Saudia Arabia and Iran The Cold War of Islam
Part 2: Incompatible Points of View
Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's former foreign minister, is sitting in his Tehran practice in a dark blue suit, an ascetically haggard diplomat who is once again working as a pediatrician. It is shortly after 9 p.m. and the last patient, a seven-year-old with an earache, has just left.
Velayati is foreign policy advisor to Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, making him part of the innermost circle. Just in February, Velayati traveled to Moscow to talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the way forward in Syria. And now, in his practice, he wants to talk about foreign policy. He speaks of the "2,000-year-old Iranian-Yemeni friendship" and notes that 1,500 years ago, Iran sent troops to the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula to fight against the Ethiopian occupation of Yemen. The "invaders" were triumphantly beaten back, he says.
Just like the Ethiopians then, the Saudis today would suffer "complete defeat" in Yemen: "They are in the swamp up to their necks," he says. The fact that the incumbent president of Yemen, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, isn't just supported by Saudi Arabia, but is also recognized by the international community, is of little interest to Velayati. The government there, he says, is "illegal" and will soon be "removed."
He leans back contentedly into his armchair. After all, what are a couple decades of Western sanctions or the not quite 100 years of rule by an Arab family in Riyadh against the more than 4,000-year history of the Persian Empire?
Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, likewise has a clear take on events in the region. "The war in Yemen is not a war that we wanted," he told SPIEGEL in February, "We had no other option -- there was a radical (Shiite) militia allied with Iran and Hezbollah that took over the country" -- the Houtis. Al-Jubeir's interview took place during the Munich Security Conference in February. The evening prior, he had met with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss a cease-fire Syria for the first time since the two countries had broken off diplomatic relations.
Until that point, the two had preferred to cast aspersions at each other from afar, by way of op-ed contributions to the New York Times. Saudi Arabia's "active sponsorship of violent extremism," Zarif wrote, is "the real global threat." He argued that "the Saudi strategy" is to "perpetuate -- and even exacerbate -- tension in the region." Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir countered by claiming that it wasn't Saudi Arabia that supported terrorism, but Iran: "the single-most-belligerent actor in the region."
From the perspective of Riyadh, the situation looks like this: Iran -- which, with almost 80 million residents, is more than three times the size of Saudi Arabia -- wants to become the predominant power in the Middle East. The old hegemon, the US, is withdrawing. Thus, it is up to Saudi Arabia to restore the balance of power in the region.
That is the core of Saudi Arabia's new, offensive-minded foreign policy. For a country that had for decades been considered by the West to be a "strategic partner," a reliable oil supplier and defensive-minded military actor, it is a radical break from the past with incalculable consequences.
The Roots of Enmity
The two powers have not always faced each other with such hostility: There have also been periods of understanding and even cooperation. Their rulers generally got along quite well during the phase starting in the mid-20th century when they both became rich supplying oil to the West. They also had a common ally: the US.
Indeed, relations were so good at the end of the 1960s that the Iranian shah and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia even wrote letters back and forth to each other. In an example related by the Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the US, the Shah advised the king to follow his lead by opening up his country's society and, for instance, allowing girls and boys to go to school together. The king answered by writing: "May I remind you that you aren't the Shah of France? Your population is up to 90 percent Muslim. Don't forget that."
The dark prophecy was fulfilled in 1979, a year that has repercussions in the Middle East to the present day. The radical Shiite leader Ruhollah Khomeini toppled the regime of the pro-Western Shah, students stormed the US Embassy and the country that soon would be renamed the Islamic Republic of Iran descended into a bloody power struggle. Not long later, the war against Saddam Hussein-led Iraq followed.
Saudi Arabia backed the Sunni Saddam Hussein and the US, which had until then maintained good relations with both Riyadh and Tehran, leaned toward Saudi Arabia.
So was 1979 a good year for the Saudis? Not exactly. On Nov. 20, Sunni terrorists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and took thousands of pilgrims hostage. Their leader came from the heart of Saudi Arabia and claimed to be the Mahdi, or redeemer -- and he called for the overthrow of the king. The royal family saw little choice but to call for assistance from French special forces -- infidels -- to liberate the mosque.
The House of Saud was humiliated, particularly in front of its own religious establishment and the princes sought to cleanse themselves by beginning to send billions in oil money to radical preachers -- preachers who then carried Wahhabism, the most strict and unforgiving form of Islam, around the world.
As such, 1979 didn't just mark the year when the export of the "Islamic Revolution" began, as urged by revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. It was also when Saudi Arabia began planting the seeds of Sunni extremism, the bitter fruits of which are still being harvested today in the lawless valleys of Pakistan, in Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State, and also in the West, in the heads of confused young men. And in the kingdom itself: Now, Sunni extremism is even threatening the country where it was once spawned.
Eight years after the momentous events of 1979, there was a devastating clash between Iranian demonstrators and security personnel during which 400 people lost their lives. Prince Nayef, the brother of the present-day king, blamed the Iranians. Like other "heretics" before them, he said, they had attempted to desecrate the Grand Mosque.
Ayatollah Khomeini was furious and called for the overthrow of the Saudi rulers, calling them "detestable and godless Wahhabis" and "a pack of heretics." It was a clear indication that modern-day Iran and Saudi Arabia were destined to continue the centuries-old conflict between the Sunni Arabs and the Shiite Persians.
It was the beginning of the 16th century when the Persian rulers introduced Shiite Islam as the state religion. Meanwhile, the preacher Muhammad Bin Abd al-Wahhab, who was born in 1703 not far from present-day Riyadh, belonged to the much larger Sunni branch of Islam. He founded Wahhabism, and he disdained -- indeed hated -- the Shiites. In the mid-18th century, the Saud clan -- the present-day royal family -- allied themselves with the preacher and Wahhabism became state doctrine.
In both countries, the sectarian determination is an instrument of power politics and it binds the people to their ruler. Still today, the rulers of each country use religion to exert control over their subjects -- and in each country, there is an ongoing struggle between reformers and conservatives. A look at the societies in the two countries shows that, despite their official enmity, the two face astonishingly similar challenges.