The leaders of rival regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia are vowing to curb the sectarian strife that is increasingly defining conflict across the Middle East.
The pledge to calm tensions, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his first official visit to meet Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh on Saturday, illustrates the growing regional alarm over Shiite-Sunni violence. Sectarian bloodshed has soared in Iraq – often at the hands of allies and coreligionists of these rival nations – and is threatening stability in Lebanon.
Yet while both leaders prefer to blame outside actors for the increase in sectarian tension – their promises to support peace notwithstanding – elements in Iran and Saudi Arabia have helped to finance sectarian militias in Iraq and, in the case of the Saudis, engaged in heated sectarian rhetoric. Still the leaders stated that the "greatest danger" to Islam is the "attempt to fuel the fire of strife between Sunni and Shiite Muslims" and called for unity, the official Saudi Press Agency reported.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said the pair discussed "the plots carried out by the enemies in order to divide the world of Islam." The two leaders, he said, "were fully aware of the threats of our enemies and we condemned them."
The archconservative Iranian president was almost certainly referring to the US, which has accused elite Iranian units of supplying weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq to target American soldiers. The militias are behind many sectarian killings.
Though Saudi Arabia is a close US ally, some Saudis and other Sunni benefactors have backed Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has fueled the civil war there. The Iran-Saudi promise to lower sectarian passions comes after months of public warnings against Iran's rising power.
"[Talks] with Saudi Arabia could allay Arab and US uneasiness," says Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law at Alameh University in Tehran. "Before this new strategy, the main problem [in Iraq] was Sunni elements ... behind the scenes, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi are supporting [them]," says Professor Bavand. "But there was a change: All of a sudden, Iran appears the main troublemaker in Iraq."
The White House, which charges that Iran's commitment to nuclear power is a cover to make atomic bombs, is adding pressure with saber rattling, often repeating that "all options are on the table." Sunni leaders have warned ominously of a destabilizing "Shiite crescent" in the region, though in Iraq the worst violence by far has been carried out by Sunni militants. Ahmadinejad's uncompromising rhetoric, in which he most recently compared Iran's drive for nuclear power to a hurtling train without brakes, has raised concern anew among Sunnis.
But to speak of a Sunni-Shiite divide is not so simple.
"Iran has historically, and clearly in recent times, wanted to pose as a Middle Eastern leader that stands up to more powerful world actors," says Joost Hiltermann, the Mideast director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Iran's support of Shiites in Lebanon and Iraq is "awkward," he says, because Iran's ambitions go beyond mere sectarianism.
"[Iran] wants to have the greatest influence possible, and it can only do that if it is not a sectarian actor," says Mr. Hiltermann, contacted in Amman, Jordan. "It can be more effective if it does not play the Shiite card. [Iran] has every interest in talking to Saudi Arabia, to suppress that aspect of its rise."
The visit to Riyadh comes a week before Iraq's neighbors and the US will hold crisis talks in Baghdad. Iran's foreign ministry said Sunday that Iran had not yet decided to attend the meeting though it "would spare no effort" to help bring peace.
"What good is our [Islamic world's] common cause if we waste our energies and resources on self-destruction rather than self-preservation?" asked an editorial in the Saudi Gazette newspaper. "Mr. President, your visit signals your best intentions." But Sunni-Shiite reconciliation will not be easy.
As Iran is seen to back its fellow Shiites – as well as Sunni Palestinian groups like Hamas – aspects of Wahhabism, the extremist salafi ideology embraced in Saudi Arabia, lead to conflict. "Wahhabis regard Shiites as heretics," says Bavand in Tehran. "Political necessity requires containment of this behavior. But the rise of militant Wahhabism is a sore point for Shiites." Indeed, visceral anti-Shiite preaching hasn't vanished from Saudi Arabia, where two clerics in January called Shiites "the most vicious enemy of Muslims."
By contrast, Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, delivered a warning in mid-January to a group of Sunni and Shiite clerics. He warned that "the colonial front" (meaning the US and Israel) was seeking to play up sectarian differences. "The issue is not that Shiites and Sunnis should accept one another's beliefs, [but] they should not listen to the enemy's enticements," Ayatollah Khamenei said. "They should not be enemies."