Previous Session: Iran and Saudi Arabia: A little Great Game or prelude to the Last Battle? –Friday, 25 November

Previous Session: Iran and Saudi Arabia: A little Great Game or prelude to the Last Battle? –Friday, 25 November

Uncovering the architecture of tension between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia can feel like a mixture of guesswork, oil speculation and palm reading. In the finalMajlis for 2016, we attempt to decode the underlying factors fuelling and sustaining this tension.
The data is simple enough. These regional powers have long tangoed over nuclear and conventional military capability and hydrocarbons. Tensions have crystallised recently in multiple theatres, across Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. In Yemen alone, a largely forgotten war has seen up to 10,000 deaths over the last two years since a Saudi-led military intervention aimed at halting the Houthi rebels and their apparent Iranian-backers. The Saudi activation of the GCC Peninsula Shield Force in Yemen comes only a few years after their 14 March 2011 intervention in the Bahraini uprising, again justified by reference to an aggressive Iran intent on undermining ruling family authority. Further north, both states have struggled to contain the forces of the so-called Islamic State threatening to overwhelm their competing regional ambitions. Other implications have been more domestic in nature; in January 2016 the Saudi government executed the prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, which in turn resulted in an Iranian mob sacking Saudi consular buildings in Tehran and Mashhad.
What drives this multifaceted conflict, and how might we theorise its character and future? Is it propelled by a simple ideological mechanism, explained simply by the adjectives ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’? Does it represent the latest confrontation with what King Abdullah II of Jordan called the ‘Shia Crescent’, in reference to the spread of Shia political activism through Iran, Bahrain, Eastern Saudi Arabia, Southern Iraq and into the Levant since 1979? Or, alternatively, are the public words and apparently sectarian actions of these states merely the mask for a more basic geopolitical competition between regional powers? Are neither of these approaches convincing, and instead should we explain the conflict in a more nuanced fashion, as a function of identity politics constructed via the interplay of nationalist, sectarian, and Islamic revolutionary narratives?
With this complexity in mind, The Majlis asks:
  • What are the key drivers behind the Saudi and Iran conflict, and how might we explain its intensity?
  • What impact have recent developments in regional ‘proxy’ wars such as the Houthi/Saleh – Hadi/Saudi conflict in Yemen had for domestic politics in Iran and Saudi Arabia? Will
  • Are there prospects for future cooperation or at least rapprochement arising out of the continued conflict in Syria, Iraq?
  • What role has the GCC played in tempering, or indeed inflaming, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

This week we are fortunate enough to an expert digitally joining us:

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh, Research Professor of Middle East & Central Asian Politics, ARC Future Fellowship, Deakin University.

Professor Akbarzadeh has an active research interest in the politics of Central Asia, Islam, Muslims in Australia and the Middle East. He has been involved in organising a number of key conferences, including a Chatham House rule workshop on Australia’s relations with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan (2007), sponsored by the International Centre of Excellence for Asia Pacific Studies, and a conference on the Arab Revolution with Freedom House, sponsored by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). He has published more than 40 refereed papers. Among his latest publications are a sole-authored book on Uzbekistan and the United States, a co-authored book on US Foreign Policy in the Middle East, and a co-authored book on Muslim Active Citizenship in the West.

The following articles are suggested background readings on the topic. They are not required for participation, rather, they are provided for those who would like to prepare for our discussion:

http://www.cfr.org/peace-conflict-and-human-rights/sunni-shia-divide/p33176#!/?cid=otr-marketing_url-sunni_shia_infoguide

http://www.vox.com/2016/1/4/10708682/sunni-shia-iran-saudi-arabia-war

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/iran-saudi-sunni-shiite/422808/

Session will be held on Friday, 11 November in the Centre for Arab Islamic Studies Tutorial Room at 11am.

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