For all the talk of sectarianism, state competition drives Middle East dynamics far more than Sunni-Shia division.
Sectarianism is real and dangerous, but the region is more complicated. Multiple fissures exist among Sunnis, whether Arabs, Turks or Kurds. We see Persian-Arab tensions between Iran and Iraq despite Shia bonds.
Saudi and Iranian leaders, among others, exploit sectarian passions to exert influence, but consider developments that could diminish its relevance:
- Saudi-Iranian détente. Sectarianism will matter less if political relations thaw, returning the rivalry to normal competition rather than active military conflict.
- Changes in regional wars. Iran finds sectarianism useful for galvanizing militia forces to prop up Assad in Syria and fight ISIS in Iraq. But once these threats recede, Iran's leaders may find its people more focused on poor governance at home.
- U.S. policy change. An American focus on building a “Sunni bloc" fuels sectarianism. Fostering cross-sectarian cooperation could help to avoid marginalizing minorities and counter extremism.
The bottom line: An intensified Sunni-Shia divide is not inevitable. New leaders, under pressure from youthful populations and worsening economic challenges, may no longer see value in a costly sectarian agenda for advancing their interests and ultimately their survival.
Other voices in the conversation:
- Ali Shihabi, Saudi Arabia policy analyst, Arabia Foundation: Succession in Iran will escalate tensions
- Bernard Haykel, Middle East scholar, Princeton University: Don't expect de-escalation
- Suzanne Maloney, Iran policy advisor, Brookings: Sectarian tensions are baked into the relationship
- Karim Sadjadpour, Middle East policy analyst, CEIP: The rivalry will grow