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Commentary: Iran and Saudi Arabia: A Power Struggle and A Way Forward | The National Interest

Commentary: Iran and Saudi Arabia: A Power Struggle and A Way Forward | The National Interest.


February 27, 2014

Al Arabiya, the news agency owned by Saudi Arabia, recently reported that Frederic Hof, a State Department official, has saidthat he was told by Iranian diplomats that their country considers Saudi Arabia, not Israel or the United States, as the main threat to its national security. This is important, but not new to Iranians. Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, the relations between the two nations have been strained. Saudi Arabia has always helped in propagating the Salafi-Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam and considers itself the guardian of Islam’s holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, but the Shiite-led revolution in Iran challenged its authority and created a competitor and alternative for what it preaches.

The first challenge to Saudi Arabia after the Iranian revolution was about Palestine. The Islamic Republic considered itself the most important supporter of the Palestinians, constantly espousing the view that the Arab governments are puppets of the United States and, hence, do not react strongly to occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel. This could not be considered as mere Shiite propaganda, as Iran was giving funds and weapons to Sunni Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. To protect itself against Israel and to expand its influence in the region, Iran also helped in the founding of Lebanese Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia’s Support for Iraq during its War with Iran

Less than two years after the Islamic Revolution, Saddam Hussein’s regime invaded Iran. The Arab nations of the Persian Gulf provided Iraq with tens of billions of dollars in aid. During the first 20 months of the war Saudi Arabia was giving $1 billion a month. A report by the CIA stated that Western powers gave Iraq $35 billion, while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates provided another $30-40 billion. Another report indicated that the trio gave Iraq $30.9, $8.2, and $8 billion, respectively.

Breakdown of the Diplomatic Relations

But, two events during the war led to termination of diplomatic relations between the two countries, both tied to Iranian pilgrims to Mecca. In his daily memoirs of the war, former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote on 11 August 1986, “[Interior Minister} Mr. [Ali Mohammad] Besharati informed me that Saudi Arabia has announced that the explosive T.N.T. has been found in the luggage of several Iranian pilgrims.” On 28 August 1986 he wrote that Saudi Arabia had released 110 of the 113 of the Iranians that it had detained, and Mehdi Karroubi, a representative of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was to thank King Fahd of Saudi Arabia for their release.

In his resignation letter to then President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on 5 September 1988, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi wrote, “I became aware of the explosives in Saudi Arabia only after they had been discovered. Unfortunately, and despite all the damage that such moves have inflicted on our nation, they can still happen at any moment and in the name of the government.” In a letter to Khomeini dated 10 October 1986, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri who was Khomeini’s deputy at that time, wrote , “During Haj [Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca] the Sepaah [IRGC] commits inappropriate acts, abusing the luggage of old men and women without informing them, and making a bad name for Iran and the Revolution, so much so that Mr. Karroubi must ask [King] Fahd for a favor [to release the arrested people].” In response, Khomeini’s son Ahmad wrote, “Is there any other way to carry out revolutionary acts in Mecca? Sometimes such acts go smoothly, sometime they create problems. I do not necessarily support them, but this is typically how they are done.”

Then, in a demonstration on 31 July 1987 in Saudi Arabia, Iranian pilgrims chanted “death to America” and “death to Israel.” The Saudi security forces opened fire on the demonstrators, killing 402, of whom 275 were Iranians, and injuring 649. Saudi Arabia closed its embassy in Tehran and cut off its diplomatic relations.

Resumption of Diplomatic Relations

The Iran-Iraq war ended in July 1988, but on 2 August 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and annexed it to its territory. The Arab nations of the Persian Gulf asked Iran for help. On 23 August 1990 Kuwait’s foreign minister visited Iran, followed by Saudi’s foreign minister’s visit on October 28. Then Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati spoke by phone with Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi Foreign Minister, on 13 February 1991, and a few days later the two met in Geneva. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were resumed on 20 March 1991.

Terrorists attacked the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia on 25 June 1996, where U.S. military personnel were living, killing 19 and injuring 400. President Bill Clinton ordered the Pentagonto update its plans for bombing Iran, but did not order any attacks. The next year the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected Iran’s president and Clinton wanted to pursue diplomacy with Iran. Saudi officials believed that the bombing had been done by domestic dissidents, who might have received some help from Iran. A report in 2003 indicated that the attacks had been carried out by Al Qaeda. In his memoirs, Clinton wrote that during summer of 1996 there was no definitive evidence as to who had carried out the attacks.

Saudi Arabia Demand Bombing of Iran

Saudi Arabia views Iran as its most dangerous enemy. A document released by WikiLeaks indicates that in a meeting in April 2008 between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, then U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, the King urged the United States to bomb Iran. King Abdullah had reportedly said that the U.S. “must cut off the head of the snake,” namely, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Another secret cable released by WikiLeaks indicated that in December 2005 King Abdullah lashed out at George W. Bush’s administration for ignoring his warnings against invading Iraq in 2003, noting that the new Iraqi government was dominated by Shiites with close ties to Iran. “Whereas in the past the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein had agreed on the need to contain Iran, U.S. policy had now given Iraq to Iran as a ‘gift on a golden platter,’” the U.S. Embassy cable quoted the king as complaining. And, in his memoirs Bush wrote that both Israel and Saudi Arabia pressured him to attack Iran, and that when he met with King Abdullah in January 2008, he told him that he was angry with the National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 that stated that Iran did not have an active nuclear-weapons program. Saudi Arabia has also always supported imposition of crippling economic sanctions on Iran, which are now in effect.

Saudi Arabia Confronting the Arab Spring

Saudi Arabia has been opposed to the Arab Spring, because it was meant to replace dictatorships with democratic systems that respect human rights. Former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Turki al-Faisal declared that Arab Spring is a cause of “ruin and destruction.” The Arab Spring is “evil,” declared a member of the Grand Oulemas, Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan, and Saudi officials have referred to the Arab Spring as fitnasedition. On the other hand, Saud al-Faisal declared arming the opposition in Syria “a duty.” Thus, Saudi Arabia began countering the democratic aspirations of the Arab people by carrying out major plans for financial and military backing to those that it saw fit. Some of what the Saudis have done is as follows:

One is transforming the struggle for democracy to a sectarian war between the Shiites and Sunnis. The sectoring war has been consolidated, leading to more religious killings. But, the Islamic Republic fiercely opposes such a war because Shiites are a minority in the Islamic world, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has called Arab Spring an “Islamic awakening” against Israel and the United States. Muslims killing other Muslims also benefits only their enemies, a point emphasized by Khamenei time and again, who has warned against what he calls “Islamic takfiri terrorists.” A takfiri is a Muslim that accuses other Muslims of apostasy, which is what some Sunnis do routinely against the Shiites. In addition, Iran lacks the resources to fight the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, even if it were inclined to—during 2012-2013, for example, Saudi Arabia increased its military budget by 111 percent, totaling $59.6 billion in 2013. Iran cannot match this.

Second, the secular regime of President Bashar al-Assad tried to violently put down its opponents. Russia, China and Iran are allies of Assad’s regime, but the U.S., its European allies, a majority of Arab nations and Saudi Arabia want to overthrow the regime. Thus, the war in Syria, in addition to being sectarian, has also become one of vicegerency, one in which each side fights on behalf of its supporters. In the process, Syria has been destroyed and tens of thousands of people have been killed. It has become a great magnet to, and a center of terrorism in the world, and the Salafi fundamentalists that are supported by Saudi Arabia and are the enemies of democracy and human rights have become stronger. Saudi Arabia is still pursuing the fall of the Assad regime and its replacement by the groups that it supports. It is also opposed to Iran’s participation in the Geneva peace conference. Iran, while having no particular attachment to Bashar al-Assad, views his leaving the scene as the complete collapse of his regime and the dominance of Al Qaeda-linked groups, which it opposes.

Third, Saudi Arabia also opposed the Arab Spring in Bahrain, dispatching its troops there and helping the ruling Sunni minority to violently crackdown on the protestors, hence playing the most important role in the defeat of Arab Spring in Bahrain.

Fourth, Saudi Arabia has been an ardent supporter of Egypt’s military regime that staged the July 2013 coup and overthrew the regime of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. It has given the Egyptian regime billions of dollars in aid. The Brotherhood did have close relations with Iran either. In fact, it is in Iran’s interest to see the Middle East run by secular governments, as religious ones do not tolerate one another.

Finally, the Shiite power in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen provoked Saudi Arabia and, thus, it has transformed the three nations to its battlegrounds with Iran. In 2013 alone, 8868 Iraqis were killed in the fight with Al Qaeda and Salafi groups, and another 1013 in January of this year. Iraq has repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia of supporting the terrorists. 45 percent of Yemen’s population is Shiite, and that has turned Yemen to another stage for the war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Many believe that the Yemeni government is under the control of the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia Support for Terrorism in Iran

There have been many reports on Saudi Arabia’s support for the rise of new Salafi groups in Iran’s provinces that are on its borders with Iraq and Pakistan. For example, Jundallah, a Baluchi separatist group, is one that employs the language and methods of Salafi groups. And there are reports indicating Salafi jihad In Iran’s province of Kurdistan.

Saudi Arabia’s Opposition to the Geneva Nuclear Accord

Saudi Arabia has been concerned about a rapprochement between Iran and the U.S., and the Geneva Accord between Iran and P5+1 further frustrated it. Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt,acknowledged recently the sectarian nature of the war in Syria, and said that Iran and Saudi Arabia have never liked each other, but their current enmity toward one another is at its most intense level ever. The U.S., she says, must explain to the Saudis its policy toward Iran on a daily basis. The President will also go to Saudi Arabia in March to further explain this policy. Jordan and Saudi Arabia’s kings have told President Obama that he should try to end Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy—but if that does not succeed, that he should try to achieve the goal through crippling economic sanctions and, if necessary, military strikes.

The Way Forward

Given Saudi Arabia’s enmity toward Iran, what can Iran do to lower the tension?

One is to improve its relations with the United States and other Western powers. Friendly relations between Iran and the U.S. are in the national interests of both countries. Confronting the terrorist groups, and addressing the crises in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the region put the two nations in the same front.

Second, Iran must improve its relations with the countries of the region. This entails recognizing the legitimate interests of these countries in having national security, political independence and sovereignty. Proposing practical ways of ridding the region of weapons of mass destruction, guaranteeing collective security for all, and agreeing not to resort to force for solving problems between the nations of the region will greatly help the cause. Turki al-Faisal has described the Saudis views about the principles of a collective agreement on the security of the region. Iran must also do the same and begin negotiating with Saudi Arabia and the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf.

The fault lines of the regions are between democracy and dictatorship. Every regime in the region is trapped by corruption, repression and violent crackdowns on their own people. No problem will be solved without democratization of the region. The Islamic Republic too faces similar problems, and cannot escape them without recognizing the legitimate rights of its people—respecting their votes and their rights as citizens and as humans. Iran’s present rulers can also be a part of this process, to the extent that their social base of support indicates. Either all the political forces and groups in Iran, including the current ruling group, accept pluralism in Iran or the repressed aspirations and demands of the Iranian people will, at some point, lead to social explosion and possibly another revolution.

If the West, led by the United States, supports peace, stability and elimination of terrorism in the Middle East, it must set aside its double standards. Protesting the gross violations of human rights and repression of the dictatorial regime must be uniformly done, without differentiating between allies and foes. The West must support the transition process to democracy and respect for human rights, but the experience with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya—which has been practically partitioned into two parts—and Syria taught everyone a great lesson: military intervention cannot democratize any country. Such interventions have destroyed the invaded nations, and helped terrorism grow.

In a recent interview with the BBC, former CIA director and secretary of defense RobertGates questioned whether “artificial” states in the Middle East “like Libya, Iraq and Syria can be held together absent of repression,” because in his opinion they were made up of “historically adversarial groups.” Thus, Gates seems to have recognized that regime change based on military intervention may lead to the disintegration of the invaded countries. Is it not sad and depressing that after twelve years of intervention in that region, invading Iraq and Afghanistan for “democratizing the Middle East” and imposing a terrible fate on the people of the region, a statesman like Gates talks about the region in this fashion?

Akbar Ganji is an Iranian investigative journalist and dissident. He was imprisoned in Tehran from 2000 to 2006, and his writings are currently banned in Iran.


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