The Muslim world today, much more than ever before, lies at a definitive cusp. With the traditional fault line between Sunni and Shia showing signs of blurring, the Sunni Arab leadership of the ‘Ummah’ may be easing.
That nothing happens in isolation is an absolute truism, more so in politics and strategic affairs. After the Narendra Modi government’s August 5 Article 370 abrogation and also declaring Shia Muslim-dominated Kargil to be a Union Territory clubbed with Leh, there have been raucous protests from the Kargil Shias. Considered ethically very close to the Buddhists of Leh, the Kargilites nevertheless identified their interests as being similar with the Sunni-dominated Kashmir Valley.
Of late, Iranian influence among the Shias in Kargil and elsewhere in Kashmir Valley, have been increasing where Iran is looked up to as the friend, philosopher and guide.
With widely-accepted Muslim world leader and patron Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to strongly condemn New Delhi’s Article 370 abrogation, this just could be among the factors that accord a golden opportunity for Shia-majority Iran to seize the leadership of the pan-Islamic movement—with Kashmir being the catalyst here. As is the United Arab Emirates (UAE) conferring its highest civilian award on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 24—less than three weeks after the abrogation move.
The transnational pan-Islamic movement and the fight for its leadership have seen keen rivalries in the past. But the most defining rivalry has been that between the Persian power Iran and the Arabs mainly led by Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia which adheres to the Wahabbist school of Islamic thought.
By ushering in certain measures like allowing women to drive and favouring sports, Saudi King Salman is positioning as a reformist with a Western bent of mind. At the same time, the relations between the US and Saudi Arabia is getting closer and closer. Not surprising when in the last 10 years, the kingdom has bought $110 billion worth of weapons from the US.
Historically, the major hitch in the US-Saudi relationship has always been Israel. But amid reports of secret collaborations between the house of Saud and Israel (including the Israeli offer of ‘Iron Dome’ defence system to Saudi Arabia), especially vis-à-vis Iran, there is reason to suspect that the Saudi-Israeli bilateral relation is moving north. This is a single-point development that is anathema and reprehensible to most Muslim nations.
Against a possible US-Israel-Saudi nexus, Iran has been of late been cosying up to the staunchly Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran looks at the Taliban as a tool to curb the growth and influence of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province especially in northeast Afghanistan in the Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. Recent reports speak of Iran having already increased its assets within the Taliban. Iran is very apprehensive after having witnessed the havoc the Islamic State has wrought in Iraq.
Another factor is China, Pakistan’s closest all-weather ally. Iran’s huge gas reserves will come in very handy to meet China’s huge energy demand. Importantly, China has the wherewithal and capability to stand up to US and to defy the US-led sanctions against Iran. Buoyed by geostrategic interest, China-Iran business ties including military relations are therefore on the definite upswing.
While Pakistan had been puzzled by Saudi Arabia’s and the Arab leadership’s muzzled and weak protest on the abrogation of Article 370 by the Narendra Modi government, Iran has been quite vociferous—which is itself a break from the past when it was careful not to sound offensive of India.
On August 9, Tehran’s Friday prayers leader Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani had termed the Article 370 revocation an “ugly act” and warned India “to prevent confrontations with the Muslims” as “…this is not in India’s interest or the interest of the region.”
And then on August 21, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was unusually harsh, admonishing the Indian government to “adopt a just policy towards the noble people of Kashmir and prevent the oppression & bullying of Muslims.”
Last year, in a very rare gesture, Iran celebrated Pakistan’s Independence Day with huge hoardings being erected in several cities across the country.
These utterances and gestures must have been heart-warming for Pakistan which has been trying its outmost to internationalise the Kashmir situation.
On the other hand, Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky, the supreme Shia leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), and strongly backed by Iran, was given a near-hostile reception in India where he had flown in on August 14 for medical treatment. He hurriedly flew back to Abuja after two days complaining of hostility during his India stay. This development may not have gone down well with Iran in a sign that all may not be too well in India-Iran ties.
A major development took place on August 8, 2019 with US President Donald Trump’s dramatic announcement calling off a top secret meet with Afghan Taliban leaders at Camp David. A successful meet would have meant a withdrawal of US troops from conflict-ridden Afghanistan. The calling off has been due to the incessant terror attacks being mounted by Taliban on Afghan government and Western targets despite covert and overt negotiations between the US and the Taliban.
The Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have aided Iran in the sense that they would warn hawks in the US administration of the inadvisability of precipitating a frontal attack on Iran which will then spill out to be a war of no boundaries.
Iran’s developing leeway with the Taliban suits Pakistan fine which is known to be the outfit’s main patron. Pakistan and Taliban’s proximity and control of Lashkar and Jaish assets in Kashmir will lead to escalation of the Indo-Pak tension. It would also help Islamabad in diverting many radical Islamist fighters towards Kashmir. And contribute to Pakistani efforts to keep the Kashmir fire burning.
Either way, Iran is poised for a much bigger role in the Muslim world. Implicit therefore is the strong possibility that Arab leadership may give way to a Shia-led leadership of the ‘Ummah’ by Iran.