Both Saudi Arabia and Israel believe that if they can entice the United States to embrace a more aggressive posture toward Iran, it will provide a solution to their own internal problems. That was the clear message in President Trump’s visit to the Middle East this week.
Saudi Arabia believes that containing Iran will control the potentially rebellious minority Shi’a communities on the Arabian Peninsula. Every Arab nation has persecuted and disadvantaged its Shi’a residents—even in Bahrain, where Shi’a Muslims are a majority. Conservative Sunnis view Shi’ism as a heretical belief system.
These Shi’a communities have grown increasingly restive. This has created a serious problem for Saudi Arabia, in particular, since its Shi’a residents are concentrated in two places: the Eastern Province, where Saudi oil fields are located, and in the south, where the Shi’a Zayidi (Houthi) sect – an ancient group that ruled Yemen for 1000 years until recently – straddles its border with Yemen.
The Saudi government is continually looking for some acceptable justification to suppress this Shi’a minority, which Riyadh believes threatens the stability of the Kingdom. The designation of Shi’a as heretics aids in cementing this justification. However, the Saudi rulers have gone one step further. They have tied the interests of their Shi’a citizens to Iran, creating a false narrative of Iranian hegemony. This plays beautifully into the Washington narrative that Iran is extending its grasp throughout the Middle East — a narrative that has been promulgated since the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution.
The Saudi government apparently believes that if it can convince the United States to attack or curtail Iran, this action will effectively weaken and dishearten the Saudi Shi’a communities, who will then cease to pose a threat.
The situation with Israel is equally complex, but it also involves Shi’a communities in the Middle East.
Palestinians expelled from Israeli territory and the West Bank region in 1948 and 1967 were settled in United Nations-run refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Gaza. In Lebanon, the Maronite Christian government placed the camps in the predominantly Shi’a south, where the Palestinians persisted in attacking Israel’s northern border. The Shi’a were not well-disposed to the Palestinians in their midst but when Israel began shelling the Lebanese south in retaliation for the Palestinian attacks, the Shi’a became distraught. They called on their own government in Beirut to help in their defense, but received no response, and no military help.
Iran had strong ties to the Lebanese Shi’a community even before the Islamic Revolution. After the Revolution, however, the new Islamic government was looking for ways to spread the message of their Revolution. The besieged Lebanese Shi’a called on Tehran to help them defend themselves, and Iran responded with organizational and tactical aid, resulting in the establishment of Hezbollah as a defense force.
Over the years, Hezbollah has become an independent entity. It makes common cause with Iran, but is not controlled by Tehran. Indeed, it is now a major Lebanese political party and social welfare entity, with increasing influence in Lebanese politics. It is also the only credible force in the region capable of countering Israel in any way, and that is why Israel makes such a point of identifying them as terrorists—the better to attract U.S. support.
The Israelis believe, foolishly, that if the United States can weaken or curtail Iran, the now-robust Hezbollah organization will wither and die, and they will be free to pursue any policy they wish regarding the Palestinian population in the West Bank occupied territory and Gaza.
Sadly, President Trump and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, have been played. They have been lured into this web of intrigue by both the Saudis and the Israelis. Both nations would like the United States to reverse the Obama-era effort to withdraw from the region, and instead jump back into it full-force with military action directed at Iran. This U.S. action would both mask the problems Saudis and Israelis see within their own borders, and they believe, wrongly, “solve” them.
The naïve approach taken by President Trump, where he seemingly believes that complex problems can be solved in a half-hour like a real-estate deal with enough cash, is doomed to miserable failure that will embroil the Middle East for decades to come.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 40 years.