United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Facts and Figures on Sunni-Shiite Balance

            The rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states reflects the deepest schism in the Islamic world. The split dates back to the seventh century, when the sects disagreed over the issue of leadership after the Prophet Mohammed’s death. Shiites believed that the Prophet should have been succeeded by relatives or descendants most familiar with his thinking and practices. The other Muslims who evolved into the Sunnis thought the early Muslim community had the right to select leaders with no blood ties to Mohammed.
            Today, more than 85 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunni, according to the Pew Research Center. Shiites are a minority virtually everywhere except for Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iran and Iraq. Yemen and Lebanon are estimated to be 35 and 27 percent Shiite, respectively. 

            The major flashpoints between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East today are:
            Bahrain: Shiites have long been the majority in the small island-nation but have felt neglected by the minority Sunni government. In February 2011, thousands marched in Manama to call for government reform. The protest movement has been predominantly Shiite.
            Iraq: Sunni militants affiliated with al Qaeda have rebelled against the Shiite-dominated central government. They took over Falluja, a city some 43 miles west of Baghdad, in January 2014.
            Lebanon: The Syrian civil war has exacerbated long-standing sectarian tensions. Violent street clashes between Sunnis and Shiites have broken out in Lebanese cities. In Sidon, followers of a hardline Sunni cleric have traded artillery and small arms fire with supporters of Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party. Since 2011, Alawites and Sunnis have had sporadic gunfights in Tripoli. Alawites are an offshoot of Shiism.
            Saudi Arabia: Between 10 and 15 percent of Saudi Arabia is thought to be Shiite. The Sunni monarchy’s oil-rich Eastern Province is home to a large Shiite minority that has long felt neglected by Riyadh. Since 2011, demonstrators have taken to the province’s streets to protest corruption, high unemployment and discrimination against Shiites.
            Syria: Sunni militants have flocked to Syria to fight Bashar al Assad’s regime, which is dominated by Alawites. Hezbollah has sent forces from Lebanon to defend the regime. And Shiite Iran has provided military and political support to Damascus.
            Yemen: Shiite rebels in northern Yemen called Houthis have been intermittently fighting against the Sunni-majority government since 2004. U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar announced a ceasefire between Sunni Salafists and the Houthis in November 2013. But the violence has not subsided.
      Tensions are so deep that significant numbers of Sunnis – in some countries exceeding 50 percent – do not recognize Shiites as Muslims 14 centuries after the schism, according to a 2012 Pew study. The two sects agree on Islam’s most important articles of faith, belief in one God and the prophethood of Mohammed. But many Sunnis reject Shiite traditions, such as visiting saints’ shrines and appealing to the deceased for aid. Only in Lebanon and Iraq, where sizeable populations from both sects coexist in the same urban areas, do large majorities accept Shiites as Muslims.
      The two sects celebrate the holiday of Ashura differently and for separate reasons. Sunnis believe the day commemorates the day God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh. They fast, according to a tradition that claims Moses fasted on that day. For Shiites, however, Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson who fell in battle against the Sunni Ummayad Dynasty in 680. Ritual chest beating and self-flagellation are common practices in the Middle East on the holiday. But some Shiite and Sunni leaders do not approve of these customs.
            Iran has the world’s largest Shiite population. The Islamic Republic is also the only country ever ruled by Shiite clerics. Both factors made it the de facto leader of the Shiiite world politically, even though the historic center of Shiite scholarship is in Najaf, Iraq. A 2013 Zogby poll found that 76 percent of Iranians surveyed believe their government’s foreign policy is designed primarily to protect vulnerable Shiite communities elsewhere in the region.
            The six neighboring Gulf sheikhdoms, all ruled by Sunnis, are home to some 3 million Shiites. Many have cultural or religious ties to Iran. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have long claimed that Iran was trying to foment unrest among their Shiite minorities. “Clerical authorities in Iran still tend to act as if they lead the Islamic World--issuing ultimatums, intimidating their neighbors, and inciting dissidence and revolution,” Prince Turki al Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, said in October 2013. But Iran also claims that the sheikhdoms discriminate against Shiites.
            Numerically, Iran’s 79 million population is almost twice as large as the 45 million people who populate the six Gulf sheikhdoms, especially since the Gulf numbers include foreign residents. The Sunni monarchies are concerned that Iran could more actively support their brethren inside the Gulf sheikhdoms.
Photo credits: Sunni-Shi'a map by DinajGao (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Pew Research Center


Rouhani Tweets on Freedom of Arts

            On January 8, President Hassan Rouhani appealed for loosened censorship of the arts in an address to six art and cultural guilds. “Art without freedom is meaningless,” he told the gathering of prominent Iranian artists. “Every system has its red lines, but it's absolutely essential for these lines to be transparent and clear, so to avoid arbitrary restrictions,” said Rouhani. Theater, music, poetry, cinema and calligraphy associations had invited the president to speak at Tehran’s Vahdat Hall. The following is a series of @HassanRouhani’s tweets based on his address.  

Rouhani Op-ed on “Moderation and Common Sense”

            The Daily Star, a Lebanese English-language daily published the following op-ed by President Hassan Rouhani on December 31, 2013.

      When I campaigned to become president of Iran, I promised to balance realism and the pursuit of the Islamic Republic’s ideals – and won Iranian voters’ support by a large margin. By virtue of the popular mandate that I received, I am committed to moderation and common sense, which is now guiding all of my government’s policies. That commitment led directly to the interim international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program reached with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany last November in Geneva. It will continue to guide our decision-making in 2014.
      Indeed, in terms of foreign policy, my government is discarding extreme approaches. We seek effective and constructive diplomatic relations and a focus on mutual confidence-building with our neighbors and other regional and international actors, thereby enabling us to orient our foreign policy toward economic development at home. To this end, we will work to eliminate tensions in our foreign relations and strengthen our ties with traditional and new partners alike. This obviously requires domestic consensus-building and transparent goal-setting – processes that are now underway.
           While we will avoid confrontation and antagonism, we will also actively pursue our larger interests. But given an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, challenges can be addressed only through interaction and active cooperation among states. No country – including the big powers – can effectively address on its own the challenges that it faces.
           Indeed, developing and emerging economies’ rapid “catch-up growth” suggests that their aggregate economic weight is about to surpass that of the advanced world. Today’s developing and emerging countries are likely to account for nearly 60 percent of world GDP by 2030, up from around 40 percent in 2000, enabling them to play a much greater role on the world stage.
           In such a period of transition, Iran can enhance its global role. The election this year, in which close to 75 percent of eligible voters turned out, showed how our religious democracy is maturing. Iran’s ancient culture and civilization, long state continuity, geopolitical position, social stability amid regional turmoil, and well-educated youth enable us to look to the future with confidence, and aspire to assume the major global role that our people deserve – a role that no actor in global politics can ignore.
           We are also considering how to rebuild and improve our bilateral and multilateral relations with European and North American countries on the basis of mutual respect. This requires easing tensions and implementing a comprehensive approach that includes economic ties.
           We can begin by avoiding any new strain in relations between Iran and the United States and, at the same time, endeavoring to eliminate inherited tensions that continue to mar relations between our countries. While we may not be able to forget the mistrust and suspicion that have haunted Iranians’ thinking about U.S. governments for the last 60 years, now we must focus on the present and look to the future. That means rising above petty politics and leading, rather than following, pressure groups in our respective countries.
           In our view, cooperating on issues of mutual interest and concern would contribute to easing tensions in our region as well. This means countering those in the U.S. and our region who seek to distract international attention from issues in which they are directly involved and prevent Iran from enhancing its regional status. By diminishing the prospects for a permanent negotiated agreement on our nuclear program, such behavior increases the likelihood that the Iran-U.S. standoff will continue.
          Our region is grappling more than ever with sectarianism, group enmities and potential new breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism. At the same time, the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria could haunt the region’s peoples for many years. We believe that, under such circumstances, a voice of moderation in the region could affect the course of events in a constructive and positive way.
           There is no doubt that the turmoil in nearby countries affects the interests of many regional and global actors, which need to act in concert to ensure long-term stability. Iran, as a major regional power, is fully prepared to move in this direction, sparing no effort to facilitate solutions. So those who portray Iran as a threat and thus seek to undermine its regional and global credibility should cease – in the interest of peace and tranquility in the region and beyond.
           I am profoundly disturbed over the humanitarian tragedy in Syria and the enormous suffering that the Syrian people have endured for almost three years. Representing a people who have experienced the horror of chemical weapons, my government strongly condemned their use in the Syrian conflict. I am also concerned that parts of Syrian territory have become breeding grounds for extremist ideologies and rallying points for terrorists, which is reminiscent of the situation on our eastern border in the 1990s. This is an issue of concern to many other countries as well, and finding a durable political solution in Syria requires cooperation and joint efforts.
           So we are pleased that in 2013 diplomacy prevailed over threats of military intervention in Syria. We must build on this headway and understand that Syria is in dire need of coordinated regional and international efforts. We are ready to contribute to peace and stability in Syria in the course of serious negotiations among regional and extra-regional parties. Here, too, we need to prevent the talks from becoming a zero-sum game.
            That is no less true of Iran’s peaceful nuclear-energy program, which has been subject to enormous hype in recent decades. Since the early 1990s, one prediction after another regarding how close Iran was to acquiring a nuclear bomb has proved to be baseless. Throughout this period, alarmists tried to paint Iran as a threat to the Middle East and the world.
           We all know who the chief agitator is, and what purposes are to be served by hyping this issue. We know also that this claim fluctuates in proportion to the amount of international pressure to stop settlement construction and end the occupation of Palestinian lands. These false alarms continue, despite U.S. national intelligence estimates according to which Iran has not decided to build a nuclear weapon.
           In fact, we are committed not to work toward developing and producing a nuclear bomb. As enunciated in the fatwa issued by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, we strongly believe that the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are contrary to Islamic norms. We never even contemplated the option of acquiring nuclear weapons, because we believe that such weapons could undermine our national-security interests; as a result, they have no place in Iran’s security doctrine. Even the perception that Iran may develop nuclear weapons is detrimental to our security and overall national interest.
          During my presidential campaign, I committed myself to doing everything in my power to fast-track a resolution to the standoff over our nuclear-energy program. To fulfill this commitment and benefit from the window of opportunity that the recent election opened, my government is prepared to leave no stone unturned in seeking a mutually acceptable permanent solution. Following up on November’s interim agreement, we are ready to continue to work with the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany and others with a view to ensuring our nuclear program’s full transparency.
           The peaceful nuclear capability that we have achieved will be used within an internationally recognized framework of safeguards, and it will be accessible to multilateral monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency, as has been the case in the past several years. In this way, the international community can ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of our nuclear program. We will never forgo our right to benefit from nuclear energy; but we are ready to work toward removing any ambiguity and answer any reasonable question about our program.
           The continuation of pressure, arm-twisting, intimidation and measures aimed at cutting off Iranians’ access to a whole range of necessities – from technology to medicines and foodstuffs – can only poison the atmosphere and undermine the conditions needed to make progress.
           As we showed in 2013, Iran is fully prepared to engage seriously with the international community and to negotiate with our interlocutors in good faith. We hope that our counterparts, too, are ready to take advantage of this window of opportunity.

Click here for the original article, published by The Daily Star in collaboration with Project Syndicate-Asia Society.


Mohammed Chatah’s Open Letter to President Rouhani

            Mohammed Chatah, a former Lebanese finance minister, wrote the following open letter to President Hassan Rouhani in late December 2013. But Chatah was killed by a car bomb on December 27 before he could gather signatures from Lebanese lawmakers. The letter originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

      Your Excellency,
      We are taking this exceptional step to address you and other regional and global leaders because these are exceptionally dangerous times for our country. Not only is Lebanon’s internal and external security being seriously threatened, but the very unity of our state is in real jeopardy. It is our obligation to do all we can to protect our nation from these threats. And today, more than ever before, the choices made by the Islamic Republic of Iran will play an important role in determining our success or failure. That’s why we are writing to you, as the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
      But these are exceptional times for Iran as well. After many years of confrontation between Iran and a major part of the international community, your election as president last summer has signaled to many in the region and the world that the Iranian people want to set their country on a new path; a path of reform and openness and peaceful relations with the rest of the world. The recent interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1, and the statements you have made since your election, have raised expectations that Iran may indeed be taking the first concrete steps along that positive path. We sincerely hope that this is the case.
            But for us, as representatives of the Lebanese people, the real test is not so much whether Iran reaches a final agreement with Western powers on its nuclear program, nor whether domestic economic and social reforms are successfully put in place – important as these objectives are to the world and to the Iranian people. For us in Lebanon, the real test is whether Iran is genuinely prepared to chart a new course in its policies toward the rest of region, and most specifically toward Lebanon.
Your Excellency,
            It is an undisputed fact that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard continues to maintain a strategic military relationship with Hezbollah, a military organization that Iran’s Revolutionary guard was instrumental in establishing 30 years ago. At that time Lebanon was still in the midst of a terrible Civil War and southern Lebanon was under Israeli occupation. Today, 23 years after the end of the Civil War and the disbanding of all other Lebanese militias, and 13 years after the liberation of the south from Israeli occupation (in which the Lebanese resistance played a crucial role), Hezbollah continues to maintain an independent and heavily armed military force outside the authority of the state. This is happening with the direct support and sponsorship of your country.
            As we are sure you would agree, the presence of any armed militia in parallel to the legitimate armed forces of the state and operating outside the state’s control and political authority is not only in conflict with the Lebanese Constitution, but also with the very definition of a sovereign state – any state. This is the case irrespective of the religious affiliations of such non-state militias or the causes they claim to champion.
            Hezbollah’s insistence on maintaining an independent military organization, under the banner of “Islamic Resistance,” has been a major obstacle in the face of much-needed national efforts to strengthen state institutions and to put an end to the legacy of the Civil War and the spread [of] weapons throughout the country. This has, inevitably, also weakened Lebanon’s national unity and exposed the country to the widening sectarian fault lines in the region, and has contributed to the rise of religious extremism and militancy.
            Moreover, the use of – or implied threat of using – Hezbollah’s weapons advantage to tilt the domestic political playing field has made the delicate task of managing the Lebanese political system almost impossible, and has led to a gradual systemic paralysis. Hezbollah’s blatant protection of five of its members who had been indicted by the Special international Tribunal for Lebanon in the case of the late Rafik Hariri assassination has compounded the suspicions and mistrust.
Your Excellency,
            Over the past year, Hezbollah’s direct participation in the conflict in Syria has greatly aggravated Lebanon’s already precarious situation. It is well recognized that the Lebanese public is divided regarding the war in Syria. We, as members of the broad March 14 political alliance, stand fully, both politically and morally, in support of the Syrian people. We believe the Assad regime has lost both its moral legitimacy and its ability to restore peace and unity in Syria. However as representatives of the Lebanese people, our focus and main responsibility is to protect Lebanon from the grave danger of the fire raging next door spreading into our country. In fact, the conflict in Syria has already touched many of our border towns and villages and sparked sporadic violence and despicable acts of terrorism. As you know, the Iranian Embassy in Beirut has been the target of a deplorable terrorist bombing, as were mosques and civilian neighborhoods.
            Combating this scourge and protecting Lebanon from worse spillovers cannot succeed while a major Lebanese party is participating directly in the Syrian conflict. It is, in effect, an invitation to those on the receiving end of Hezbollah’s bombs and bullets in Syria to bring the war back to Hezbollah’s homeland – our common homeland. Regrettably, this is happening with the support of, and in coordination with, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Your Excellency,
            Lebanon today is in crisis on all levels. Clearly, palliatives are not enough anymore. We need to protect Lebanon from falling further down a very slippery slope. We believe that this can be done only if regional and international powers, including Iran, are ready to take the necessary steps. The guideposts are already there. They were spelt out in the national declaration issued jointly by all political parties last year and dubbed the Baabda Declaration. The declaration had affirmed the objective of safeguarding Lebanon’s security by: 1) protecting it against spillovers from Syria and more generally neutralizing it away from regional and international conflicts and alliances; and 2) completing the implementation of Security Council Resolution 1701.
            In our view, this would require the following concrete steps, to be agreed and launched through a special Security Council meeting or a special, wider support-group conference:
1. A declared commitment by all other countries, including Iran, to the neutralization of Lebanon as agreed in the Baabda Declaration. Clearly, it is not enough for Lebanon to declare a desire to be neutralized. More importantly, other countries need to commit themselves to respect Lebanon’s national desire;
2. Ending all armed participation by Lebanese groups and parties, including Hezbollah, in the Syrian conflict;
3. Establishing effective control by the Lebanese Army and security forces over the border with Syria, supported by the United Nations if needed, as permitted under UNSCR 1701;
4. Requesting the Security Council to begin the steps needed to complete the implementation of UNSCR 1701. This aims at moving Lebanon from the current interim cessation-of-hostilities status with Israel to a permanent cease-fire with U.N. security arrangements, which will end border infringements by Israel and establish complete and exclusive security authority by the Lebanese armed forces throughout the country.
            This vision and road map may seem radical, considering that Lebanon has not seen full and exclusive control by the state over its territory and over all weapons in four decades. But these are also the basic natural rights of any country that seeks to be free and independent. It is our obligation as representatives of the people of Lebanon to do all we can to regain those rights. For years, we have supported – and will continue to support – the right of Palestine to be free and independent. Similarly, we support Iran’s national right as a free and sovereign nation in control of its destiny and its security within its borders. As a small but proud nation we cannot aspire for less.
Your Excellency,
            This is Lebanon’s cause. We will do all we can to mobilize all the support it needs and deserves. Ultimately, whether we succeed or not will depend on decisions taken, not only by the Lebanese people but also by others, including your good self. Admittedly – but also understandably – there are many Iran-skeptics in Lebanon and in the region. We hope that Iran’s choices in Lebanon can prove them wrong.
Mohammed Chatah
Photo credit: Mohammed Chatah by Ronchatah (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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