the Shiite minority.

While sectarian tensions arguably are higher than at any time since 1979, there appears little risk today of violent sectarian confrontation, but that is no reason for complacency. Instead, steps should be taken now to defuse a potential crisis. King Abdullah signalled his support while Crown Prince for more Shiite rights, most importantly by promoting inclusive national dialogues and bringing key members of the Sunni clergy along. But his true test comes now. Moving forward will require a long-term commitment to political and social integration and to combating domestic hate-speech, including:

  • expanding Shiite presence in government institutions, in particular in national and local councils including the Majlis al-Shura and Regional Councils;
  • lifting remaining restrictions on Shiite religious rituals and practices, specifically by allowing construction of mosques and community centres (husseiniyyas) and the production, printing, and circulation of religious materials within their communities. The decision by the government to permit observance of Ashura in 2004 was an important first measure; and
  • encouraging tolerance, eliminating anti-Shiism in mosques and schools, and curbing statements that incite anti-Shiite violence. Alongside its crack-down on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the government spearheaded an effort to promote tolerance and diversity. But, expressions of sectarian hatred remain common, including by persons in positions of religious authority. The government should organise a national information program encouraging tolerance and emphasising national unity.

Western governments are justifiably concerned about restrictions on religious freedom; in 2004 the U.S. State Department listed Saudi Arabia as a country of concern in this respect. But foreign pressure directly targeting the issue, especially in light of growing suspicions that the U.S. is hostile to Islam and championing Shiites regionally, could backfire. The U.S. and the EU would do better by focusing their public efforts on the need for broad reform, with the goal of expanding the rights and political participation of all Saudis, irrespective of sect.

Riyadh/Amman/Brussels, 19 September 2005

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this 29 April 2019. U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge

Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course

A series of escalations in both word and deed have raised fears of U.S.-Iranian military confrontation, either direct or by proxy. It is urgent that cooler heads prevail – in European capitals as in Tehran and Washington – to head off the threat of a disastrous war.

For the past year, relations between the U.S. and Iran have brought to mind a slow-motion train wreck. Of late, the pace has dangerously accelerated, and tensions could soon lead to a catastrophic collision. A crash is not inevitable, but it could well occur – deliberately or as a product of miscalculation – unless both parties and outside actors take urgent steps to slow way down or switch to another track.

On 12 May, four oil tankers off the coast of Fujaira, a port in the United Arab Emirates on the Gulf of Oman, were hit by apparent sabotage. Two days later, drones attacked two oil pumping stations along the East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia between the capital Riyadh and the port city of Yanbu. These two separate events may or may not be linked, may or may not involve Iran, and may or may not provoke a response. But, coming against a backdrop of significant escalation between Washington and Tehran, they represent ominous warning signs.

In the past few weeks, the Trump administration has doubled down on its efforts to strangle Iran’s economy. Not content with having unilaterally withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal, it is now pushing to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. It has designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation. It has also started to flex its military muscle by deploying warships, bomber jets and missile defence batteries to the Middle East to counter unspecified “Iranian threats”.

Tehran has not remained passive. It has labelled U.S. forces in the region as terrorists; downgraded its compliance with the nuclear deal, warning of further steps unless the deal’s remaining parties deliver tangible economic benefits; threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for the global oil and gas trade; and pledged to retaliate against any attack upon its assets or interests. Without offering proof, U.S. officials claim that Iran has also given licence to its regional proxies to target U.S. interests, suggesting that such an attack could occur in Iraq or one of the Gulf monarchies allied to Washington. In a worrying move, on 15 May it ordered the departure of non-essential U.S. personnel from Iraq.

Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order, especially in the absence of direct channels of communication that can pre-empt misunderstandings or miscalculations.

All this ratcheting-up of tension was entirely predictable, and most of it is entirely provoked by the U.S. With Iran having increasingly less to lose as a result of U.S. sanctions, which are eating away at its already weak economy, it was virtually bound to become less risk-averse in the nuclear realm and more aggressive in the region. For months now, the more hardline elements of the Islamic Republic have been urging the leadership to impose a cost on the U.S. in order to deter it from stepping up sanctions and to show that, if the U.S. could hurt Iran, so too could Tehran wound Washington.

Click here to browse the Iran-U.S. Trigger List, our interactive map and early warning tool tracking flashpoints between the two countries. 

Perhaps these actions are a prelude to negotiations: the U.S. is exerting “maximum pressure”, it says, to bring a more compliant Iran back to the table; in like manner, should Tehran conclude that it has no choice but to reach a new deal with Washington in order to relieve unsustainable economic strain, it will want to enter such talks with a stronger hand. Resuming its nuclear activities, making its presence felt in the region, and disrupting Saudi or Emirati oil exports could all be ways of enhancing its bargaining power. But if these manoeuvres are a diplomatic game, it is a dangerous one: either side could misinterpret the other’s intentions. Any Iranian move could easily lead to U.S. and/or Israeli strikes which, in turn, could lead to an Iranian counter-response. Or vice versa. Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order, especially in the absence of direct channels of communication that can pre-empt misunderstandings or miscalculations.

In short, whether or not Tehran was directly or indirectly behind the recent attacks (the Huthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks in Saudi Arabia; the earlier offshore incident has gone unclaimed; Iran has denied any connection to the incidents and called for an investigation), and whether or not Washington is manufacturing accusations to justify a spike in military activity, all the ingredients for an escalation are present. Even assuming that neither side seeks war, growing friction at all the flashpoints between the two sides (see our Trigger List early-warning platform) mean that intentions may not suffice to prevent it. The consequences could be calamitous for states and peoples in the immediate region, but also for the international economy, given its high dependence on the free flow of oil from the Gulf.

Iran should reciprocate by returning into full compliance with the nuclear deal.

It is not too late to avert this outcome. Key to de-escalation will be the ability of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal to give Iran an economic reprieve. In particular, Europe could shed its reluctance to indirectly import Iranian oil in partnership with Russia and China. If Russia swaps oil with Iran and China continues to import Iranian crude, the transactions would generate credit that the parties could inject into Europe’s special purpose financial vehicle (Instex), allowing Iran to engage in trade with these countries without access to the U.S.- dominated global financial system. These countries could also provide Iran with development aid to repair and renew its infrastructure. With Europe demonstrating willingness to go the extra mile, Iran should reciprocate by returning into full compliance with the nuclear deal. It also should exhibit restraint on the regional front and refrain from steps – direct or taken through partners – that could provoke its foes.

As for President Donald Trump, he faces a choice. Everything about his 2016 presidential campaign pointed in the direction of avoiding another costly and unnecessary military entanglement in the Middle East. So, too, does much about the vows he has made to his constituency since entering office. But everything about his administration’s policy toward Iran points in a strikingly different direction: toward war, by design or mistake. He says he wants the U.S. and Iran to talk. Yet he should know that the Islamic Republic will not start a dialogue if it feels it has a gun to its head; it will respond to perceived aggression in like manner, and that response could in turn engender an uncontrollable downward spiral. A back-channel dialogue eventually may be possible, but for that the U.S. ought to tone down its rhetoric and offer the Iranian leadership an off-ramp, for example by signalling its preparedness to put aside its maximalist demands and to find a mutually acceptable compromise.

President Trump might think that time is on his side, as sanctions continue to take their toll on the Iranian economy. But the wait-and-see period may have reached the end of its natural life. A crisis that he may not want but that some of his advisers may not mind lies just around the corner. It is past time for cooler heads to prevail and for all to move decisively to take the trains off collision course.