The Sunni-Shia conflict forces Governments to make tricky diplomatic choices. Iran seems a better prospect

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia – whose pronouncements have attracted the attention of this magazine before now – has recently said that the Shia are not true Muslims. This represents yet another round in the war of words between Sunni and Shia, and the two great rivals, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Except, of course, this is not simply a war of words. Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently engaged in proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

That the Sunni should claim that the Shia are not true Muslims reminds one of the sectarianism that was rife in Christianity not so long ago. There may well still be Protestant extremists who denounce Catholics as idol-worshippers and not true Christians, but that sort of rhetoric is now fortunately rare, and nowhere on earth – as far as I know – are Catholics and Protestants actually at war. But this was not the case from the time of the Reformation up to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, when Europe was the scene of a long series of Catholic versus Protestant wars. Indeed, until 1745, Protestant-Catholic rivalry was still a major factor in conflict. But things have changed a great deal since the ’45 Rebellion.

I bring up this historical parallel not to underline the fact that all religious conflicts are the same (they aren’t), but to point out that the Shia and the Sunni are not going to learn to love each other soon. Indeed, all the indications are that Sunni-Shia rivalry is destined to continue for a long time to come. The current situation in the Middle East nowhere near resembles the situation in Europe on the eve of the Peace of Westphalia. This conflict is going to run and run, and is far from burned out. That is depressing, but seems to be a realistic reading of the situation.

Given the irreconcilable differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it follows that our governments in the West have a choice. They can side with one against the other, they can try to be friends with both, or they can keep both at arm’s length. Over the last half century, the pendulum has swung in all directions. There was a time when Britain and America were best friends with Iran, which was more or less their client state; then Iran, after the Revolution, saw both powers as the Great Satan and the Little Satan respectively. With Saudi Arabia, the relationship has been much more consistent. Britain is now enabling the Saudi war in Yemen, by supplying the desert kingdom with arms. This closeness to the Saudis seems morally dubious, to say the least. Should we in fact be trying our best to make it up with the Iranians? Are we in fact already doing that behind the scenes? Is Iran any better than Saudi Arabia? Or should we simply wish a plague on both their houses?

No doubt the experts in the Foreign Office are studying the situation carefully. One thing seems certain: the future prospects of Iran seem better than those of Saudi Arabia: in other words, there is a better prospect of Iran developing into a country we could recognise as civilised than Saudi Arabia doing so. The baggage that Saudi Arabia carries is arguably more horrible than that of Iran. Iran allows religious pluralism – there are churches in Iran – and has diplomatic relations with the Holy See as a result. Saudi Arabia does not have any official relations with the Holy See and is a theocratic state which does not allow any other form of worship apart from Islam.

If we have to choose between the two, surely we should choose Iran?