As widely known, the origin of sectarian chasm dates back to the dispute between the 4th caliph Ali and Muawia. After the death of Ali, the Rushdyn was replaced by the Umayyads which was founded by Muawia. Since then, the Muslim minority objected to the Umayyad rule to insist that only Ali’s successor be the legitimate heir of caliph throne. It was this religious minority who founded the Shia sect, while the majority has become Sunnis. The landmark of the Sunni-Shiite chasm is the Battle of Karbala in 680. Upon request from Shias in Kufa, located in current south central Iraq, Ali’s second son Hussain ibn Ali stood up against Umayyad caliph Yazid I, that resulted in an annihilation on Hussain’s side.
The Battle of Karbala had deep psychological impacts on both sects, and reinforced Shiite identity. The first point is close relations between Shia and Iranian ethnicity. According to Shia, Hussain married Shahbanu, a daughter of the last Sasanid Persian king Yazdegerd III to give birth to the 4th imam Ali ibn Hussain Zayn al-Abidin. Therefore, from Shiite interpretation of Karbala, Hussain’s successors in the early Middle Age were also descendants of the Sasanid royal family. Even though Iranians had been ruled by Arabs, Turkics, and Mongolians, until they found their own Safavid Empire in the 16th century, they maintained their national identity through devotion to Shiite belief. In order to restore the Iranian nation since the Arab conquest of Persia, the Safavid dynasty made Shia Islam as the state religion. Outside Iran, Shias are distributed in the Gulf area, southern Iraq, Lebanon, Hazara habitats in Afghanistan, etc. People in those areas are culturally and spiritually tied with Iran. For example, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani of Iraq was born in Iran, and his surname is related to the Sistan area in the south east of Iran.
The second point is a mindset of the oppressed. Today, Sunnis account for 85% of the total Muslims in the world, while Shias accounts for 15% (“The Sunni-Shia Divide”; Council on Foreign Relations; 2014). The most symbolic event to show this is the Day of Ashura when Shias mourn for the martyrdom of Hussain standing against overwhelming power of the Umayyads in the Battle of Karbala. In order to share pains and grieves with Hussain and his loyalists, Shiite males whip their bodies by themselves to bleed. Ritual is not just a ritual. It shapes mindsets of community or sect members. The choice of sect is the choice of the way of life. The annual ritual reminds Shias of their religious devotion through pain and plight, and their historical position as mostazafin, which is Ruhollah Khomeini’s favorite word meaning the oppressed.
In view of basic understandings of Sunni-Shiite relations, one of the key foreign policy focuses is the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As widely known, Iran is a Shiite theocracy, while Saudi Arabia is a monarchy of Wahhabist, ultraconservative school of the Sunni. This May, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif to discuss Gulf security and Syria (“Saudi Arabia moves to settle differences with Iran”; Guardian; 13 May 2014). Will the relationship of both countries improve dramatically? This is unlikely. For Saudi Arabia, “It is therefore prudent for them not to draw Iran’s ire,” as Iran is a powerful neighbor (“What’s going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran?”; Jerusalem Post; June 11, 2014). The problem is, Iran’s Shiite missionary ideology provokes socially and economically marginalized Shias in Saudi Arabia’s oil rich Gulf area. Those mostazafins are displaced and live in poverty, while Sunni majority oil dominates oil business (“Iraq conflict reignites sectarian rivalry in Saudi Arabia”; Baltimore Sun; April 27, 2006). While Israel regards Iran’s nuclear attack as the primary threat, Saudi Arabia is more concerned with Iran’s vision of Shiite hegemony (“Next Test for Obama: Soothing the Saudis”; Los Angels Times; March 24, 2014).
Considering the nature of Tehran’s Shiite theocracy and politics of its Arab neighbors, it is too optimistic to assume dramatic reconciliation of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Nor should we expect Iran to act as the regional guard. Sunni Arab emirates embraced the Pahlavi Iran as the guard, because it was a secular and enlightened state, and a vital ally of the United States. Unfortunately, Iran today is an odd man out in the Gulf like China is in East Asia. Current Saudi Arabia behaves like Britain appeasing Nazi Germany. Had America been more Wilsonian, Neville Chamberlain would have stood much firmer against Adolf Hitler’s ambition. In present days, Saudi Arabia feels itself less and less secure in view of Obama’s engagement with America’s adversaries. Basic understanding of culture and religion is so crucial to analyze current foreign affairs.