“ISIL massacres Shi'a in Iraq”, “Iran wants to Persianise the Arab world”, “Sunni extremist blows up Shi'a mosque in Kuwait”. Headlines like these dominate current media reports about western Asia, conveying the impression that sectarian violence sparked by tempestuous ideologies is at the root of the region's conflicts. Most of this journalism is simplistic and some of it is plainly wrong. There are no endemic patterns of hatred between Arabs, Persians, Sunni and Shi'a; narratives based on sectarianism are unconvincing. Serious research reveals that none of the traumas that the people of the region are experiencing can be explained simply in terms of a continuous conflict between Shia and Sunni and/or Arab and Persian.
The emotive issue of Syria is an obvious place to start to expose the flaws in the sectarian approach. Iran supports the Assad government, the argument goes, because the core of the Syrian state is Alawite, a sub-branch of Shi’ism. But there are at least three reasons why the idea that a sectarian bond explains Iranian backing for Damascus is wrong.
First, scholars are well aware that the Assad dynasty did not place its ideological bets on religion or a sect. Under the Assads, the ideological foundation of the Syrian state was engineered around Ba’athism, a branch of secular Arab nationalism. Indeed, as members of a minority sect, the Assads were determined to flush out any sectarian references in the official discourse of the state. Syrian children were taught about the glories of Arab history, not the legitimacy of the Alawites or some kind of Shi'a brotherhood. The same is true for Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the Assads' fellow Ba'athist leader, who was as much non-Sunni as the Assads were non-Shi'a.
Second, Syria has been for Iran a strategic ally since the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), when Hafez al-Assad was the only Arab leader supporting the country against the invading armies of Saddam Hussein. So common interest, not sectarian allegiance, is the reason for the Syrian-Iranian alliance. The point is echoed in the rhetoric of muqawamah (resistance) that linked “Sunni-Arab” Hamas in Palestine, to “Arab-Shi'a” Hizbollah in Lebanon, to “Persian-Shi'a” Iran via “Secular-Arab” Syria. This axis was quite obviously interest-based, and could not be explained along Shi'a/Sunni-Persian/Arab lines.
Third, a Syrian state composed of socialist heathens causes no problem to Iranian decision-makers seeking to build a trusted alliance. For the same reason, Iran can have strong relations with socialist leaders such as the Castros in Cuba, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. If any communist-atheist ruler has a foreign policy conducive to Iran’s agenda, he or she can be embraced as much as would the most pious, god-loving but (essentially) pro-Iranian Shi'a. Conversely, if a Shi'a movement is opposed to the Iranian state, it will be vilified. The thousands of Iranian exiles and secular Shi'a groups can testify to this strict delineation between friend and foe: one based on its stance vis-à-vis the Iranian system, rather than a Shi'a or Iranian “identity”.
A comparable logic applies to Iraq. There, Ayatollah Ali Sistani is not only a Shi'a but a Marja-e Taghlid, a source of emulation constituting the highest clerical rank in the Shi'a hierarchy. His religious credentials outweigh even those of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But Sistani adheres to the quietist tradition of the late Ayatollah al-Khoei (and Ayatollah Boroujerdi in Iran), while Khamenei is heir to Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih (which compels clerics to be political leaders and ideological prophets). There is no love lost between them or their followers.
A need for nuance
Similar dynamics operate elsewhere. Iranian clerics and their Iraqi Shi'a counterparts organised around Muqtada al-Sadr could not agree, but for the opposite reason - i.e., because while Sadr repeatedly positioned himself as a political leader, he was not someone that Iran could work with. In Lebanon, Hizbollah is in Iran's foreign-policy orbit not because they are Shi'a but on account of the movement's allegiance to Khomeinism. The late cosmopolitan superstar of Lebanese Shi’ism, Musa al-Sadr (who was of “Iranian origin”), would have been seen in a very different light by today’s leaders in Tehran compared to the combatant Hassan Nasrallah (who is Lebanese). Again, the issue is not Sunni vs Shi'a or Arab vs Persian, but shared interests. In the case of Iraq and Lebanon, this interest is defined by creating a common front against Israel; in the case of Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi, by finding reliable allies in the fight against Daesh (or ISIL).
Yemen is another example of the trend. The Zai'di Houthis may have overlapping Shi'a beliefs with Iran, but this far from explains the link between the two. The current, Saudi Arabia-led intervention in Yemen has little to do with the danger of an expanding Persian empire, and much more with the threat of a Yemeni government independent of Saudi patronage.
In the intra-Arab "cold war" of the 1960s, a similar factor compelled King Saud to intervene in Yemen (then under British leadership) in order to thwart Nasserite influence. In Oman in the same period, the Shah of Iran - equally opposed to the ambitions of Egypt's leader - sent troops to quell a Marxist rebellion. But King Saud and the Shah, "objective" allies against Nasserism, were following their own interests and not any sectarian motif. Then and now, the interests of nation or movement override sectarian allegiances: primordial identitarian factors play no major role in the map of conflict. If it were otherwise, Saudi Arabia ("Hanbali-Sunni-Wahhabi”) would be allied to al-Qaida, and ISIL and Iran (“Persian-Twelver Shi'a”) Iran would not support Armenia ("Christian-Orthodox”) in its conflict with Azerbaijan ("Shi'a-Muslim” majority). There are many more such examples.
The same establishment media outlets that view the region's conflicts through a sectarian prism tend to speak of a unified Islamic threat whenever a terrorist attack happens in north America or Europe. But the people of the region cannot be both imploding in sectarian anarchy and a unified civilisation clashing with the “west”. Such misleading and contradictory paradigms allow damaging myths such as "Arabs vs Persians, Sunni vs Shi'a" to grow. A more informed and refined approach to this complex region, and to world politics generally, is badly needed.