Recently, a bloc of Shiite states coalesced in the Middle East marking a significant geopolitical development. But that the move was led by Iran means it would be short lived.
The bloc’s formation and expansion, such as they are, were possible only through the division and weakness of Sunni Arab states. Several factors, most notably the Syrian civil war and ethnic and religious constraints will prevent Iran from projecting Shiite influence farther than it already has.
The sectarian conflict in the Middle East can neatly be divided into two sides: Sunnis and Shiites. Or so it would seem. The reality, it turns out, is more complicated. Sunni unity is a myth – the countries that constitute the Sunni camp are divided over a variety of issues. And the Shiites, whose power has grown since the early 1990s, nonetheless suffer from the inescapable constraints of being a minority population.
Indeed, the single most defining characteristic of the Shiite camp is that it comprises only a fraction of the Muslim population. More than three-fourths of all Muslims practice Sunni Islam.
According to a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center, only four countries have a Shiite majority: Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain and Iraq. But other countries have notable Shiite minority populations as well, including Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. Shiites also form the largest confessional group in Lebanon and account for as much as 20 percent of the 180 million or so Muslims in India.
Like their Sunni counterparts, the Shiites are internally diverse. Twelvers constitute the largest group, but there are many others, including the Ismailis, also known as the Seveners; the Zaidis, also known as the Fivers; the Alawites; and the Druze. All of these sub-sects differ geographically, linguistically, politically and ideologically.
For the most part, however, instances of Shiite control were rare. Shiites were dominated by Sunnis until the 16th century, when the Safavid Empire designated Shiite Islam as its official religion. But by this time, much of the Middle East and South Asia had fallen under the control of either the Ottomans or the Mughals, both Sunni empires.
Shiite power has since shifted to Persia. In 1979, the Iranian Revolution officially created a Shiite republic. Iran is now the largest and most militarily powerful Shiite country, and its power has enabled Tehran’s clerics to support Shiite communities, and thus enhance its influence, in the Arab world. But expanding its influence was not always easy. Iran tried to leverage its own ethnic Azeris to use the Shiite majority in Azerbaijan to its advantage. However, until 1991, Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union and, as such, a secular nation. Its secularism, in turn, made it resilient to Shiite overtures.
In addition to religious considerations, there are also ethnic considerations that prevent the spread of Shiite rule. Shiite leadership is now in the hands of Persians, not Arabs. And though Arab Shiites have aligned with Tehran, they have done so only out of necessity, maligned as they are in their respective countries. This limits the extent to which Iran can rely on them to serve its purposes.
Though the Shiites of the Arab world have largely united, some of their differences will be very difficult to ignore. Competition still exists between the Iraqi theological centers of the Arab-dominated Najaf School and the school in Qom, and Tehran has tried hard to increase its influence over Najaf. Iranian leaders hope that the power vacuum in Iraq will enable them to spread their doctrine of Velayat-e-Faqih. But with Iran undergoing its own political transformation, tensions between liberal and conservative factions – and between democratic and theocratic factions, considering the rise of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the domestic rehabilitation he began – have become more acute. Those tensions could well command Iran’s attention, leaving its international aspirations by the wayside.
Thus, as much as Iran would like to further exploit current Sunni weaknesses, changes underway in Tehran could thwart its leaders’ regional ambitions – as could internal differences among Shiites and the progression of the Syrian civil war.