The Sunni-Shia schism goes back more than a millenium and has been a more or less constant feature of geopolitics in the Middle East for a long time. The closest the balance has come to being upset within recent memory was the Iran-Iraq war, in which the United States sensibly did what we could to prevent either side from winning.
Now, though, the long-simmering feud is heating up, primarily, I think, because of Iran’s growing military ascendancy. The latest manifestation is Saudi Arabia’s simultaneous execution of 47 men by beheading or firing squad in prisons across the country. The 47 were executed for “terrorism,” mostly on the basis of being members of al Qaeda. But one of those killed was Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, whom the Saudi government arrested in 2012.
Al-Nimr’s execution prompted protests in Iran that were reminiscent of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in 1979. Iran’s mullahs warned Saudi Arabia that it would “pay a high price” for executing al-Nimr. The Telegraph reports:
An angry crowd has stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran following the execution of prominent Shia Muslim cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday.
The mob hurled petrol bombs at the building before being cleared by police. Pictures on social media showed that some protesters forced their way into the embassy, smashing furniture and starting a fire which was swiftly extinguished.
According to the ISNA, the Iranian Students News Agency, some demonstrators reached the roof of the embassy before being cleared. There were also reports that the Saudi consulate in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, had been set alight.
We generally think of demonstrators as opponents of the government, but that isn’t necessarily true. (Occupy Wall St., for example, was basically an inept arm of the ruling Democratic Party.) Here, as in 1979, those who stormed the Saudi embassy were doing the Iranian government’s bidding. Note how the mob threw fire bombs at the Saudi embassy and “forced their way” into the embassy, but then were “cleared by police.” Likewise, they were allowed to start a fire that was then “swiftly extinguished.” I am pretty sure that if Iran’s government wanted to protect the Saudi embassy, it could do so.
Saudi Embassy in Tehran getting the kind of attention the U.S. Embassy used to. pic.twitter.com/YBA3qs1Ewg
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) January 2, 2016
Some sources say that the interior of the Saudi embassy was destroyed by the fire, but this may prove to be an exaggeration. Here is another photo of the protest in progress, and the Saudi embassy in flames:
Demonstrations were not limited to Iran. This photo is of Saudi women in the coastal city of Qatif, which is mostly Shia:
This video apparently shows Shia demonstrators in faraway Kashmir:
Of course, the United States is not responsible for everything that goes wrong in the world. The Middle East, in particular, is more than capable of bringing about disaster on its own. But it is hard to observe these events without wondering what Barack Obama was thinking when he decided to build Iran up as a regional hegemon, to seek an alliance with the mullahs, to release more than $100 billion in frozen assets to Iran’s government, to rescue Iran’s economy by procuring the end of sanctions, to bless and protect Iran’s ongoing nuclear program while posing no meaningful obstacle to the mullahs’ development of missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the United States, as well as to Europe. I don’t know how to reconcile these policies with a good faith intention to pursue peace in the Middle East or to advance the national security interests of the United States.
But, hey, we elected Obama twice. What reason did we have to expect anything better?