Religion in Iran

Sunni and Shi'i are the two largest branches of Islam, with the overwhelming majority of Iranians practicing Shi'i Islam. About 90 percent of Iranians practice Shi'ism, the official religion of Iran.[i] By contrast, most Arab states in the Middle East are predominantly Sunni.

The rift between Shi'is and Sunnis occurred early in Islamic history when the Muslim community split over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad as the caliph, or "leader of the community." Shi'is, followers of Muhammad's son-in-law Ali, believe that only descendents of the prophet should be leaders of society. Sunnis believe members of the community, or shura, should consult and decide on who the caliph should be. The disagreement has historically resulted in schism and civil war.[ii]

Although religious tensions between Shiite Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors have not entirely subsided, Iran's regional relations have improved over the last decade, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE):

"The rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states exemplifies the increasing importance of economics in Iran's foreign policy...Iran has been able to reverse its policies in the Gulf without serious internal opposition or dissent, which suggests that most elites recognize the need for better relations with the Gulf states."[iii]

Iran understands it needs to foster better relations with its regional neighbors. As political and economic interests have become more central in Iran's regional relationships, economic ties have mitigated at least some of the religious divides between Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors.

Over the past decade, Iran made conscious efforts to reach out to Saudi Arabia, indicating "genuine pragmatism on the part of Iran."[iv] The two countries increased trade, collaborated on OPEC policy, and signed security agreements related to money laundering, border surveillance, and the administration of water and territorial matters.[v]

Iran also dramatically increased its economic ties with the UAE, its largest trade partner. Despite ongoing disputes over islands in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran and the UAE have developed intimate economic ties vital to each other's economies. Bilateral Iranian-UAE trade was estimated at $14 billion at the end of 2007[vi], and Iranians living in the UAE reportedly have accrued assets worth more than $300 billion in Iran.[vii] These increased economic relations have formed deep regional economic ties despite existing religious differences.

[i] U.S. Department of State, Country Background Notes: Iran. Online. Available: Accessed: December 4, 2007.

[ii] For a comprehensive account of Islamic history, see Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, (Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[iii] Daniel Byman, Shahram Chubin, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, and Jerrold D. Green, Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era, (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), p 40.

[iv] Daniel Byman, Shahram Chubin, Anoushiravan Ehteshami, and Jerrold D. Green, Iran's Security Policy in the Post-Revolutionary Era, (Santa Monica: RAND, 2001), p 74.

[v] Gwen Okruhlik, "Saudi Arabian-Iranian Relations: External Rapprochement and Internal Consolidation," Middle East Policy, vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer 2003), p 118.

[vi] "Iran/United Arab Emirates: U.S. Fails to Scuttle Emerging Ties," International Press Service (February 25, 2008).

[vii] "UAE Open for Iran Business as U.S. Seeks to Choke Tehran," Agence France Presse (February 11, 2008).

This page last modified in August 2008