For decades now, the Middle East has been in turmoil. Commentators usually ascribe this instability to American Invasion of Iraq in 2003 which destabilized the entire region. However, it is not as if Middle East was an oasis of peace and stability before that. There are those who blame Franco-British Colonialism, and their carving up of Arab lands into small, artificial nation states for the current situation in the region. Some commentators would have you believe that woe befell the region when the first crusader set his foot in the holy land. However, there is another factor, sort of an elephant in the room which has shaped modern Middle East through the centuries. Arab-Persian or Arab-Iranian relations have left an indelible mark on the region. Modern Middle East is composed of four broad ethnicities- Turks, Arabs, Kurds and Persians. Of these, Turkey, has mostly looked towards West after Ataturk’s revolution, Kurds have been emasculated, scattered as they are among several nations, which has left Arabs and Persians/Iranians as dominant powers in the region.
History makes scarce mention of the Arab tribes who inhabited the Arab desert. Romans used to have trade relations with the Arabs who inhabited modern Yemen, calling that region, Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia). At this time, the Middle East was dominated by two superpowers. The Byzantine Empire to the West and the Persian Empire to the East. Arabs were small, disunited, insignificant players in the region. That changed when a man named Muhammad claimed to receive revelations from Angel Gabriel. In a matter of decades, Arabs, revitalized by their new found religion would break out of the desert, ushering in the end of the Byzantines and the Persians. The Persians, led by the Sassanid dynasty was in a period of relative decline at this time and failed to understand the challenge posed by Arab armies. At the battle of Al-Qaddissiyyah, the Muslim armies decisively defeated the Sassanids, thereby extinguishing the centuries old Persian Empire. Persia would henceforth be ruled as an Arab colony. The first few years under Arab rule were particularly harsh for the Persians, who had derided Arabs as lizard eaters from the Desert who were no match for the opulence and wealth of Persian monarchy. The fabled Persian epic, Shahnameh, rues the fall of Persian empire thus
‘Damn this word, Damn this time, Damn this fate
That uncivilized Arabs have come to make me Muslim’
However, the Persian spirit was far too strong to be suppressed. The replacement of the Umayyad Caliphate by the Abbasids gave some relief to the Persians. The Abbasids incorporated Persian court manners and culture and unleashed the Persian spirit in the form of Golden Age of Islam. At this time, as more and more Zoroastrian Persians converted to Islam, they created an alternative narrative to justify their acceptance of the new religion. As per this narrative, Husayn, the son of Ali who was the son in law of Muhammad and the fourth caliph of Islam was married to Shahrbanu, the Zoroastrian Princess who had borne him a son who was the right heir to the caliphate. Over a period of a few centuries, this narrative and other similar narratives would help in the Zoroastrianization of Islam, making it more acceptable to the Persians. Eventually, Persians would altogether reject the Arab version of Islam, i.e Sunni and wholeheartedly accept the Shia version, thereby strengthening their national identity. Orthodox Sunnis would consider Shias as apostates from Islam. By the 16th century, Iran would fall come under the rule of Safavid dynasty that converted Persians wholesale from Sunni to Shia creed. By this time, the Arabs were replaced as regional players by the Ottoman Turks who controlled Arab lands as well as the Caliphate. Persian-Turkish relations would be characterized not only by nationalism but also by Sunni-Shia relations. The Safavids, for example, encouraged ritual cursing of the first three caliphs, who were considered holy by the Sunnis. The end to this cursing was one of the key agreements in the Peace of Amasya, following the Ottoman-Persian war. There were periodic resurfacing of Arabs, when, for example the Sauds, fired by a Wahabi ideology marched out from Hejaz and sacked the holy Shia city of Karbala. The Arabs also periodically challenged the Ottomans, but on the whole, the Ottomans remained in control of their Arab subjects.
Persia, or Iran, retained its independence during the age of European colonialism, while Ottoman Turkey succumbed to the Entente Powers in the First World War. Ottoman Turkey was cut in size and its Arab territories were taken over by the French and the British. The Sauds, in the meanwhile, reappeared on the scene and established a state in the desert part of Arabia. The Saudis swore by the Wahabis, who followed an ultra-orthodox and unconventional version of Islam. As a part of this, they considered all Shia to be apostates and considered it their divine duty to punish them for their apostasy. Saudis also demolished Shrines of the prophet and his companions, that were venerated by Shias, as they considered them to be manifestations of idolatry, leading to an outcry in Iran. At this time, Turkey turned away from the Middle East, in its attempt to become more westernized. In Persia, soon to become Iran, Reza Shah would take control and establish a modern, West oriented empire. The emergence of Israel, at this time, diverted the attention away from the simmering tensions in the Arab-Iranian relations. Under the Shah, Iran shunned much of orthodoxy in its drive to become modernized. At the same time, Arab powers were humiliated three times by Israel, with whom Iran enjoyed good relations. But Shah’s Iran was not stable. While outwardly modern, Iran was no different from other neighboring countries, people were deeply religious and resented the social and political controls exercised by the Shah. The emergence of Khomeini on the political scene spelled doom for Shah and the 2500 year of Iranian monarchy. In 1979, following the Iranian revolution, Khomeini inaugurated world’s first Shia theocratic state. The six year long war waged by Iraq,supported by Arabs and the West, against revolutionary Iran ended in an Iranian victory at catastrophic costs. From hereon, relations between Iran and the Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia, would forever be destabilized.
Khomeini’s Iran sought to export the revolution beyond Iran’s borders. In Iran’s vicinity, there were several nations that had substantial Shia populations but were ruled by Sunnis. Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and several other Sunni states in the Middle East fell prey to Iran’s game plans. Iran created and dispatched terrorist groups such as Hezbollah to enforce its will. Arab states countered Iranian initiatives, in the process destabilizing the region. The civil war in Lebanon was an example of how the strife between Arabs and Iranians was playing out. Khomeini also encouraged Iranian pilgrims to propagate Iranian political ideals during the hajj. This led to unfortunate tragedies. For example in 1987 hajj, Iranian pilgrims indulged in sloganeering during the Hajj, “Allah hu akbar, Khomeini Rahbar” (God is great, Khomeini is the guide), which was misheard by Arabs as meaning God is great, Khomeini is greater, which resulted in an eventual massacre of Iranian pilgrims. Attempts were made by both Arabs and Iranians to come to peace, but for most part these efforts were undermined by political machinations that happened behind the scenes. The emergence of Wahabi Taliban in Afghanistan on Iran’s Eastern borders also put the Arabs and Iranians on opposite sides. While the Arabs supported Taliban, Iran supported the rebel Northern Alliance. During their rule in Iran, the Taliban carried out wholesale massacre of Shia Hazara community in Afghanistan.
The present battle lines in the Middle East are drawn over Syria. Syria is an Iranian ally that has been led by the Assads for nearly half a century now. Assads belong to the Shia minority Alawaite Sect and rule over a Sunni majority country. The rise of Assad in Syria was described by one political commentator as being equivalent to an untouchable becoming Maharaja in India, or a Jew becoming the Tsar of Russia. The policies of Father Hafez and son Bashir al Assad have also helped in antagonizing the Sunni majority population. But they enjoy the complete support of the Iranians. Thus, when the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, the Arabs and Iranians, once again found themselves on opposite side. Iran has liberally supported the Assad regime, even sending its military officers to aid Assad and enlisting Hezbollah’s help in defeating the rebels. The Arabs on the other hand are supporting a variety of rebel groups to dislodge Assad. They have the support of Sunni Turkey in their initiatives. The emergence of IS has queered the pitch, but there are strong reasons to believe that the Arabs and the Turks are financing and supporting the IS to counter Iran. As far as Iran in concerned, the loss of Syria will deprive it of a major ally in a region, where it has more enemies that friends. Also, it realizes that IS poses an existential threat for Iran. Iran, therefore has been at the forefront of attempts to create a broad anti-IS alliance.
The way for everlasting peace in the Middle East depends is paved by good relations between the Arabs and the Iranians. Unfortunately, the relations between the two are defined by centuries of distrust, fanned by religious differences and rabid nationalism. Any prediction of what will happen next in this troubled region is best left to guesswork