US Needs to Heed the Growing Sunni-Shiite Rift to Avoid Atomic Pursuits Across Middle-East

06/02/2015 04:18 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

Last month's meeting in the leafy confines of the Maryland presidential retreat Camp David sought to address Persian Gulf monarchies' security concerns over Iran's nuclear program and any agreement between the United States and Iran due on June 30. Yet the summit revealed something else: the increasingly complex and volatile rivalry between Sunnis and Shiites.

Key point: Sectarian tensions in the Middle East are more about religious dominance than economic, social or military gains. While Saudi Arabia has and continues to express its concerns over Iran's nuclear program, the real issue is the kingdom's unwillingness to relinquish its religious dominance in the Muslim world.

As a result, we are now witnessing a Middle East fast splitting along religious lines: Sunni versus Shiite. And here's the part that confounds many Americans: The notion of Sunni unity is a myth. Sunni countries are more divided than ever because of a host of issues. Equally important, the Shiites headed by Iran with a population of roughly 80 million represent but a fraction of the far larger Muslim population.

While Iran's political influence is undeniably growing, the Shiite camp does not wield influence or power when it comes to hard-core demographics. There are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world representing 23 percent of the world's population. And of the 1.6 billion, only 10 percent is Shia. Even if Iran expands its influence in the Middle East, it will hardly have religious dominance over the Muslim world.

Out of the 170 million Shi'ites around the world; majority is concentrated in four countries: Iran, Pakistan, India, and Iraq. However, lively segments reside in countries such as Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman.

One can see why Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were nervous with the arrival of Arab Spring and subsequently quelled local uprisings using carrots and sticks. The diversity of those countries where Shiites reside does not suggest that all of them share similar beliefs. There are differences that we must understand to put the rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis in the proper context of religious dominance.

The Shiite camp is internally diverse: One segment represents the "Twelvers," which constitutes the largest Shia group including the Ismailis, known as the "Seveners." They are mainly in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia's eastern provinces of Jizan and Najran. You also have the "Fivers," mainly the Zaidis -- an early sect of Islam that emerged in the 8th century. Second, there are sub-sects including the Alawites and the Druze, mainly in Lebanon and Syria.

All of these sub-sects differ politically, geographically, linguistically and ideologically. One can appreciate why the conflict in Syria, for instance, is so complicated. Trying to solve disputes requires a systematic understanding of these many differences.

A brief history: Throughout the saga of the Muslim world, one little-known fact explains Shiites' quest for power. Through the centuries, Shiites were dominated by Sunnis until the 16th century when the Safavid Empire, the most significant ruling dynasties of Persia (modern Iran), designated Shiite Islam as its official religion. It was, however, around this era that much of the Middle East and South Asia fell under the control of either the Ottomans or the Mughals, both Sunni empires.

The Iranian revolution in 1979 finally allowed Shiite ideology to re-emerge in a robust way. Iran's strategic vision since has focused on strengthening the ideology through support to Shiite communities in neighboring countries with Shia minorities. The objective has always been and continues to be for Tehran to enhance its influence and expand its religious ideology. These aspirations are backed by a strong military apparatus to project regional power.

We cannot ignore the role the United States, inadvertently, played in accelerating and extending Iran's sphere of influence. First, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan eliminated two of Iran's chief regional enemies. Two, Iran can always, through propaganda, condemn the presence of U.S. military in the Middle East by claiming it as interference in the broader region's internal affairs, even if that interference ironically allowed Iran the enormous leverage it has today.

The United States should not be naïve in recognizing Iran's aspirations in the region. The dynamics currently taking place in the Middle East -- civil war in Syria, sectarian violence in Iraq, anarchy in Yemen, violent conquest by ISIS and security instability in Egypt, among others -- demonstrate U.S. paralysis and ambiguous foreign policy regarding the region.

Given this backdrop, I can understand why Saudi Arabia will snub the United States or go against Washington's interests. Foreign policy elites in the kingdom will not wait to see what agreement, if any, emerges between the United States and Iran. Saudi Arabia will go ahead and acquire the bomb from Pakistan. This in turn will compel Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt to acquire similar nuclear technology sooner than later.

U.S. policymakers need keen understanding of the history and religious tensions between Sunnis (primarily in Saudi Arabia) and Shiites (so dominant in Iran) if they want to formulate an objective policy of any positive consequence for the region and beyond. That means turning back easy rhetoric by politicians still unable to acknowledge the blood and treasure we've invested in the Middle East with little in return.