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Sectarian strife between Saudi Arabia, Iran could easily impact Asia

TOKYO -- Islamic sectarian conflict has again flared up in the Persian Gulf region. On Jan. 2, a mob attacked the Saudi embassy in Iran, angered by the execution of a Shiite religious leader in Saudi Arabia, leading to a chain reaction in which Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Arab countries severed diplomatic relations with Iran. Protests also arose in Pakistan and India. If the tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims continues, the inflamed hostility in the Middle East could have a serious impact on Asia.

     The latest upheaval started with an execution. On Jan. 2, Saudi Arabia executed 47 people on charges of involvement in terrorist acts. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, an influential Shiite cleric, was among them. In Saudi Arabia, ruled by the Sunni royal family, Shiite Muslims in the eastern part of the kingdom have repeatedly clashed with Saudi security forces in the past several years, and the authorities suspected that al-Nimr had incited the riots.

     Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca, the holiest place of Islam, and regards itself as the religious leader of the Sunni nations. In Iran, on the other hand, more than 90% of the population are Shiite Muslims, and the country also has a sense of being a great nation.  On the day of the execution, a protest demonstration arose in Tehran. A mob broke into the Saudi embassy, throwing firebombs at the facility. Iran saw a similar incident in 2011, when a mob broke into the British embassy and damaged the facility after the U.K. imposed strict economic sanctions on the country. At that time, it was believed that Basij, a volunteer militia, had acted in compliance with the government's wishes. Saudi Arabia's strong reaction to the attack may have been due to its perception that it had been set up by the Iranian government.

     Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir severed the country's diplomatic relations with Iran on Jan. 3. Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni royal family and has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia; Sudan, where Sunnis make up a large majority of the population; and some others followed Saudi Arabia's move. The United Arab Emirates downgraded its diplomatic relations with Iran. Behind these actions is fear that Iran, a regional power, may wield its influence in Iraq and Lebanon, with which it is linked through Shia Islam, as a result of its agreement with six major countries on the issue of Tehran's nuclear development.

     In fact, Saudi Arabia's suspicion of Iran dates back to the 1980s. Iran's regime of Islamic jurists, which was created after the autocratic and pro-U.S. government of King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in 1979, called for the export of the Islamic revolution, which worried neighboring monarchies, including Saudi Arabia. While the antagonistic relationship between the U.S. and Iran continued, Iran was held in check by the containment policy of successive U.S. administrations and Saudi Arabia had a sense of security.

     However, as a result of the final agreement between Iran and six major powers -- including the U.S. and the U.K. -- over its nuclear program, the Barack Obama administration promised last July to lift its sanctions against Iran. This is in exchange for the country's suspension of its nuclear program, which was suspected of being designed for weapons development. This gave Iran relief, but Saudi Arabia worries that Iran, which is strong militarily and adept at diplomacy, might strengthen its influence. The Saudi leadership, which had enjoyed a honeymoon relationship with the U.S. for many years, has a "feeling like jealousy against Iran," said a person related to diplomatic circles.

     The sectarian conflict has spread to Asia. In Pakistan, Shiite residents staged 1,000-strong protest demonstrations in Lahore and Karachi. Police and demonstrators also clashed in northern India and her capital. The situation is particularly serious for Pakistan. Sartaj Aziz, an adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, did not exaggerate in his Jan. 6 announcement: "The Muslim faces grave dangers in this situation."

     Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Sunni organization in Pakistan, has made many suicide bombing attacks on minority Shiite mosques in the past several years. The rift between the two Islamic groups is deep.

     The Pakistani government joined the Saudi-led Islamic military alliance formed by 34 Sunni nations in mid-December. Although the Saudi government said the purpose of the alliance is to fight terrorism against the international community, Middle East watchers believe the country will use it to keep Iran in check. Pakistan had hesitated to join the alliance, fearing it might lead to conflict with neighboring Iran and aggravate domestic sectarian problems. It made the painful decision after taking into account its economic relations with Saudi Arabia, a Middle Eastern source explained.

     In Indonesia, another major Muslim country, Islamic extremists were arrested in December. In five places in three Java provinces, they received funds from the Islamic State group and were procuring materials to produce bombs, sources said. Two men arrested in West Java Province are suspected of involvement in the terrorist bombing in Thailand last August. There are signs that IS intends to expand its terrorist activities in Asia.

     The sectarian conflict will also affect the IS problem, because it could thwart efforts to bring peace in Syria, which requires cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. A trend toward peace just began to rise at the multilateral conference of foreign ministers in Vienna in October 2015. Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir recently expressed the nation's intention to cooperate with the international community over the Syria issue, but Saudi Arabia disagrees with Iran over how to deal with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. If the rift deepens and delays the peace process in Syria, the IS would be helped to survive longer in the country. The opportunities for IS to penetrate into Asia, a major worry for Indonesia, could also increase.

     The Strait of Hormuz, across which Saudi Arabia and Iran face each other, is a key channel through which 30% of global seaborne crude oil is transported. Crude prices are in a low range at present. However, if the present tension is prolonged and hostilities intensify in Yemen between Shiite forces supported by Iran and the forces of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations, oil supplies to Asia may be hindered. The growing sectarian upheaval in the Middle East has grave implications for Asia.

     Nikkei staff writer Takeshi Kumon in Dubai contributed to this story.

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