Saudi-Iran crisis widens into broader Shia-Sunni split

6 Jan 2016 | Written by Gaurav ; Edited by Achin Garg

Saudi Arabia's execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, soured relations between the Sunni kingdom and Shia stronghold Iran after the former's embassy was ransacked by the latter's citizens in protest.

The incident was followed by Sunni nations Sudan, Bahrain, UAE and Kuwait cutting of ties with Iran.

Other Sunni countries like Egypt issued strong condemnations of Iran, prompting speculation of a growing Shia-Sunni schism.

In context: Saudi Arabia and Iran: Defining West Asian geopolitics

Sectarian DifferencesThe Shia-Sunni split

Both Shia as well as Sunni Muslims believe that the Prophet Mohammed, introduced Islam 1400 years ago.

Following his death in 632AD, there was a divide between the two communities over appointing his successor.

Sunnis insisted that the Quran is the ultimate authority and that the successor must be any worthy individual, while Shias demanded that the successor should be from the Prophet's bloodline.

Context Saudia Arabia and Iran: Basics

Saudi Arabia and Iran, ruled by Sharia law, are the two largest Islamic countries in West Asia, and also have the largest proven reserves of oil and natural gas in the region.

Saudi Arabia is a conservative Wahhabi Sunni nation with traditionally close ties to the US and the UK.

Iran however, is a Shia Islamic Republic founded on an anti-western revolution in 1979.

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The theological power centers

Iran has a population of 83,176,930, with 91% Shia Muslims and 8% Sunnis, while Saudi Arabia has a population of 29,195,895, with 90% Sunni Muslims and 10% Shias, making them the two theological power centers of Islam.
The early days of Saudi-Iran relations

Early DaysThe early days of Saudi-Iran relations

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia was unified by Abdel Aziz ibn Saud in 1932.

Iran was then under the rule of Shah Mohammed-Reza Phallavi, and the two countries strived for Islamic consolidation, setting up the Muslim World league and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

When the UK withdrew from the Persian Gulf in the 1960s, Iran and Saudi assumed responsibility for regional security.

Continued A liberal Iran against an orthodox Saudi

Iran, until 1979, was a liberal state with westernized institutions and culture within an Islamic society.

When Iran began modernizing its military in 1970, it began to dominate the regional security scenario.

This began to worry Saudi Arabia, which saw a Shia majority nation becoming a leading power in the Muslim world.

This led to an increase in tensions over the regional security architecture.

Revolution The Iranian Revolution of 1979

The roots of the Iranian Revolution can be traced back to Ruhollah Khomeini's opposition to the Shah of Iran's westernization and privatization drive in the 1960s.

This, coupled with widespread disenchantment over economic woes in the 1970s led to 2 years of protests starting from 1977.

The protests culminated with the overthrowing of the Shah, who was succeeded by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

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Shia Theocracy denounces Saudi Arabia

Ayatollah Khomeini was a staunch critic of Saudi Arabia, claiming that the kingdom was merely a puppet of the West and that Mecca was in the hands of "a bunch of heretics".

Current Shia vs Sunni: A battle for political influence

As the two largest oil rich countries in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran's rivalry is more strategic in nature than theological.

The 2003 Iraq war and the Arab spring, led to the ouster of many regional governments, where Iran and Saudi Arabia have been attempting to consolidate their influence.

In Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Iran and Saudi Arabia are vying for strategic influence.

6 Jan 2016Saudi-Iran crisis widens into broader Shia-Sunni split

10 Jan 2016GCC backs Saudi in Iran row

Foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which groups Sunni Arab monarchies, expressed their "total support" for Saudi Arabia in its diplomatic row with Iran.

Supporting Saudi Arabia's stance, the GCC Foreign Ministers criticized "Iranian interference in Saudi Arabian affairs" over its denunciation of Nimr al-Nimr's execution.

The GCC comprises of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

14 May 2016Iran cancels participation in annual hajj

Iran has suspended its participation in the annual hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabi as a mark of protest over Saudi's callousness in handling hajj pilgrims.

Iranian culture minister, Ali Jannati announced the breakdown of talks with Saudi Arabia over visa and transportation of pilgrims.

This marks a new low in the already strained ties between the 2 Middle East heavyweights.

30 May 2016Iran bars citizens from going for Hajj

Iran's culture minister, Ali Jannati has accused Saudi Arabia of escalating tensions between the two countries and starting a cyberwar with Iran.

The Iranian government has barred all applications for the Hajj pilgrimage for its citizens.

Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage organization has stated that, "too much time has been lost, and it is now too late to organize the pilgrimage."

07 Sep 2016Iran calls on Muslims to punish Saudi

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called upon the Muslim world to punish Saudi Arabia for its handling of the Hajj pilgrimage and regional conflicts.

Rouhani accused Saudi Arabia of "committing crimes in the region and supporting terrorism" and shedding "the blood of Muslims in Iraq, Syria and Yemen."

Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei equated Saudi Arabia's handling of the Hajj to murder.