The furor over the alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States has made one point clear: The most important strategic divide in the Middle East today is between Iran and Saudi Arabia. At issue is religion and power. Iran’s clerical rulers see their regime as the product of the first and only Islamic revolution, and the true vanguard of Islamic politics in the Muslim world.

For it’s part, Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam; the Saudi king carries the title of the keeper of the two holiest shrines in Islam (those of Mecca and Medina). The Saudi monarchy was also born of a puritanical religious revolt and continues to see itself as the true standard bearer of Islam.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are the two most avowedly religious states in the Middle East. But they are not of the same creed. At issue between them is not which is more religious and truer to the spirit of Islamic law, but rather whose Islam is the true faith. The majority of Iranians are followers of Shiism, the smaller of the Islam’s two main branches, and Saudis are predominantly followers of Sunnism.

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