The Middle East has been a volatile region for several years, thanks to the intra-Arab and intra-Islam differences. The fault lines between the Saudi-led Sunni majority nations and the Iran-led Shia nations have never been sharper, with the US tilting the scales markedly against Iran. Of late, the region as a whole has lost some of its strategic significance, following the US becoming self-sufficient in hydro-carbons and an abundant supply of crude oil from non-Arab sources as well. Yet, the Saudi-Iranian tussle for leadership of the Islamic world continues to engender conflict and tensions, with serious implications for the entire region.
The assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last week has further aggravated tensions and uncertainty. The Iranian leadership is now threatening revenge. It has accused the Israelis of carrying out the attack in collusion with the Saudi authorities. The reported meeting between the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which the former has denied while the latter has remained non-committal, lent further weight to the Iranian charge.
Fakhrizadeh was the lead scientist behind Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. After the US under Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which was signed by the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany, and the European Union, Iran is said to have stepped up its nuclear programme to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium. But the most proximate cause for the elimination of the chief nuclear scientist is suspected to be the coming change of guard in Washington. It is widely expected that a Biden administration will try and re-engage with Iran and rejoin the nuclear deal, especially when tighter sanctions imposed by Trump have not weakened the resolve of the Iranian leadership to acquire nuclear capabilities.
Should Iran, in the wake of the assassination of Fakhrizadeh, undertake a counter-attack against the perceived origins of the assassins, it could make it harder for the US to re-engage with Iran. The top Iranian leadership is also divided over the question of 'revenge’, with the moderate elements led by President Hassan Rouhani counselling restraint, in view of the coming switch in the US presidency next month. Rouhani alleges that the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia and Israel are acting in concert against Iran.
Following the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in January, Iran had vowed revenge against America. Eventually, an isolated Iranian leadership reconciled to its lack of options in a world where it is surrounded by hostile neighbours and is targeted by the biggest military and economic power in the world. Iran’s sponsorship of Islamic terrorist outfits active in Lebanon, Palestine, etc., and its support to the rebel Houthis in Yemen does not help its cause, though this underlines its resolve not to yield leadership of the Islamic world to the Saudis.
India, on its part, has to tread carefully in the interplay of global and regional conflicts between two historically major rivals in the wider Islamic stream. As home to the second largest Shia Muslim population in the world after Iran, India cannot be unmindful of the Iranian sensitivities.