There are two major sects in Islam. The majority of Muslims belong to a sect known as Sunni Islam. 15% to 20% of the remainder belong to a sect called Shia. The division goes all the way back to the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 AD. His death set up a succession crisis that has caused violence and other issues for hundreds of years. Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law through one of his wives Aisha, was the successor. In addition to the Quran, Sunni’s recognize six major collections of Hadiths. Hadiths are teachings that can be traced to the prophet through his followers. The Shia, on the other hand, believe that succession passed from Mohammad to his son-in-law Ali. Shia followers also believe that the succession followed through great leaders known as Imams up until the 12th Imam, Muhammad ibn Hassan al-Mahdi. They believe that in the end times the 12th Imam will return as the sects version of the Messiah to lead them to victory. While many Sunni Muslims also believe in a messiah figure known as the Mahdi, they only believe that he will be a descendant of Muhammad. Followers of Shia Islam use a different set of hadiths known as The Four Books, written by scholars known as the Three Muhammads.
These differences in theology and succession have played out for centuries in violence and death. At this time, after a period of relative stability brought on by world powers supporting various “secular” dictators in the region, everything is boiling over. The United States has done nothing but make things worse by dropping tons of weapons into the region, removing some of these dictators, and creating a situation where at this point we are pretty universally hated. I believe that for the most part our foreign policy has been well intentioned / going for the less of two evils. We supported dictators for decades because we needed stability in that region because of its resources and the cold war. Unfortunately, that meant we supported monsters that committed atrocities against their own people. Then, under Bush, we tried to reverse that policy. We started removing the dictators and trying to replace them with more democratic governments. Under Obama, the Arab Spring started and we supported further removal of dictators. The overall effect of these policies has been that all of the underlying hatred has boiled over and the fundamentalists are primed to take over.
I bring all of this up to show that while there has been talk of a caliphate forming in the Middle East, it will in fact be two warring caliphates that form. On the one hand there will be a Sunni caliphate that will be led either from Saudi Arabia or Turkey. al Qaeda has declared an independent caliphate in the Iraqi cities of Ramadi and Fallujah and I’m pretty sure that this will spread up into rebel-controlled areas of Syria. In turn, this will drive the Shia governments of Iraq and Syria further into the arms of Iran. In similar fashion, the resurgence of the Taliban is driving Shia factions in Afghanistan to Iran. So, Iran is well on its way to forming a caliphate that spreads from parts of Afghanistan, through Iraq and Syria, and into Lebanon.
The scariest thing about these two opposing caliphates is that it appears they will both be nuclear powers. Iran is well on its way to creating nuclear weapons if it has not done so already. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia can obtain nuclear weapons at any time through an agreement with Pakistan. The other scary thing is that if Turkey gets involved (and they would go Sunni), they will attempt to use NATO treaties to draw the United States and Europe in on their side.