Islamic world Sunni/Shiite balance

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Islamic world Sunni/Shiite balance

Islamic world Sunni/Shiite balance
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The first visit by an Iranian leader to Egypt in more than 30 years seems to confirm a thaw in relations after the election of President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo.

Morsi went to Iran last August, the first Egyptian head of state to set foot in Tehran in more than three decades. Mubarak before him, a staunch ally of the US, stood against Iran all that time.

The rupture between Iran and Egypt came when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, recognising its right to exist. Iran held a grudge. The Iranians named a grand avenue in their capital after the man who assassinated Sadat.

That same year came the revolution in Iran, and the Islamic Republic was born as the Shah went into exile – offered hospitality by Egypt.

Iran is predominantly Shiite Muslim, and Egypt Sunni Muslim. Regional alliances are heavily influenced by this. For instance, Iran was the only Organisation of Islamic Cooperation member to protest when Syria was expelled.

The region, simply compared, is 80 percent Sunni and 15 percent Shiite. The orange shading here shows that the Shiites are mostly concentrated in Iran and Iraq.

Vast Egypt and powerful Saudi Arabia are 90 and 97 percent Sunni, respectively. But Syria and Bahrain are gripped in more complex tensions.

Syria is three quarters Sunni, but the Shiite-derived Alawites, 11 percent of the population, hold the power – in the hands of President Bashar al Assad.

Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni king, although most of the population is Shiite, less than one third Sunni.

President Ahmadinejad’s interest in supporting Assad is not to let Syria succumb to Sunni predominance, but to maintain a so-called ‘Shiite Crescent’, stretching from Syria and Lebanon on the Mediterranean down through Iraq to Iran.

Bahrain is buckling with political tensions, and analysts suspect Tehran is actively supporting Shiite pressures being brought on the Sunni king. This has also weighed on relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies.

Iran is intent on maintaining and increasing its influence in the region, following the turmoil in Iraq. Sunni states hope to counter that influence. But this sort of cold war could heat up at any time. These are the high stakes of any thaw between traditional adversaries.