An Obama role in Islam's divide

With his coming visit to Saudi Arabia and new talks opening with Iran, President Obama can set the stage for reconciling the two Muslim giants over their historic Islamic rivalry.

In a 2007 attempt to improve ties, then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (center, left) is greeted by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (center, right) on his arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

American presidents usually don’t meddle in religious feuds. Yet as President Obama tries to adjust ties to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, he is stepping into a historic feud between Shiites and Sunnis. If he can at least set the stage for these two rival nations of the Muslim world to reconcile at a state level, it could help the two main branches of Islam to bridge a great divide.

Two coming events may tell. Talks begin Feb. 18 on a long-range solution for Iran’s nuclear program that might lead to a strategic shift in Iran’s role in the Middle East and with the United States. And in late March, Mr. Obama will visit Saudi Arabia and try to persuade King Abdullah that the US can denuclearize Iran and create a peaceful balance of power in the region.

The time is ripe for Obama to succeed. Syria’s civil war, in which Iran sides with its Shiite proxies and Saudi Arabia with Sunni militants, has become a humanitarian disaster on a global scale. The war is spilling over to neighboring countries, threatening a regional meltdown.

Iraq has also reerupted in violence between the Iran-backed Shiite regime and the country’s Sunni minority. And as US Secretary of State John Kerry tries to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, he needs tactical support from Iran and Saudi Arabia to hold any deal together.

If the US eases the Saudi-Iranian contest for regional power, it may also create a path for Shiites and Sunnis to come to terms with their religious differences. That process starts with the US rebalancing its special historic relationship with the Saudis and testing Iran on its promise to be a responsible player in the region.

During his trip to Saudi Arabia, Obama might feel compelled to first smooth some ruffled feathers. The kingdom felt left out during the secret US-Iranian talks last year. It also wants a more aggressive US hand in Syria. And the royal family still feels threatened by the Arab Spring’s continued potency to spread democracy.

Yet Obama needs to remind the Saudis of their backing of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. That offer spoke of a “comprehensive peace” that would bring “security for all the states of the region.”

Neither Saudi Arabia or Iran can regard each other as enemies forever. The advances in war technologies, such as nuclear weapons, argues against it. So do the rising aspirations for peace and progress among each country’s young people. And ruling a country through either theocracy or monarchy is also fast reaching its limits in today’s globalized world.

If Obama’s new engagement with Iran and Saudi Arabia has any traction, it will likely show up during any new round of talks between the Syrian regime and its political opposition in Geneva. Syria’s war is both a tragic outcome of Iran-Saudi/Shiite-Sunni tensions and a bellwether of its gradual resolution. Another bellwether will be Iran’s cooperation in dismantling its most threatening nuclear facilities.

As such steps toward peace gather force, they can also start Sunnis and Shiites on a new path. The US can only be a nudger, not a decider, in that undertaking.

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