In 1964 Iran established itself as an Islamic Republic based on the Shi’a sect of Islam.
Sunnis and Shia: Islam's ancient schism
Pilgrimage to Mecca is one of many rituals that are shared by both sects
What are the differences between Sunnis and Shia?
Muslims are split into two main branches, the Sunnis and Shia. The split originates in a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad over who should lead the Muslim community.
The great majority of Muslims are Sunnis - estimates suggest the figure is somewhere between 85% and 90%. Members of the two sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices.
Though they may not interact much outside the public sphere, there are always exceptions. In urban Iraq, for instance, intermarriage between Sunnis and Shia was, until recently, quite common.
The differences lie in the fields of doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation. Their leaders also often seem to be in competition.
From Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Pakistan, many recent conflicts have emphasised the sectarian divide, tearing communities apart.
Who are the Sunnis?
Sunni Muslims regard themselves as the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam.
The word Sunni comes from "Ahl al-Sunna", the people of the tradition. The tradition in this case refers to practices based on precedent or reports of the actions of the Prophet Muhammad and those close to him.
Sunnis venerate all the prophets mentioned in the Koran, but particularly Muhammad as the final prophet. All subsequent Muslim leaders are seen as temporal figures.
Egypt is home to some of Sunni Islam's oldest centres of learning
In contrast to Shia, Sunni religious teachers and leaders have historically come under state control. The Sunni tradition also emphasises a codified system of Islamic law and adherence to four schools of law.
Who are the Shia?
In early Islamic history the Shia were a political faction - literally "Shiat Ali" or the party of Ali.
The Shia claimed the right of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and his descendants to lead the Islamic community.
Ali was killed as a result of intrigues, violence and civil wars which marred his caliphate. His sons, Hassan and Hussein, were denied what they thought was their legitimate right of accession to caliphate (territory). Hassan is believed to have been poisoned by Muawiyah, the first caliph (leader of Muslims) of the Umayyad dynasty.
His brother, Hussein, was killed on the battlefield along with members of his family, after being invited by supporters to Kufa (the seat of caliphate of Ali) where they promised to swear allegiance to him.
Women from Turkey's Shia minority observe a religious procession in Istanbul
These events gave rise to the Shia concept of martyrdom and the rituals of grieving.
There is a distinctive messianic (liberation) element to the faith and Shia have a hierarchy of clerics who practise independent and ongoing interpretation of Islamic texts.
Estimates of the number of Shia range from 120 to 170 million, roughly one-tenth of all Muslims.
Shia Muslims are in the majority in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and, according to some estimates, Yemen. There are large Shia communities in Afghanistan, India, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
What role has sectarianism (excessive devotion) played in recent crises?
In countries that have been governed by Sunnis, Shia tend to make up the poorest sections of society. They often see themselves as victims of discrimination and oppression. Some extremist Sunni doctrines have preached hatred of Shia.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 launched a radical Shia Islamist agenda that was perceived as a challenge to conservative Sunni regimes, particularly in the Gulf.
Tehran's policy of supporting Shia militias and parties beyond its borders was matched by the Gulf states, which strengthened their links to Sunni governments and movements abroad.
Discontent among the Shia has fuelled street protests in Bahrain
During the civil war in Lebanon, Shia gained a strong political voice because of the military activities of Hezbollah.
In Pakistan and Afghanistan, hardline Sunni militant groups - such as the Taliban - have often attacked Shia places of worship.
The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria have also acquired strong sectarian overtones. Young Sunni men in both countries have joined rebel groups, many of which echo the hardline ideology of al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, many of their counterparts from the Shia community have been fighting for - or alongside - government forces.
From 1980-1988, Iran was engaged in a long and bloody conflict with Iraq that left a war-ravaged country and an overwhelming social and political need for reconstruction.
The post Iran-Iraq period was difficult and marked by governance shaped firmly around conservative Shi’a Muslim values.
Iran-Iraq War, (1980–88)
Prolonged military conflict between Iran and Iraq during the 1980s.
Open warfare began on Sept. 22, 1980, when Iraqi armed forces invaded western Iran along the countries’ joint border, though Iraq claimed that the war had begun earlier that month, on September 4, when Iran shelled a number of border posts. Fighting was ended by a 1988 cease-fire, though the resumption of normal diplomatic relations and the withdrawal of troops did not take place until the signing of a formal peace agreement on Aug. 16, 1990.
The roots of the war lay in a number of territorial and political disputes between Iraq and Iran. Iraq wanted to seize control of the rich oil-producing Iranian border region of Khūzestān, a territory inhabited largely by ethnic Arabs over which Iraq sought to extend some form of suzerainty (control). Iraqi president Ṣaddām Ḥussein wanted to reassert his country’s sovereignty over both banks of the Shaṭṭ al-ʿArab, a river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that was historically the border between the two countries. Ṣaddām was also concerned over attempts by Iran’s Islamic revolutionary government to incite rebellion among Iraq’s Shīʿite majority. By attacking when it did, Iraq took advantage of the apparent disorder and isolation of Iran’s new government—then at loggerheads with the United States over the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehrān by Iranian militants—and of the demoralization and dissolution of Iran’s regular armed forces.
In September 1980 the Iraqi army carefully advanced along a broad front into Khūzestān, taking Iran by surprise. Iraq’s troops captured the city of Khorramshahr but failed to take the important oil-refining centre of Ābādān, and by December 1980 the Iraqi offensive had bogged down about 50–75 miles (80–120 km) inside Iran after meeting unexpectedly strong Iranian resistance. Iran’s counterattacks using the revolutionary militia (Revolutionary Guards) to bolster its regular armed forces began to compel the Iraqis to give ground in 1981. The Iranians first pushed the Iraqis back across Iran’s Kārūn River and then recaptured Khorramshahr in 1982. Later that year Iraq voluntarily withdrew its forces from all captured Iranian territory and began seeking a peace agreement with Iran. But under the leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini, who bore a strong personal animosity toward Ṣaddām, Iran remained intransigent and continued the war in an effort to overthrow the Iraqi leader. Iraq’s defenses solidified once its troops were defending their own soil, and the war settled down into a stalemate with a static, entrenched front running just inside and along Iraq’s border. Iran repeatedly launched fruitless infantry attacks, using human assault waves composed partly of untrained and unarmed conscripts (often young boys snatched from the streets), which were repelled by the superior firepower and air power of the Iraqis. Both nations engaged in sporadic air and missile attacks against each other’s cities and military and oil installations.
They also attacked each other’s oil-tanker shipping in the Persian Gulf, and Iran’s attacks on Kuwait’s and other Gulf states’ tankers prompted the United States and several western European nations to station warships in the Persian Gulf to ensure the flow of oil to the rest of the world.
The oil-exporting capacity of both nations was severely reduced at various times owing to air strikes and to pipeline shutoffs, and the consequent reduction in their income and foreign-currency earnings brought the countries’ economic-development programs to a near standstill. Iraq’s war effort was openly financed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other neighbouring Arab states and was tacitly supported by the United States and the Soviet Union, while Iran’s only major allies were Syria and Libya. Iraq continued to sue for peace in the mid-1980s, but its international reputation was damaged by reports that it had made use of lethal chemical weapons against Iranian troops as well as against Iraqi-Kurdish civilians, whom the Iraqi government thought to be sympathetic to Iran. (One such attack, in and around the Kurdish village of Ḥalabjah in March 1988, killed as many as 5,000 civilians.) In the mid-1980s the military stalemate continued, but in August 1988 Iran’s deteriorating economy and recent Iraqi gains on the battlefield compelled Iran to accept a United Nations-mediated cease-fire that it had previously resisted.
The total number of combatants on both sides is unclear; but both countries were fully mobilized, and most men of military age were under arms. The number of casualties was enormous but equally uncertain. Estimates of total casualties range from 1,000,000 to twice that number. The number killed on both sides was perhaps 500,000, with Iran suffering the greatest losses. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds were killed by Iraqi forces during the series of campaigns code-named Anfāl (Arabic: “Spoils”) that took place in 1988 (see Kurd).
In August 1990, while Iraq was preoccupied with its invasion of Kuwait (see Persian Gulf War), Iraq and Iran restored diplomatic relations, and Iraq agreed to Iranian terms for the settlement of the war: the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from occupied Iranian territory, division of sovereignty over the Shaṭṭ al-ʿArab waterway, and a prisoner-of-war exchange. The final exchange of prisoners was not completed until March 2003.
By 2010, the beginnings of political changes were evident, in spite of Western sanctions, and an intermittent relaxation of moral codes came about, particularly with regard to cinema censorship.