Over the past two decades, the United States has approached the Middle East through its own conceptual frameworks: dictatorships vs. democracy, secularism vs. religion, order vs. chaos. But the most significant trend shaping the region today is something different: Sunnis vs. Shiites. That sectarian struggle now infects almost every aspect of the region’s politics. It has confounded U.S. foreign policy and will continue to limit the ability of the United States, or any outside power, to stabilize the region.
In his prescient book, “The Shia Revival,” Vali Nasr argues that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the tipping point. The United States saw itself as taking democracy to Iraq, but people in the region saw something different — the upending of the balance of power. Sunnis, who make up 85 percent of all Muslims, had long dominated the Arab world, even in Shiite-majority countries such as Iraq and Bahrain. But in one stroke, that changed. Iraq, a major Arab state, would now be ruled by Shiites. This rattled other Arab regimes, and their anxieties have only grown.
Though there always was tension, Sunnis and Shiites did live in peace, for the most part, until recently. In the 1960s and ’70s, the only Shiite power, Iran, was ruled by the shah, whose regime was neither religious nor sectarian. In fact, when the shah was overthrown, the country that first gave him safe harbor was Egypt, the region’s largest Sunni power, something unimaginable in today’s sectarian atmosphere.