Skip to main content

Is Iran Genuinely Troubled By Sunni-Shiite Conflict?

With the latest bombing in Lebanon, the sectarian overtones of the region's conflicts have crystallized. 
Shoes and slippers left by Muslims who were attending Friday prayers are seen at one of two mosques hit by explosions in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, August 23, 2013. Twin explosions outside the two mosques killed at least 27 people and wounded hundreds in apparently coordinated attacks in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on Friday, a senior health official and witnesses said. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX12UE3

The Ruwais blast that shook Beirut’s southern suburbs a week ago did more than just bring back the specter of civil war to Lebanon. It also revealed the new power balance controlling the Arab Levant and confirmed that the principal conflict, from which the rest of the region’s conflicts have spawned, is namely the Sunni-Shiite conflict.

That incident marked, if nothing else, the fall of the very notion of having a state that is responsible for security and stability. The social contract, upon which the state is founded, has eroded. And that erosion is in turn due to the sharp divisions separating Lebanon’s societal components and their siding with opposing regional camps that are in conflict.

The Syrian war is no longer just “Syrian.” The war's scope has spread beyond the Levant and has turned into a sectarian war whose fire is affecting Lebanon and Iraq. That war may yet spread to other areas, both Arab and non-Arab, if it is not contained by a comprehensive settlement that allows power to be used only in the service of the people and their fundamental rights.

After enduring “Lebanonization,” which has become synonymous with the dissolution of the central authority and the fragmentation of the national entity into sectarian entities, and “Iraqization,” which added the takfiri phenomenon to the fragmentation process and brought us back to medieval times when it was legitimate to kill “infidels,” now comes “Syrianization,” which combines the above two scourges with the phenomenon of genocide and ethnic cleansing by chemical weapons

After the “Lebanonization” of Iraq, the danger today is the “Iraqization” of Lebanon, whereby deadly chaos spreads everywhere and turns Lebanon’s neighborhoods into a theater of tit-for-tat bombings, which will become the new form of political dialogue, where the language of logic is replaced by sectarian instincts.

It is remarkable that the group that claimed responsibility for the Ruwais blast called itself the Brigade of Aisha, a name that signals anti-Shiite Sunni sectarianism and reveals the blast’s ultimate goal in the ongoing conflict in the region, specifically against Iran.

If we add to that scene what the Shiite side has done — such as the banners and slogans they raised when Qusair fell into Hezbollah’s hands, or when they glorified Imam Hussein and evoked the original anti-Shiite crime in all its symbolism, sanctity and historical injustice against the Shiites — it becomes evident that the two parties are headed toward a fierce sectarian war, whether or not they are doing so in all awareness or because they see no other option.

It is easy to understand why the Islamic militant forces that claim to defend the Sunnis, who are being humiliated and killed, would want to promote the language of violence, the logic of an eye for an eye and play on the sectarian angle. They are doing so to pull the rug from under the feet of moderate Sunni forces and take their place as the leaders of Sunnis.

But what is hard to understand is why would Hezbollah fall into that trap and act in the way its enemies want it to act, by presenting itself as the defender of Shiite sanctities as a pretext to get involved the Syrian war.

Hezbollah used to present its doctrine as pan-Arab and Islamic, cutting across sects and even religions. It succeeded in that, and for a long time the mostly Sunni Arab street looked positively upon Hezbollah’s Islamic resistance. So it was remarkable how Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who until recently matched Gamal Abdel Nasser in support and popularity, came out on Quds Day — the commemoration that Imam Khomeini started in order to emphasize the Islamic and Arab dimensions of his revolution — and said, “We are the Shiites of Imam Ali, the twelve Shiites of the Ja’fari school.” 

The question is why would Hezbollah sacrifice its Arab image, as well as its “project of defiance”? Why would the party isolate itself within its narrow sectarian box? Is it doing so intentionally? Or because it has no other choice? Why did it push away the moderate Sunni forces, such as former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his party, and prevent the formation of a government in Lebanon by insisting on having the blocking third [veto power]? Why did Hezbollah kick out the legitimate Sunni representatives that provided it with cover, as happened in the July 2006 war? Why did Hezbollah sabotage all attempts by the forces of moderation, especially President Michel Suleiman, to build bridges between the disputing parties and protect Lebanon from regional conflicts by adhering to the Baabda Declaration?

The question that most concerns the Lebanese right now is about their security and livelihood: How would Hezbollah respond to a second bombing in the southern suburbs? Will it allow the logic of calm, which the country and economy desperately need, to prevail? Or will it further escalate and continue fighting on Syrian territory?

There is no doubt that the answers to these questions go beyond Lebanese borders. They may be in Iran, specifically in the office of its supreme guide, who said that losing the Syrian regime is unacceptable and commissioned Nasrallah with the task of making sure that doesn’t happen.

The conflict is bigger than Lebanon and Syria combined. The conflict is about the role and influence of Iran in the Middle East, as well as about highly sensitive subjects such as the Iranian nuclear file, its repercussions, the security of the Gulf and oil and gas markets.

In light of Iran’s long-term strategy to face these challenges, and given Iran’s vision and options, one question must be asked: Is the Sunni-Shiite conflict really troubling the Iranian regime?

There is no doubt that it is troubling Iraq if that torn-apart country wishes to heal itself. It is also troubling Syria if that country wishes to avoid the formation of a Shiite-Alawite state west of Homs and Qusair and that is connected to Lebanon. It is also troubling Lebanon if that small country wishes to preserve its unity and its pluralistic and unique formula, which is based on a delicate power balance that can’t withstand forceful ideologies and their repercussions. It is probably troubling the entire Arab world if that world wishes to preserve the partnership with the other side and give the region’s people a common destiny.

However, if the Sunni-Shiite conflict is serving some kind of a plot that aims to comprehensively re-examine the existing balance of forces or even the region’s borders (after the attempts to export the Khomeini revolution in the early 1980s have failed, and after the attempts to place the entire Arab street under the banner of defiance and resistance in the subsequent period have also failed), then, and only then, does it become acceptable, and even necessary, to burn the last bridge still connecting the two sides.

Sami Nader is an economist, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and communications expert with extensive expertise in corporate strategy and risk management. He directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs (LISA), focusing on economics and geopolitics of the Levant. A professor for USJ University in Beirut, Nader appears regularly as an analyst for economic and geostrategic matters on different Arabic and international channels. On Twitter: @saminader

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial