Sunni Versus Shiite Conflict Explained

The True Cause of All Middle East Conflicts

Iraqi man
An Iraqi man re-enters his car after being searched by Iraq Civil Defence Forces at a random traffic checkpoint with American forces in the Sadr City neighbourhood of Baghdad June 25, 2004 in Baghdad, Iraq.

 Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The two major powers in the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, an Arab population ruled by a Sunni majority, and Iran, a Persian population ruled by a Shia majority. These two groups have been at odds for centuries. In modern times, the split has fostered battles for power and resources.

The conflict between Sunnis and Shiites is often portrayed as strictly about religion. It's also an economic battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over who will control the Strait of Hormuz. That's a passage in the Persian Gulf through which 90% of the region's oil passes.  

Key Takeaways

  • The Sunni-Shia conflict is a power struggle for dominance in the Middle East.
  • Sunnis form the majority of the Muslim population.
  • Saudi Arabia leads Sunni-dominated nations. Iran dominates those led by Shiites.

Sunni-Shia Split Today

At least 87% of Muslims are Sunnis. They are the majority in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Shiites are the majority in Iran, Bahrain, and Iraq. They also have large minority communities in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan. 

The United States usually allies itself with Sunni-led countries. It wants to maintain its relationship with the world's largest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia. But it allied with the Shiites in the Iraq War to overthrow Saddam Hussein. 

Sunni and Shiite Countries

There are 11 countries that either ally with either Sunni Saudi Arabia or Shiite Iran.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is led by the royal family of Sunni fundamentalists. It is also the leader of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.  This country is a U.S. ally and a major oil trading partner. The United States also sells more than $100 billion in military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

In the 1700s, the founder of the Saudi dynasty, Muhammad ibn Saud, allied with the religious leader, Abd al-Wahhab, to unify all Arabian tribes. After the Shiites took power in Iran in 1979, the Sauds financed Wahhabi-centered mosques and religious schools throughout the Middle East. Wahabism is an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam and Saudi Arabia's state religion. 

Iran

Iran is led by Shia fundamentalists. Only 10% of the population is Sunni. Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil producer. 

The United States supported the Shah who was non-fundamentalist Shia. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979. The Ayatollah is the Supreme Leader of Iran. He guides all elected leaders. He condemned the Saudi monarchy as an illegitimate clique that answers to Washington, D.C., not God.

In 2006, the United States asked the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran if it didn’t agree to suspend uranium enrichment.

Resultant economic crisis motivated Iran to suspend enrichment in exchange for relief from the sanctions. 

Iraq

Iraq is ruled by a 65%-70% Shia majority after the United States toppled Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein. This downfall of Saddam shifted the balance of power in the Middle East. The Shia reaffirmed their alliance with Iran and Syria.

Although the United States wiped out al-Qaida leaders, the Sunni insurgents became the Islamic State group. In June 2014, they recaptured a large portion of western Iraq, including Mosul. By January 2015, they ruled 10 million people. In 2017, Iraq recaptured Mosul.

Syria

Syria is ruled by a 15%-20% Shia minority. This country allied with Shia-ruled Iran and Iraq. It passes arms from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It also persecutes the Sunni minority, some of whom are with the Islamic State group. The United States and neighboring Sunni countries back the Sunni, non-Islamic State group rebels. The Islamic State group also controls large portions of Syria, including Raqqa. 

Lebanon

Lebanon is ruled jointly by Christians, who make up 34% of the population, Sunni (31%) and Shia (31%.) The civil war lasted from 1975 to 1990 and allowed two Israeli invasions. Israeli and Syrian occupations followed for the next two decades. Reconstruction was set back in 2006 when Hezbollah and Israel fought in Lebanon. 

Egypt

Egypt is ruled by 90% Sunni majority. The Arab Spring in 2011 deposed Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected president in 2012, but he was deposed in 2013.

The Egyptian military governed until former army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi won the 2014 and 2016 elections. In November 2016, the International Monetary Fund approved a $12 billion loan to help Egypt cope with an economic crisis. 

Jordan

Jordan is a kingdom ruled by a more than 90% Sunni majority. Syrians comprise 13% of the population, thanks to the war in their former country. Palestinians are next, at 6.7%.

Turkey

Sunni majority rules benignly over a Shiite minority. But Shiites are concerned that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is becoming more fundamentalist like Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain

A Sunni minority of 30% rules the Shia majority. This ruling minority is backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Bahrain is the base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which guards the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, and the Strait of Bab al Mendeb in Yemen.

Afghanistan, Kuwait, Pakistan, Qatar, and Yemen

In these countries, the Sunni majority rules the Shia minority. 

Israel

The Jewish majority rules a Sunni minority of 1.2 million people.

Role of Nationalism

The Sunni-Shia split is complicated by the nationalistic schism among Middle East countries. Arabs descend from the Ottoman Empire, which existed from the 15th through the 20th century. Iran, on the other hand, descends from the 16th century Persian Empire.

Arabian Sunnis worry that the Persian Shiites are building a Shiite Crescent through Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Sunnis see this as a reemergence of the Shia Safavid dynasty in the Persian Empire. That's when Shiites conspired to resurrect Persian imperial rule over the Middle East and then the world. The “Sassanian-Safavid conspiracy” refers to two sub-groups. The Sassanians were a pre-Islamic Iranian dynasty. The Safavids were a Shiite dynasty that ruled Iran and parts of Iraq from 1501 till 1736. Although Shiites in Arab countries ally themselves with Iran, they don't trust Persians either. 

Sunni-Shia Split and Terrorism

Fundamentalist factions of both Sunnis and Shiites promote terrorism. They believe in jihad. That is a holy war waged both outside, against infidels, and inside, against personal weaknesses.

The Islamic State Group

Sunnis have claimed territory in Iraq and Syria. This group evolved from al-Qaida in Iraq. They feel they have the right to murder or enslave all non-Sunnis. They are opposed by Syrian leadership, and by Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Almost one-third of its fighters are foreigners from more than 80 countries.

al-Qaida

This Sunni group wants to replace non-fundamentalist governments with authoritarian Islamic states governed by religious law. They also target their attacks on the United States, who they believe is the root cause of the Middle East's problems. Al-Qaida attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

Hamas

These Sunni Palestinians are intent on removing Israel and restoring Palestine. Iran supports it. It won the Palestinian election in 2006.

Hezbollah

This group is an Iran-backed Shiite defender in Lebanon. This group is attractive even to Sunnis because it beat Israeli attacks in Lebanon in 2000. It also launched successful rocket attacks against Haifa and other cities. The Hezbollah recently sent fighters to Syria with backing from Iran. 

Muslim Brotherhood 

This Sunni group is predominant in Egypt and Jordan . It was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna to promote networking, philanthropy, and spreading the faith. It grew into an umbrella organization for Islamist groups in Syria, Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, Libya, and Iraq. 

Role of U.S. Involvement

The United States receives 20% of its oil from the Middle East. That makes the region of economic importance. As a global power, the United States has a legitimate role in the Middle East of protecting the Gulf oil routes.

Between 1976 and 2007, the United States spent $8 trillion protecting its oil interests.  That dependence has lessened as shale oil is developed domestically and reliance on renewable resources increases. Still, America must protect its interests, allies, and its personnel stationed in the region.

Timeline of the U.S. Wars in the Middle East

1979 Iran Hostage Crisis - Following the revolution, the United States allowed the deposed Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi into the country for medical treatment. To protest, the Ayatollah let the U.S. Embassy be overrun. Ninety people were taken hostage, including 62 Americans. After a failed military rescue, the United States agreed to release the Shah's assets to free the hostages. The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran on April 7, 1980.

Iran-Iraq War - Iran fought a war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988. The war led to clashes between U.S. Navy and Iranian military forces from 1987 to 1988. The United States designated Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism for promoting Hezbollah in Lebanon. Despite this, the United States financed the Nicaraguan “contras” rebellion against the Sandinista government by secretly selling arms to Iran. This created the Iran-Contra Scandal in 1986, implicating the Reagan administration in illegal activities.

1991 Gulf War - In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States led forces to free Kuwait in 1991.

2001 - Present Afghanistan War - The United States removed the Taliban from power for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. The group continued its attacks. In February 2020, the Taliban and the United States signed a peace deal, but fighting continued.

2003-2011 Iraq War – The United States invaded Iraq to replace Sunni leader Saddam Hussein with a Shiite leader. President Barack Obama removed active-duty troops in 2011. It renewed airstrikes in 2014 when the Islamic State group beheaded two American reporters. 

2011 Arab Spring – This series of anti-government protests and armed rebellions spread across the Middle East and North Africa. It sprung from the revolt of people who were tired of high unemployment and repressive regimes. Calling for democracy, they led to civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen. They toppled the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

2011 to Present Syrian Conflict – This began as part of the Arab Spring movement. Its goal was to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. It has become a proxy war fought between Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, and rebel groups, backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

How Climate Change Worsens the Conflicts

Climate change is worsening the conflicts between the two factions. According to NASA, the region has been in a drought since 1998. It's the worst in 900 years. In addition, it’s suffered from record heat waves. In 2016, it hit a record 54 degrees Celsius at Mitribah, Kuwait and Turbat, Pakistan. That's 129.2 degrees Fahrenheit and one of the highest recorded temperatures in the world.

Droughts helped cause the Syrian conflict. It devastated cropland for 800,000 people and killed 85% of their livestock. They unsuccessfully looked for work in Hamah, Homs, and Daraa. Armed conflict began when President Bashir al Assad used armed forces against them.

Islamic State capitalized upon the impact of the drought during the Iraq conflict. The terrorists captured the Mosul and Fallujah for the dams. They also targeted the Iraqi regions of Zumar, Sinjar, and Rabiah, to gain control of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

History of Sunni-Shiite Split

The Sunni-Shite divide occurred in 632 A.D. when the prophet, Muhammad, died. Sunnis believed that the new leader should be elected. They chose Muhammad's advisor, Abu Bakr. "Sunni" in Arabic means "one who follows the traditions of the Prophet." 

Shiites believed that the new leader should have been Muhammad's cousin/son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. As a result, Shiites have their own Imams, who they consider holy. They consider their Imams to be the true leaders, not the state. "Shia" comes from "Shia-t-Ali" or "the Party of Ali." 

Sunni and Shiite Muslims have many beliefs in common. They affirm that Allah is the one true God and that Muhammed is his prophet. They read the Quran and adhere to the following five pillars of Islam:

  1. Sawm - fasting during Ramadan. This occurs at the ninth lunar cycle in the Islamic calendar.
  2. Hajj – a pilgrimage to Makkah, Saudi Arabia. It should be done at least once in a Muslim’s lifetime.
  3. Shahada – a declaration of faith all true Muslims must make.
  4. Salat – prayers that Muslims are required to do five times a day.
  5. Zakat – the giving of charity to the poor.
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