Cavan Hogue. Shia vs Sunni in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Shia cleric who criticised its policies has exacerbated the split between Shia and Sunni Nations. Politics and religion have come together in a way that will be familiar to anyone who knows Northern Ireland. Sunni Saudi Arabia is the home of the deviant puritanical Wahabi sect which is rejected by most Muslims but provides the theological underpinning for al Qaeda and ISIS. It is also a US ally and therefore an Australian ally.

So we now have the Shia nations supported by Russia and the Sunni nations supported by the US and its Western allies facing off publicly. However, it is not that simple. There are other tribal and splinter groups to muddy the waters. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and ISIS are out of the same stable and we may well ask how a nation that beheads people it doesn’t like differs from ISIS?

This also brings out the differences between Western rhtetoric and practice. The US criticises Assad’s human rights record but is a close ally of Saudi Arabia. Presumably the Americans will use the defence Franklin D. Roosevelt made when attacked for supporting the brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza: “I know he’s a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch”. Foreign intervention is not really about other people’s human rights but the foreigners’ national interests.

There is no end in sight to the imbroglio in the Middle East. The Coalition of the Willing opened Pandora’s box and a host of old enmities came flying out. Nations like Iraq and Syria are colonial creations which are not so much failed states as states that never really were states as we understand the term. Attempts to recreate entities that were held together by force are not likely to succeed. We are seeing a struggle for political influence based on religion between the two major powers: Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia and Shia Persian Iran. Even if they reach agreement a host of other isuues will remain. For example, the Kurds surely have as much right to a homeland as the Israelis?

Australia can have no influence there and our participation in what is effectively a regional civil war can only make us a target for extremists. This is not a crusade for freedom and democracy but a mess which only the Arabs and the Persians can sort out for themselves. Talk about “evil” is not helpful and we need to play a no trump hand. An independent Australian foreign policy would not follow the US into yet another fine mess.

Cavan Hogue was formerly Ambassador to USSR and Russia.

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