1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Sunni-Shiite cold war

Shabnam von Hein / groSeptember 8, 2016

Saudi Arabia's decision to sever ties with Iran exacerbated their already strained relationship. Right now, it means that this year's Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, has begun without Iranian pilgrims.

Saudi Arabien Mekka Pilger Kaaba
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/N. El-Mofty

When it comes to religious matters, there is little hope of compromise between the two rivaling powers in the Middle East. Iran's Shiite leaders and the Sunni House of Saud are now openly arguing about who is actually a Muslim.

The Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insulted Saudi rulers by calling them "faithless". On his website he wrote, "The world of Islam, including Muslim governments and peoples, must familiarize themselves with the Saudi rulers and correctly understand their blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic nature." Saudi Arabia has barred Iranian pilgrims from participating in the Hajj. Khamenei called for a "fundamental reconsideration of the management" of the holy sites by Saudi Arabia, backing his demand by citing the deaths of thousands of pilgrims last year."

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al Shaykh, responded by saying that Iranians were not real Muslims. Then he went on to reiterate what Saudi children learn in schools – that Shiites were a disgrace to Islam. And of course, every attack was followed by a counterattack.

The Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Khonsari tweeted, "Indeed; no resemblance between Islam of Iranians & most Muslims & bigoted extremism that Wahhabi top cleric & Saudi terror masters preach." The Twitter post triggered a virtual mudslinging match between Iranian and Saudi Twitter users who have ever since been insulting each other to their hearts' content.

Screenshot Twitter Javad Zarif, Außenminister Iran
Battle of words via Twitter: The account of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad ZarifImage: twitter.com/jzarif

464 deaths and no explanation

Despite the insults on the web, many religious Iranians are upset because they cannot travel to Saudi Arabia and walk around the Kaaba. Every Muslim is obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, provided that they can afford to take up to a year off work. Many must wait until they retire to do so.

Jafar Hosseini manages a Tehran travel agency that specializes in pilgrimages. Now, he has to cancel the most important event in his offering, the Hajj. "Only God knows for how long," Hosseini told Deutsche Welle in an interview. "The Saudis do not grant us entry permits. And our government has now forbidden travel to Saudi Arabia. Even Iranians outside the country were warned against traveling there."

The devout Shiite who is almost 70 years old refuses to talk about politics. Yet he does mention the Saudi response to the disaster last year, which he cannot understand to this day. He is referring to the stampede that claimed the lives of thousands of pilgrims in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca.

Saudi Arabia still refuses to reveal the exact number of victims. Furthermore, no official explanation for the cause of the tragedy in the only 700 meter wide and three kilometer long valley of Mina has been issued. One thing is certain: More than two million pilgrims had to pass through the valley on one day between sunrise and sundown.

Saudi authorities claim that a converging of crowds from different directions congested an intersection, causing mass panic to break out. Saudi media have even blamed the chaos on Iranian pilgrims. Iran, on the other hand, has accused Saudi authorities of simply closing off one road and not having taken adequate safety precautions. At least 2,411 pilgrims apparently died in the stampede; of them, 464 people from Iran alone died during the pilgrimage. Iran is the only country in the Islamic world to protest against Saudi Arabia's conduct and demand an explanation.

Saudi Arabien Botschaft Iran Protest
the Saudi Embassy in Tehran went up in flames after an Iranian cleric was executed by RiyadhImage: Isna

Intentional provocation

The Mina stampede has aggravated the already strained relations between the two countries. The Iran nuclear deal has caused Riyadh's distrust of Iran to grow significantly. "The agreement allows Iran to assume a considerably more significant role in the region," analyzes Mohsen Milani, the executive director and a professor of politics at the University of South Florida in the United States. "The Saudis see it as a new beginning for US-Iran relations. That is why they are trying to prevent the normalization of relations between Iran and Arab countries. They are intentionally upholding the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia."

One notable escalation was the execution of the Shia cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr. The then 56-year-old from eastern Saudi Arabia had completed his theological studies in Iran. He was arrested several times for his sermons in which he demanded more rights for the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia.

The execution sparked a strong reaction on Iran's part. After Ayatollah al Khamenei had warned the Saudi kingdom of "God's wrath", ultra conservative demonstrators stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran at the beginning of January and set parts of the building on fire. This led to a diplomatic ice age and also showed the powerlessness of the reform-oriented government of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, for it could not even ensure safety for diplomatic institutions.

Iran Saudi Arabien Spannungen
Tensions remain high between Tehran and RiyadhImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Kenare

Leaders in Riyadh broke off diplomatic relations. Pressured by the Saudis, other countries followed suit. Even tiny Djibouti closed its embassy in Iran. "Saudi Arabia has no faith in Rouhani and his reform-oriented government," said the Iranian journalist and Middle East expert Amir Taheri. "They know that Iran's religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say. Conservative circles, many religious preachers and the influential revolutionary guard systematically pick fights and are not interested in de-escalation."

Cold war in the Persian Gulf region

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been strained since Iran's Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran considers itself to be the protecting power over Shiites while Saudi Arabia sees itself as the protector of Sunnis. The have been vying for power in many Arab countries: Tehran supports Syrian president Bashar al Assad and the House of Saud backs the armed opposition in Syria. The Saudi kingdom has been waging a war Yemen against Houthi rebels, which the Arabs view as Tehran's puppets. Every crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia has consequences in the entire Middle East.

"They must put an end to their cold war," urges the Iranian-American political scientist Mohsen Milan. "They especially need to find a solution to the Syria conflict. If the conflict intensifies, the situation in Iraq will deteriorate and the security of the entire region will be affected.