Will Iran, Saudi Arabia rivalry renew after Tehran terror attacks?
Islamic State is collapsing but it still poses a threat. Given this, the heightening of Shia-Sunni rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia adds to the regions woeseditorials Updated: Jun 08, 2017 15:08 IST
The only thing surprising about the terrorist attack on Iran’s parliament building and the tomb of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on Wednesday, which seems likely to have been carried out by the Islamic State (IS), is that it had not happened before. The IS’ bitterest enemies have been the Shia armies and militias arraigned against them in Syria and Iraq. Its hatred for Shia Muslims has been one of its defining characteristics. Yet this is the first time it has carried out an attack on the political centre of the Shia world. Iran, despite being surrounded by violence and instability, has not experienced a major terrorist attack on its cities for seven years. While a number of other Sunni groups have Iran in their crosshairs, their attacks have been minor and ineffective.
Tehran has previously warned of the threat posed by a collapsing IS and how it can be expected to lash out as its territorial existence comes to an end. What is more troubling is the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Crops’ (IRGC) decision to point the finger of blame at Saudi Arabia, despite the evidence of IS involvement and at a time when Riyadh has thrown in its lot with the anti-IS coalition.
The IRGC and other hardline elements in Iran to some extent see the IS as yesterday’s problem. Their focus is beginning to shift back to a renewed Tehran-Riyadh geopolitical rivalry. The recent Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, attempts to divide Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen and Riyadh’s encouragement of the Donald Trump administration to take a more hostile line against Iran are only a few of the sins that the ayatollahs are laying at Saudi Arabia’s feet. The Saudis, for their part, are paranoid about an Iranian-dominated Shia axis running from Lebanon across to Iran that they feel would inevitably be tempted to support the repressed Shia minority inside Saudi Arabia. Both camps have dirtied their hands supporting terrorist activities against the other.
These are sentiments that the Persian Gulf region could do without. The election of the moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a reminder that both Riyadh and Tehran have political voices who have previously argued Saudi Arabia-Iran cooperation would be mutually beneficial. And it is untrue to say the two sides have a history of constant hostility.
However, at present moderation is not winning the policy arguments if the recent events in the Gulf are any indication. This partly reflects the strength of hardline clerics and religious paramilitaries in all these countries. The attacks on Tehran are being used to sharpen the geopolitics of the region — and replace the war with IS with other forms of conflict.