The New York Times -- still outclassing its Americans rivals in Middle East coverage -- has served up a valuable historical overview of the Saudi-Iranian proxy war conflict. It's not only worth reading, it's worth saving for those deadline moments when a quick history check is in order.
Why so much attention to this topic? And how might President-elect Donald Trump handle the situation?
First question first.
Why, because the conflict, at its root a continuation of Islam's historic, internal holy war between the religion's majority Sunnis (read, Saudi Arabia) and minority Shiites (read, Iran) is at the core of today's seemingly endless Middle East bloodshed.
(Yes, it's the Sunni-Shiite contest, inflamed by the political maneuvering of a coven of regional authoritarian Muslim governments, plus Russia, that's at the root of the chaos. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as central as is to these two actors, long ago took a backseat to the Islamic sectarian war.)
Here's how the Times historical overview explains it, starting with the lede:
Behind much of the Middle East’s chaos -- the wars in Syria and Yemen, the political upheaval in Iraq and Lebanon and Bahrain -- there is another conflict.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a struggle for dominance that has turned much of the Middle East into their battlefield. Rather than fighting directly, they wield and in that way worsen the region’s direst problems: dictatorship, militia violence and religious extremism.
The history of their rivalry tracks -- and helps to explain -- the Middle East’s disintegration, particularly the Sunni-Shiite sectarianism both powers have found useful to cultivate. It is a story in which the United States has been a supporting but constant player, most recently by backing the Saudi war in Yemen, which kills hundreds of civilians. These dynamics, scholars warn, point toward a future of civil wars, divided societies and unstable governments.
F. Gregory Gause III, an international relations scholar at Texas A&M University, struggled to name another region that had been torn apart in this way. Central Africa could be similar, he suggested, referring to the two decades of interrelated wars and genocides that, driven by meddling regional powers, killed five million. But in the Middle East, it is just getting started.
Following that lede, The Times story segues into history, starting with Iran's Islamic 1979 Islamic revolution.
Saudi Arabia, a young country pieced together only in the 1930s, has built its legitimacy on religion. By promoting its stewardship of the holy sites at Mecca and Medina, it could justify its royal family’s grip on power.
Iran’s revolution, in 1979, threatened that legitimacy. Iranians toppled their authoritarian government, installing Islamists who claimed to represent “a revolution for the entire Islamic world,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
The revolutionaries encouraged all Muslims, especially Saudis, to overthrow their rulers as well.
But because Iran is mostly Shiite, they “had the greatest influence with, and tended to reach out to, Shia groups,” Dr. Pollack said.
It should be noted that the 1979 revolution, which included the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the taking of American hostages, was the spark that ignited what us old timers refer to as the golden age of American newspaper religion journalism.
Suddenly, editors realized they had no one on staff to explain the importance of religion in the Middle East. Suddenly, religion reporters were in demand and religion sections proliferated as editors -- I like to think prodded by their newly minted religion reporters -- realized that important religion stories existed in their own backyards, too.
But I digress. So let's get back to the Saudi-Iranian theme. And let's do it with a question -- a big one, alluded to above.
Question: How will President-elect Donald Trump deal with this mess?
Answer: We really don't know, do we?
I'm not about to indulge in bottomless speculation about Trump and the Middle East. It will all unfold in due course. But we do know that candidate Trump was insistent that he'd move to untangle the U.S. from the international Iranian nuclear deal. Even if he did so fully, that wouldn't mean the deal is dead. Read this European Union statement underscoring its continued support for the deal.
Still, the Saudis and other Persian Gulf (or Arab Gulf, as they prefer to call it) Sunni states would applaud him (as would Israel).
We also know that candidate Trump campaigned on cooperating with Russian President Vladimir Putin in fighting Sunni ISIS. But that would align the U.S. with Syria (ruled by the Shiite offshoot, the Alawites) and Iran, and in opposition to the Saudis and their Sunni allies.
And let's not forget the Trump business empire's highly valuable assets -- click here and then here -- in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Sunni Gulf, and the president-elect's proclivity, so far, for mixing his business with the nation's business.
So who knows what he'll do?
In the meantime, keep in mind the daily toll the Saudi-Iranian religious rivalry takes in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East -- Syria and Iraq in particular.
Hold onto that Times historical overview for future reference. It may help on deadline. Sadly, it won't save any lives.