The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr has brought new attention to the relatively obscure and precarious Shiites of Saudi Arabia, as I wrote Tuesday. But what about Sunnis in Iran? Just as Saudi Arabia is practically synonymous with Sunni Wahhabism, Iran—the world’s largest Shia country—is the demographic and scholarly center of the sect. Yet around 9 percent of the population is Sunni.
The already-heightened rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is ratcheting up, fed by Nimr’s execution over the weekend. Despite occasional insistences that this is simply the latest flare-up in a 1,400-year-old battle between Sunnis and the Shiites, the more persuasive case—as Marc Lynch points out—is that it is a battle between two rival regional powers who are exploiting sectarian differences for political gain. It is, Lynch writes, “cynical manipulation of identity politics by regimes seeking to advance their domestic and foreign policy interests. … Sectarianism today is intense, but that is because of politics.” Regardless of the causes, the tension puts more pressure on the minority sects in each country.
First, a brief history lesson: How did Iran become Shia? Until the 16th century, Persia was mostly Sunni. At the turn of that century, the Safavid dynasty conquered much of what is now Iran and made Shiism the official religion. The conversion was accompanied by a massive crackdown on Sunnis, so that over time much of the population became Shia. Today, most of the Sunnis who remain are mostly from minority ethnic groups—Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Baluch—rather than Persians. That makes some discrimination based on religion difficult to separate from ethnic discrimination, according to the U.S. State Department. Many of these Sunnis also live in remote, impoverished areas, making it difficult to tell whether poor government services are a result of sectarian discrimination or not.