One month earlier, on March 6, news that Morocco had cut off diplomatic relations with Iran was received with passing interest by the international community. With no obvious connection to Tehran's ongoing standoff with the United States and Europe over an alleged weapons program, the story was quickly forgotten. But the muted response to the diplomatic spat masked a deeper significance.
The primary accusation Morocco leveled at Iran implicated the country's embassy in Rabat in a covert plot to "alter the religious fundamentals of the kingdom." Moroccan officials claim that well-funded Iranian missionary cadres have been instructed to promote the expansion of a Shia bloc - already purported to link Syria, Iraq and Hezballah in Lebanon - by actively encouraging the spread of Shia doctrine in Morocco. Whether the charges are real or imagined, allegations like those coming out of Morocco and Egypt reflect a sea change in perceptions of the regional sectarian balance of power.
Faced with the rise of Iraq's long-downtrodden Shias and increased Iranian traction in the Levant and the Persian Gulf, a deepening sense of anxiety has set in among the leadership of embattled and autocratic Sunni regimes. In the last five years, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have paraded fears of a new "Shia crescent" cutting across the Middle East. Mubarak went so far as to question whether Shias in Arab states were more loyal to Iran than to their own countries.
While the notion of a Shia arc stretching from Iran to Lebanon is overly simplistic, coded references to Iranian or Shia ambitions make up a language that the Arab leadership of regimes in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia know will resonate with their Sunni-majority populations. Historical rifts between Sunni and Shia Islam run deep and touch upon the earliest discords in Muslim society. In a majority Sunni country, insinuating that a group is taking ideological (if not political) direction from Tehran or, worse, secretly encouraging the practice of Shiitization - a process known as at-tashayo - is an effective tactic that can be used to galvanize Sunni clerical orders and rally the Sunni Arab street.
But the Shiitization process is in no way likely to have an impact on the balance of power in the Muslim world. Shias account for only about 10 percent of a Sunni-dominated global Muslim population of 1.5 billion. And, despite suspicions of their loyalty, Shia Arabs tend to look not to Iran but to their own spiritual leaders for guidance. Outside of Iran, Sunnis have historically had a lock on political power, even where Shias have the numerical advantage. Syria remains a major exception; the Alawi Shia minority, representing 13 percent of the population, has ruled over a Sunni majority since 1970 (an arrangement unlikely to endure for much longer). Thus, while invoking a subversive Shia axis may function as an effective scare tactic, Sunni leaders do not actually fear adherents of Shiism per se, but rather the populist drawing power of revolutionary forces now emerging from within the Shia world.
In August 2006, at the height of the Israeli war in Lebanon, two of the most popular figures in solidly Sunni Cairo were Shia leaders Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah. Despite the mainstream Shia character of Hizballah, its rhetoric in the conflict focused on the illegitimacy of the Israeli state and the need for unity and change in Arab leadership. With Iran and Hizballah championing populist Arab national issues, weakened Sunni leaders sought to deflect attention from their perceived impotence in the conflict by invoking fears of a region-wide Shia ascendancy.
The cycle was repeated following the latest round of violence in Gaza. During the fighting, Iran was highly vocal in their support of Hamas, blasting the Egyptian government for its inaction and using rhetoric that emboldened radicals under the thumb of the regime in Cairo. In response, the Egyptian government mobilized powerful clerics and sponsored a state-controlled media campaign to educate the public on Shia ideology and Iranian strategies of "covert invasion."
Tehran, for its part, makes no secret of its desire to expand its influence in the Gulf and elsewhere through proxy groups such as Hamas and Hizballah. The secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, for example, functions as the formal Lebanese deputy of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, following his theological and sometimes ideological guidance. But, while Iran's present-day political and clerical bosses likely see opposing Sunni hegemony as central to Tehran's regional ambitions, the country's goals are more strategic than ecumenical. Put simply, the more influence and support Iran can sustain beyond its borders, the more legitimate its power.
Recognizing the potential for unrest and militancy in their own countries, Sunni Arab leaders are not likely to be willing to accept these changes to the status quo without resistance. For as long as the Haniyeh-Nasrallah-Khameini axis can sustain its revolutionary cachet on the Arab street, leaders of the Sunni Arab world will continue to toy with the idea of periodically letting the sectarian genie out of the bottle.