There is now another Middle East crisis currently flaring up. Yet, this one is an excellent example of the necessity of a valid (larger) perspective. To the myopic or uninformed, the broader implications will be missed. The tactical details alone will fail to yield the broader, more sinister strategy…
The Other Mid-East Crisis
After leading revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the Muslim Brotherhood is now extending its reach into Yemen. Yemeni soldiers have fought against rebel forces to drive them out of the southern part of the country.
What made this clash different was that General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the half-brother of the President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the commander of the Yemani forces, turned against the government and joined the protesters. In the meantime, more than one thousand people have been killed or injured by the regime’s security forces.
Many in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa want President Saleh to be tried for crimes committed against the people. He has just recently returned to his country, after months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for wounds sustained in an assassination attack in June. His absence did not end the struggle, it only marked a breather in the continued battle, and signaled further complications in the revolution.
The Saudi regime, alarmed by the overthrow of its allies in Egypt and Tunisia, knows that the developments in Yemen will affect Riyadh much more because of the geographical proximity and socio-cultural relations. So the Saudi royal family is attempting to force Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s family from power now that events seem to be moving against him, but his son and nephews appear willing to fight on his behalf.
Saudi Arabia is now pushing for a plan by the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council regarding a transition of power in Yemen. Riyadh is attempting to manage this crisis and force a regime change with attacks against President Saleh’s closest relatives. There are many distinct groups all vying for control of the country: some people want a democratic country; others want a Islamic Republic; still others have aligned themselves with tribal warlords, elements of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and elements of the Muslim Brotherhood—all this in the same country.
The army is starting to fragment because some believe that the President is joining forces with Al Qaeda. Some have left to join Al Qaeda and others are continuing to fight them.
It is well known that President Saleh has been flirting with Al Qaeda to gain political and financial leverage with the United States and Saudi Arabia. While playing radicals against the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, President Saleh has been accused by the United States of pocketing substantial amounts of foreign aid coming into the country.
Yemen is of particular interest to both the United States and Saudi Arabia and may join Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya as another Middle East war for the United States. This is because Yemen has been home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula since 2009, when pieces of Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia settled in Yemen and began a reign of terror by killing scores of diplomats and domestic officials.
When President Saleh was in Riyadh, Vice-President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi was named interim president and brought renewed hopes to Al Qaeda and the other rebel forces. Yemen meets the definition of a failed state and may signal yet another victory for Muslim radicals in the region. Yet, there may be a far more threatening perspective to those who understand the real, broader, undercurrents.
There is a more dominant threat on the near horizon. Yet, very few in the Pentagon will talk openly about it. Nobody in the White House seems to know what to do. As many as eight key Islamic countries are presently heading toward a bloody “new” war—with each other! This is a war that’s been fourteen centuries in the making!
This all began at a lamb dinner, served up one evening in the year 632 a.d. Nobody could have known that this dinner would change history. Some say it was goat. Others say it was lamb. Either way, it was poisoned. And the guest of honor was Mohammed, the controversial founder of Islam.
It was just one bite, that’s all it took. He tasted the poison and immediately spit it out, but it was too late. He would soon die, sparking a bitter and deadly division and splitting Islam into two bitter and enduring rivalries.
The Sunni/Shia Split
Ali is the central figure in the origin of the Sunni-Shia split, which occurred in the decades immediately following the death of the Prophet.
Sunnis regard Ali as the fourth and last of the “rightly guided caliphs” (successors to Mohammed as leader of the Muslims) following on from Abu Bakr 632-634, Umar 634-644 and Uthman 644-656.
Shias feel that Ali should have been the first caliph and that the caliphate should pass down only to direct descendants of Mohammed via Ali and Fatima. They often refer to themselves as ahl al bayt or “people of the house” [of the prophet].
On the one side, you’ve got the Sunni Muslims who run Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and many of the other countries in the Middle East. On the other, you’ve got the Shia Muslims who run Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria.
This Sunni-Shia split has built up pressure now for over 1,350 years. To understand the undercurrents within the House of Islam one needs to understand that these two Houses hate each other (almost) as much as they hate the Jews! And now this pressure may have found its ultimate release—with Iran driving a new Shia uprising right in the middle of the most dangerous place on Earth—the oil-soaked Middle East.
The 200 Million Man March
Nobody knows exactly how many Shia there are right now in the Middle East. That’s because in all but four Middle Eastern countries, Sunni leaders don’t bother to count them: Sunni schools teach that Shiites aren’t real Muslims.
Shias don’t get a seat in government. They can’t become judges or even testify in high courts. In Sunni-run Saudi Arabia, Shias and Sunni can’t even marry. For over 13 centuries, the Shia have been the underclass. For over 200 million Shia, spread from Pakistan to Lebanon, and Azerbaijan to Yemen, there is a hidden river of revenge running through the entire Middle East. This is the primary reason why Iran is driving toward developing a nuclear capability!
Iran Is Persia
Persia was once the biggest and most powerful empire in history! Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan—even Israel: the Persians once controlled them all, including most of the oil-rich coast of the Caspian.
For 300 years, Persian armies held off the Roman Empire. Their scholars walked with Aristotle and Plato. They influenced Greek art. It was the Persians who invented chess, algebra, trigonometry, and, apparently, even wine. The bottom line is no empire forgets its past glory. The Iranians resent losing theirs. But now they see a chance to win it back.
For eight years back in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia helped Iraq wage a bloody war against Iran. Along with other Sunni governments, the Saudis even gave Saddam Hussein over $47 billion and the means to launch missiles and nerve gas attacks over the Iranian border. Iran hasn’t forgotten, nor forgiven. So let’s examine the broader perspective.
Review the Strategic Positioning
Iran’s Shia influence has spilled across the border into southern Iraq. Southern Iraq is where you’ll find six of Iraq’s eight “Supergiant” oil fields. It’s also a key border with Shia Islam’s mortal enemy Saudi Arabia; which is Sunni.
With total control of the Hormuz “oil chokepoint” in the Persian Gulf (see map, below) and new power in “liberated” Iraq, the Iranians have an initial foothold for kicking off the long-awaited “Shia Revolution.”
Iran has almost total control over the Strait of Hormuz, the tight waterway that connects the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean. Over 17 million barrels of oil have to pass through Hormuz every day. That’s 40% of all the oil shipped in the world, and 90% of all the daily oil shipments from the entire Middle East.
With Hormuz alone, Iran could cripple the world overnight.
Today, Iran backs Shia militants in Iraq. They give them money and guns. Why? Because gaining control in Iraq takes the Iranians one step closer in their ambitions for revenge. For the next one of those steps, just look further south: to Yemen.
The Pentagon has just tripled its budget on Yemen. Even ABC News called Yemen the next “top target” in the terror war and a “near-perfect haven for terrorists.” Obama just sent Yemen U.S. troops, ships, and weapons.
Yemen might be a failed country, with a collapsing government, a shrinking oil supply, an exploding population and not much of anything else but lawlessness and chaos.
But what Yemen does have is position. It sits on the tip of the Arab peninsula, south of another key Saudi border and on the coast of another key oil strait called Bab-el-Mandeb, the “Gate of Tears” (see map, above).
And like Hormuz, most oil states on the Red Sea can’t get a drop of oil out without shipping it through the Bab-el-Mandeb. Over 3.3 million barrels go through it every day.
For the last six years, Yemen has fought a vicious and bloody war with Shia rebels, no doubt with Iranian support. Tehran now “donates” $1 billion every year to Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. They gave billions to Syria’s Shia president to build cement factories, car factories, power plants, and storage silos.
In return, Iran gets Hezbollah’s Arabic-speaking terrorists to run militant Shia training camps in Iraq. And it gets Syria to distribute Iran’s money and weapons to others in the Shia network.
The secret money Iran sends to Shia rebels in Yemen could soon have a payoff too—by opening up another route for “backdoor” Shia access into Saudi Arabia.
Yemen’s rebels have already hit towns across the Saudi border. And the Saudis have hit back, losing dozens of troops in the process. We’re just in the first innings of this one. But even a nuclear bomb may be just a beginning.
Even if the go ahead to build a nuke never comes from Iran’s top cleric, the more immediate danger is a wildfire of Shia-Sunni unrest, starting in Iran’s new hotbeds of Shia support and spreading across the rest of the Sunni-run oil states, with the richest oil fields in the world’s richest oil nation as the final battleground: Saudi Arabia!
As you read this, large and small Gulf states are piling up weapons, stocking anti-missile batteries, and sandbagging their oil terminals, ports, and water desalinization plants.
Abu Dhabi alone has already bought $17 billion worth of U.S. anti-missile hardware, and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have splurged $25 billion on weapons and armaments.
U.S. F-16 fighter jets, Patriot missile systems, giant cruisers and several thousand more U.S. troops are quietly digging in for an epic fight that could spread past Iraq and Yemen and even into Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.
Leaders in all three of America’s biggest Middle East allied countries—Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—all claim that the epic Sunni-Shia showdown is in the cards.
But no matter how it starts, Saudi Arabia will be a key focus: Not only is Saudi Arabia home to Mecca, Islam’s holiest place, but it’s also home to the corrupt (and U.S.-allied) Royal House of Saud, considered an insult to all Islam.
Iran is getting ready to assert its place in the world. (Compare this with Japan or Germany in the 1930s.) The threat is there. It’s large. And it’s not going away.
We need to be aware of the significant changes that are occurring on our horizon, and, like the “Sons of Issachar,” we, too, need to understand the times. Myopia can prove to be painfully deceitful.
[Ed. Note: This topic is one of several that Chuck covers in this month’s newest release, Strategic Trends: 2011. This four-hour briefing is available on DVD, AudioCD and download.]