The Shia-led, non-Arab country has not only challenged the United States and its Arab allies throughout the Middle East, but it also has become the biggest beneficiary of U.S. involvement in Iraq, experts say.
By eliminating Saddam Hussein -- Iran's sworn enemy -- and installing a Shia-dominated government for the first time in Iraq's history, the United States strengthened Iran's clerical regime both in its battle with internal dissidents and in its struggle with Sunni Arab governments.
"Without lifting a finger, the Iranians became the most dominant regional power," said Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo.
An avowed enemy of Israel and the United States, which accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, Tehran also has the Sunni-dominated Arab world on edge. Among the concerns: the regional ascendancy of Iran, its nuclear program, its growing influence on the Iraqi leadership and its involvement in other countries with large Shia communities, especially Lebanon.
And the direction of the war in Iraq has heightened the anxiety. "All regimes in the Middle East recognize that America has lost the war in Iraq," said Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University. "They're all maneuvering to protect their interests and to gain something out of the American defeat. ... Everyone is fighting battles through local proxies. It's like the Cold War."
The regional conflict is playing out on three fronts. In Iraq, neighboring Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia are backing Sunni militants, while Iran supports Shia militias. In Lebanon, Hezbollah -- a Shia militia backed by Iran and its less powerful ally, Syria -- has been trying for months to topple a government aligned with Washington and authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes. And in the Palestinian territories, Iran and Syria are supporting Hamas, while the United States and its Arab allies are backing beleaguered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement.
"All of the region's crises are now interconnected, thanks to the war in Iraq," said Rashwan. "Nothing can be resolved without the Americans finding a way out of Iraq."
Today, just about anyone associated with the United States is viewed in the Arab world as a traitor, starting with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. "Even though their leaders are allied with America, Arabs are more angry at America than ever before," said Mohammad Salah, Cairo bureau chief of Al-Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper. "They don't want any more American meddling in the region. ... They don't trust any government that is supported by Washington."
The Bush administration has become so unpopular in the region that even some of its staunchest allies are trying to publicly distance themselves from it. No Arab regime is closer to Washington than Saudi Arabia, the second largest foreign oil provider to the United States. But at an Arab League summit in March, Saudi King Abdullah for the first time harshly criticized the U.S. military presence in Iraq, calling it an "illegitimate foreign occupation."
That statement was aimed at appeasing Arab masses angry about the growing bloodshed in Iraq and Arab regimes' continued alliance with Washington. Abdullah's comment resonated well in the Arab world, with analysts, newspaper columnists and average citizens praising the kingdom for challenging U.S. policies.
"Saudi Arabia's rulers view themselves as the rightful leaders of the Muslim world, but Iran is challenging that leadership right now," said Rashwan. "The Saudis must try to show that they can be independent from America."
Although Saudi Arabia has a Sunni majority, its rulers fear Iran's potential influence over a sizable and sometimes-restive Shia population concentrated in the kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province. In neighboring Bahrain, another key American ally in the Persian Gulf, the Shia majority is chafing under Sunni rulers, who also fear Iran's reach.
The Saudis have tried to pursue their own agenda in the Middle East, apart from Washington's. In February, Abdullah brokered an agreement between Hamas and Fatah for a unity government in the Palestinian territories. By June, the deal collapsed and Hamas took control of Gaza by force, prompting Abbas to dissolve the unity government.
"The traditional powers in the Arab world are working behind the scenes to undermine Iran's influence," said Kabalan. "One way they can do that is by showing some progress on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, even if it's not real progress."
The Hamas takeover was a victory for Iran, which sent tens of millions of dollars to the militant group since it won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006. "While the Americans and Europeans were trying to isolate Hamas by cutting off all funding to the Palestinians, Iran moved in to help Hamas," said Salah. "The West gave Iran this opportunity to increase its influence."
Arab leaders are not worried that Iran will export the cultural and theological aspects of Shiism; rather, analysts say, they're afraid of political Shiism spreading to the Arab world through groups like Hezbollah. The Shia militia's strong showing against a far superior Israeli military during last summer's war in Lebanon has electrified the Arab world, and Hezbollah's actions offer a stark contrast to Arab rulers cooperating with the United States.
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"Iran has been successful in its support of Hezbollah and Hamas," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an expert on the Shia and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "Arab regimes now fear that their Sunni populations will be seduced by Iran and Hezbollah's message of challenging the United States and empowering the dispossessed."
There is a historical precedent for this. The 1979 Islamic Revolution, a popular uprising led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against the U.S.-backed shah, inspired revolutionary zeal among nationalists throughout the Arab world. The revolution's aftershocks were felt for a long time in the Middle East, helping, indirectly, to give rise to some militant Sunni movements and inspiring Shia communities in Lebanon and Iraq. Nowhere was that influence more deeply felt than in Lebanon, where Iran helped create Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of 1982.
Fearful of this new challenge from Shias to become the torch-bearers of Arab nationalism, the Saudis are trying to reassert their role as leaders of the Arab and wider Muslim world. In his speech at the Arab summit, Abdullah insisted that only when Arab leaders unite will they "be able to prevent foreign powers from shaping the region's future" - a reference to both the United States and Iran.
"The Middle East is at a historical juncture," said Rashwan. "It's not simply the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but events in Iraq and Iran that will have a profound impact on the future of the Arab world."
What are the historical roots of the split between the major sects of Islam (Sunni and Shia)?
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, there was a dispute about who should succeed him as leader (or caliph) of the Muslim community. One faction (which later became the Sunnis) argued that the prophet's closest companion, Abu Bakr, should become caliph. Another faction (which became the Shias) argued that succession should be hereditary and that the most fitting successor was the prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali. They argued that Muhammad had designated Ali to succeed him. Ultimately, Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph by a vote of Muslim leaders.
In 656, Ali became the fourth caliph of Islam. Shortly afterward, a civil war broke out among Muslim factions and Ali restored order by reaching a compromise with his enemies. That infuriated some of his most hardline supporters. In 661, as he prayed in a mosque near the Iraqi city of Kufa, Ali was assassinated by a former follower. He was the first of 12 Shia imams, or successors to Muhammad, whom Shia believers regard as divinely motivated and infallible (although they do not view them as prophets).
Nineteen years after Ali's death, two of his sons, Hussein and Abbas, were killed in battle in the Iraqi city of Karbala. The violent deaths of Ali and his sons became the defining factor in the split between Shia and Sunni sects. They also made martyrdom one of the most important tenets of Shiism.
What are the differences between the sects?
The distinctions between Shia and Sunni Islam are similar to those between Catholic and Protestant branches of Christianity, involving style of ritual and philosophical orientation rather than fundamental pillars of faith. Both sects follow Islam's five basic pillars: the profession of faith in God, daily prayers, giving alms, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and making a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime.
Sunnis and Shias follow different schools of Islamic law, which deal with marriage, divorce and rules of inheritance. The Shia clergy is more hierarchical, and Shias generally choose an ayatollah to emulate.
What are the sources of modern conflict between the two sects?
Today, the vast majority (about 85 percent) of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims are Sunnis. The rest are Shias, with under 1 percent comprising smaller sects.
In some countries - Iran, Iraq and Bahrain - Shia are a majority. In Lebanon, they are the largest sect, making up about 40 percent of the population. In several oil-rich Persian Gulf countries - notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait - the Shia are a sizable minority ruled by the Sunni majority.
Many Sunnis criticize the Shia for developing rituals not mentioned in the Quran or Sunnah, a collection of the sayings and actions of Muhammad. These rituals include veneration of Shia imams, frequent pilgrimages to Shia shrines and slight variations in daily prayers. In many countries, the conflict between Sunnis and Shias is largely over political power. In Iraq, for example, the Shia majority was suppressed during Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated rule. While the majority of Sunnis accept Shias as Muslims, some extremist Sunnis regard them as heretics who should be killed.
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