When the U.S. destroyed the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, parties based in the Shi'ite majority brutally suppressed for decades were quick to stake their claim to the shape country's future. They embraced the American promise of democracy and, ordered to vote by their most respected spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, they turned out in their millions at the polling booths to elect the Arab-world's first Shi'ite government. And that inspired Shi'ites across the region to clamor for more rights and influence, challenging centuries-old arrangements that had kept them on the margins.
There has always been a political dimension to the Sunni-Shi'ite split, which originated in a seventh century dispute over who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of Islam's faithful. Over time, the two sects developed their own distinct conception of Islamic teachings and practice, much as Catholicism and Protestantism did in the centuries following their split. Shiites are a minority of 10%-15% of the global Muslim community, but in the geographic arc that runs from Lebanon to Pakistan, they are around half of the Muslim population some 150 million people in all. They account for about 90% of Iranians, 65% of Iraqis, and 40%-45% of Lebanese, as well as a sizable portion of the people living in the Persian Gulf region.
The change in Shi'ite fortunes has been resisted by Sunnis, nowhere more violently than Iraq, where the insurgency that continues to rage unchecked is as anti-American as it is aimed at intimidating Shi'ites who were perceived as U.S. collaborators. For two years Shi'ites showed remarkable restraint in the face of repeated provocations in the form of bloody terror attacks by Sunni insurgents, but the ferocity of those attacks eventually took its toll. And the Shi'ites did not take kindly to the U.S. strategy of wooing reluctant Sunni politicians to join the political process, which they took as a sign of weakening U.S. resolve. Their anxiety turned into anger in February 2006 when a massive bomb destroyed the Golden Mosque in Samarrah, one of the holiest Shi'a shrines. Despite calls for restraint, sectarian militias seeking vengeance stepped into the breach, promising protection to a community rapidly losing its trust in the political process and the U.S. And the character of the war began to change as the U.S. military found itself on the same side as Shi'ite militias in the fight against the Sunni insurgency, but increasingly at odds with those militias as it tried to stop sectarian violence.
Washington pressed Shi'a leaders to rein in their militias, but to no avail. They saw the Sunni insurgency as the source of the violence and insisted the U.S. focus on disarming it. Tensions increased as growing numbers of Shi'ites dismissed U.S. appeasement of Sunnis as a failure: The insurgency was stronger a year after Sunnis joined the political process at the end of 2005.
The sectarian conflict in Iraq has implications for the whole Middle East. Long before Americans recognized sectarianism as a problem it was already shaping attitudes beyond Iraq's borders. Not long after Saddam fell from power, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of an emerging Shi'ite crescent stretching from Beirut to Tehran emerging Shi'ite power and Sunni reaction to it was on everyone's mind in the region.
King Abdullah's fear appeared to be confirmed by the month-long war in Lebanon in summer of 2006. The war turned Hizballah and Iran into regional power brokers, and brought jubilant Shi'ites into the streets in Iraq, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Traditional Sunni powers such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt found themselves pushed to the sidelines, unable to influence events. Even al-Qaeda was caught off-guard as it watched Hizballah steal some of its thunder. The reaction of Sunni rulers and radicals was swift: They denounced Hizballah's campaign as an Iranian-sponsored Shi'a power grab. And even though the war popularized Hizballah on the Sunni Arab street, it did not close the sectarian divide particularly as sectarian tensions soared in Lebanon after Israel's bombing ceased.
The Lebanon war showed that Iraq has rewritten the rules in the Middle East, adding sectarian loyalties to the equation. But Lebanon particularly the U.S. refusal to push for an early cease-fire as Shi'ite communities were pummeled also cost the U.S. much of the goodwill it had gained among Shi'ites following the Iraq war.
For Washington, developments in Lebanon and Iraq now form part of the larger challenge of dealing with Iran. Iran sees itself as a great power, and it is pursuing the nuclear capability that would confirm this self-image. Since 2003, it has shown a more confident but also radical face. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's goal of positioning Iran as the leader of the entire Muslim world requires focusing on hostility to Israel and the West that tend to unite Arabs and Iranians, Sunni and Shi'a, even as it seeks to marginalize traditional Sunni allies of the West. This is the logic behind increasing tensions with the West on the nuclear issue, and through virulent attacks on Israel. Iran's growing challenge has alarmed not only the U.S. and Israel, but also the Sunni Arab governments threatened by Tehran's challenge to their standing at home and regionally. The prospect of Tehran dictating security and oil policy, and most worrisome, intervening on behalf of local Shi'ite populations, has Sunni rulers across the region pressing Washington to confront Iran.
The U.S. sees Iran through the prism of the impasse over its nuclear program, but its importance extends to U.S. concerns ranging from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Arab-Israeli conflict and oil prices. In toppling the Taliban and Saddam, Washington eliminated two of Iran's key regional enemies, and gave it an opportunity to spread its influence. Although the U.S. views Iranian support for Iraq's Shi'ite parties and militias as destabilizing, it can do little to stop it. And last summer's war between Israel and Hizballah showed the reach of Tehran's influence. Iran supported Hizballah and supplied it with sophisticated weaponry, and not surprisingly basked in the glory of its perceived victory to overshadow the Sunni regimes that had condemned the Shi'ite movement. Iran's shadow continues to loom large over Lebanon as Hizballah tightens its grip on Lebanon and the specter of civil war looms large again.
What Iran sowed in Lebanon, it expects to reap in Iraq. Washington is debating the merits of talking to Iran about Iraq at a time when Tehran has hinted that it holds most of the cards. Before the Iraq Study Group argued the case for engaging Iran, Tehran held its own security summit on Iraq, suggesting that it does not need an American invitation to become involved in Iraq, and that if the United States wants to deal with Iran not only over Iraq but also Lebanon, Palestinian issue, or Afghanistan it will have to accept Tehran's terms.
The U.S. faces an increasingly fractious Middle East, in the grip of old and new conflicts, each with its own issues and tempo, but all connected to the broader Shi'ite revival that began in Iraq. To get the Middle East right, Washington must contend with this new force and understand how it is shaping the region.