This is going to be a slightly unorganized and unstructured post, so bear with me in that regard.
To put it bluntly, Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) despise each other. The two countries themselves are different in every way that determines their geopolitical position in the grand scheme of things, and by grand scheme of things I mean war and conflict in the Middle East. The Western narrative on the Middle East – thoroughly and intentionally lacking truth, as is painfully clear to anybody keeping a track on events in the region – simply loves to play up the sectarian conflict between Shias and Sunnis in the region. It is sad, irritating and ultimately ironic that the Pakistani viewpoint on the Middle East and Iran and KSA’s role in it actually mirrors Western propaganda. A country such as ours with a large population of youths full of enthusiasm for the ‘Muslim Ummah’ has quite a few facts to reconcile to in order to escape the beyond-stupid narrative that emanates from Pakistani right wingers, nationalists and ‘analysts’ such as Zaid Hamid or Orya Maqbool Jan on the Middle East. After all that has happened in the region – with no war or conflict occuring as an isolated event – it is necessary that we Pakistanis adjust our naive, childish views borne out of a nonsensical fascination with the Muslim world which leads to us seeing all Muslim countries as similar to us and thus formulating their national policies in ways different to us. What comes after this insanely ridiculous assumption is the cliche’d, political-sectarian-correctness style narrative of ‘Iran and KSA are destroying the Muslim Ummah with their proxy war, Shia and Sunni must unite!’. Lazy thinking mixed with a weak, almost cowardly will to keep some sort of ‘balance’ between ‘Shia Iran’ and ‘Sunni KSA’ is something to be seen whenever we discuss events in the Middle East. It is high time to rip this narrative to shreds and remove the sectarian bias from our eyes. How this seemingly considerate stance is itself indicative of a sectarian bias on the part of Pakistanis will become apparent soon enough. This post is, obviously, tailored toward a Pakistani audience and anyone hosting similar juvenile misconceptions about the nature of the conflict between Iran and the GCC in general. Note: I do not intend to use this post to substantiate the completely abhorrent role of the West and Israel (strong emphasis on the latter) in every situation of war in the Middle East; the entirety of that would need a different post altogether and thus lays as an assumption for this particlar post. Needless to say, I am referring to the Iran-Saudi enmity which began after the former’s revolution in 1979.
Iran experienced its Islamic Revolution in early 1979, establishing an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini by April that year. It ended a long dictatorship by the Shah (Raza Pahlavi) of Iran, a Western puppet who ruled the country with an iron fist in a way beneficial to the West whose oil companies valued their stranglehold on the heart of Iranian economy. The CIA had orchestrated an overthrow of the democratic Iranian government led by Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 after he had dared to nationalize the country’s oil, something it admitted in declassified documents released in 2013, and thus brought a pro Western dicatorship to the helm. Iran experienced very little progress in terms of basic human development during its time under the Shah and had no political sovereignty. The harsh and strict yet focused Islamic Revolution would take over the reigns of the country with popular support because of the resentment of the Shah and his usage of the feared SAVAK, the secret police and intelligence agency he had raised with CIA help, to curb dissent using torture and intimidation. The Islamic Republic was inherently hostile to the West and the reversal of Iran from a vassal state to an enemy state would take place at breakneck speed. The seizing of the American personnel in the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 by Iranian religious students and the botched and rather embarrassing attempt by the US in April 1980 to rescue the hostages taken from the Embassy (Operation Eagle Claw) using helicopters which wound up destroyed one way or the other set the tone for the relationship between the US and Iran in the years to come. Sanctions, policies of isolation toward Iran from countries alligned with the West, proxy wars and much more would be the norm from then on.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 by British patronage of the al-Saud family in reward for its service to the colonial power against the Ottoman Empire in World War 1 and consolidation of British power in the Arab lands after the collapse of the Ottomans as well. By the time the war was over and the British emerged among the powerful victors, the Arabian peninsula comprised three main authoritative Arab figures; Sharif Hussain Ibn Ali of Hijaz in the west, Ibn Rashid of Ha’il in the north and Ameer Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Najd in the east. As narrated by Yemeni-English independant researcher and historian, Numan Abd al-Wahid, Sharif Hussain Ibn Ali had been the most vital Arab ally for the British, having turned against the Ottomans who controlled the Arab lands in 1916 after a promise by the British to grant the Arabs a unified Arabian state from Gaza to the Persian Gulf after the war. Ibn Saud’s own contribution in the war effort against the Ottomans had been meagre compared to Sharif Hussain’s, but nonetheless they both found themselves on the same side by the time the latter decided to press for the British to live up to their promise. The Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 and the Balfour Declaration in 1917 (the latter being, in legal terms, simply a letter albeit to a powerful individual) amounted to the British spitting in the face of the Arabs eager, and no doubt foolishly and naively so, to have their own country after years of living under non Arab rule. The British had gone back on their word and began to not only draw borders for the Arab world based on their own – and French- whims but also promised Jews a homeland in Palestine. Sharif Hussain rejected these designs and adopted a stance of no-negotiations toward the British. The British, after exhausting their attempts to persuade or coerce him into acquiescing peacefully to the new political order of the Arab world, began funding and arming Ibn Saud and his army of fanatical followers, known as the Wahabis. Ibn Rashid, whose stance mirrored that of Sharif regarding the British and their broken promises, would be subdued by an invasion by Ibn Saud in 1921 and his territories added to Ibn Saud’s. After a drawn out process of attempts at ‘diplomacy’ with Sharif Hussain, Ibn Saud was finally unleashed on the Hejaz in 1924 and by late 1925 had conquered it in its entirety, driving Sharif Hussain away and making Ibn Saud the de facto ruler of the Arabian peninsula. His army of Wahabis had committed horrible acts of massacre throughout the campaign, notably killing Islamic scholars and burning books and literatures on Islamic jurisprudence wherever they could find them. The violent, takfiri ideology of Wahabism thus took centre stage as the dominant socio-political code of life in the new territory which the British would name ‘The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’ in 1932. KSA was born courtesy of patronage by the British. The short-sightedness of the Arabs who sided with and trusted the British against the Ottomans was not limited to Ibn Saud, but his readiness to continue to serve the British after their deceit and receive territorial and financial reward for it contrasted starkly to the opposition of his peers to the violation by the British of their promise of a unified Arab country.
The birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran was thus as an anti Western state existing largely off its own resources and exercising sovereignty in politics and foreign policy while the birth of KSA was as a Western puppet in the Arab world after turning cloak for the sake of selfish, tribalistic ambitions and monetary reward.
I saw an illustration posted to the Facebook page, Pakistan Defence, social media’s most popular and thriving stronghold for Pakistani nationalists which seems hell bent on proving to the world just how stupid we are when it comes to anything unrelated to India or, perhaps, Afghanistan. It depicted Arabs as being ‘forced’ to take shelter under the diabolical Western umbrella because of Iran which the West was using to ‘threaten’ them. Never before had I seen something so profoundly stupid and nonsensical, so completely removed from reality and so blatantly an example of an anti-Shia bias seeking to hide the fact that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, created in 1981) states in particular were complete Western surrogates, rentier states who used their natural resource wealth to purchase skilled labour from abroad to handle their economy as well as unskilled labour from the third world. The petrodollar system, formed in the early 1970s as a pact between the US and KSA which guaranteed sale of oil by the GCC in dollars only while the US provided them military security, cemented the relations between the US and the GCC. There exists no such understanding between Iran and the US (whose twisting and turning regarding the Iran Nuclear Deal of 2015 which even European states show interest in upholding demonstrates how beholden Washington is to the anti-Iran Zionist lobby) and it has only found itself for brief periods on, technically, the same page as Iran in matters where neither had to bend to accomodate the either. An example of this may be the two countries’ opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan; it is true, however, that Iran largely had its own reasons to despise the Taliban after they murdered its diplomats in Kabul in 1998, forcing Iran to mass its forces on the border and almost invade the country. The famous Iran Contra affair , a complex, far reaching and multifaceted plot extending far beyond the allaged and Jimmy Carter-approved objective of getting Iran to return the US hostages from the 1979 sacking of the US Embassy, also comes to mind, whereby using clandestine methods Israel and elements within the US establishment sold weapons to Iran in the 1980s. Iran was fighting a war imposed on it by Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who the West and GCC had turned from enemy into ally for the sake of crushing the much poorer Iranian nation which only had support from 2 or 3 countries. One of the objectives of the Iran Contra strategy was also to manage to bleed both Iran and Iraq, considering Iraq had been the most economically and militarily powerful, self sufficient and prolific Arab country before the war with Iran. The GCC was as happy as the West in supporting Saddam as he went about gassing Iranians and sustaining the most pointless war in recent history.
By the time it became clear the war wasn’t going to have a clear cut victor, KSA and the GCC were all too happy to participate, with the blessing of the US of course, in the wrecking of Saddam’s economy by collapsing the price of their own oil to abnormally low levels and thus ensuring Saddam – and the Soviet Union who he was militarily and economically aligned with – found it extremely hard to sustain their own oil exports in their respective war efforts in Iran and Afghanistan. But, wasn’t KSA simply supporting ‘Sunni’ Saddam (secular, in actuality, and only anti-Shia because of Iranian Shia influence after 1979) against Shia Iran? Perhaps the same strain of foolish ‘sectarian’ analysis would lead to us assuming so. A fun fact: the majority of Saddam’s armed forces were Shias themselves.
The very formation of the GCC itself, with KSA its (oil) richest country and long time Western ally, was intended to ensure that a pro-Western monopoly over most of the world’s oil in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf was created. The dollar would be strengthened all the more and sanctions thus turned into a serious weapon for the West. It would take away power over the world’s oil markets from OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) and Arab countries not firmly aligned with the West and headed by Arab nationalists such as the Baathists whose ideology was intrinsically anti-colonial and anti-Zionist as well. Perhaps one could attempt to awkwardly explain Saudi Arabia’s antithetical position toward genuine Arab nationalist movements, be they the Baathists in Iraq and Syria or Nasserites in Egypt, could be explain by the ‘Shia Sunni’ analysis?
If KSA is really a sovereign and powerful ‘Sunni’ country and not a complete rentier state with its rich living as uncultured, luxury loving despots who have no political substance and could never craft any sort of national narrative against the West? Even the much hyped King Faisal was not anything out of the ordinary regarding potential threat to Western control over KSA’s role in geopolitics. We won’t ever see a revolutionary insurrection against the pro-Western monarchy in Saudi Arabia as we saw successfully happen in Iraq in 1958 against the pro-Western Hashemite monarchy of King Faisal II? A country with a ridiculous, senseless form of Sharia in place to go with the ‘biddah’ filled lifestyles of the wealthy princes and sheikhs, thousands of political dissidents in jail and a female population suppressed and kept out of political life for the most part cannot compare to the Iranian nation which, after its revolution and the subsequent war with Iraq which cost both sides hundreds of thousands of young, able bodied men, actually governed itself with a religious regime that invested heavily in basic human development aspects such as education and health, implemented family planning programmes (what would Wahabis think of that!) and produced a society much better off in most ways than it was under the Western-backed Shah. Each religious government has its flaws, in my opinion, and a greater pressure on it to ‘loosen up’ as time progresses, but to compare Iran to KSA is plain ridiculous. When Iraq was a powerful nation under Saddam before his suicidally reckless campaign against Iran, the country was renowned for its cultural and educational prowess, not just its vast wealth in oil. I emphasize the capability of these nations to be able to follow their own sovereign goals so as to make clear that it is KSA who tows the Western line – largely managing to be accomodating to the House of Saud’s own small-scale tribalistic politics – while Iran opposes it. These countries are not equals when it comes to the role they play which interests us Pakistanis the most, i.e as Muslim players in geopolitics. KSA does not care about the Muslim Ummah, while Iran has continued to maintain a strong touch dimension of pan-Islamic unity in its foreign policy and has shown no sectarian bias of any real sort in who it crafts alliances with; Sunni Palestinians under secular PLO or religious Hamas, or Lebanese Shias under Hezbollah; if the enemy is a shared one then Iranian support comes in any way.
Nobody can doubt the sectarian aspect of KSA; Wahabism does, after all, declare Shias to be kaafirs and worthy of death to go alongwith many other of its wonderful teachings. It does the same for non-Wahabi Sunnis but good luck explaining that to admirers of KSA in our naive country. The highest Shia authorities in Iran – and Iraq – do not condemn Sunnis in any way (or the Sahaba; can’t forget that now can we) while you can get plenty of takfiri fatwas out of KSA regarding Shias. What my point is that when it comes to subduing Wahabism – or forsaking the facade of Sunni unity – for the sake of the interests of its Western masters, KSA is all too willing. Let’s not forget that Wahabi movements have, in the past, directed their anger toward KSA for whatever reasons, be it the presence of a monarchy there or the eventual capability of their slow-working brains to figure out the KSA is a Western puppet state. The Saudis had to curb Ikhwani uprisings soon after the creation of the Saudi state and largely wish to keep true Wahabism out of the lives of their wealthy elites, exporting it instead around the world via funding to madrassahs such as in the case of Pakistan during the Soviert War in Afghanistan. How does one try to describe Saudi Arabia as having concern for Sunnis when Saudi-affiliated terrorist groups readily butcher them as willingly as they do Shias?
Iran is indeed a Shia power and it does not shy away from seeking out relations with Shias in other countries. Those attempting to compare Iran’s Shia politics – which are not in any way a negative ploy seeing as they are effective in establishing transnational links of political, religious and ideological unity and thus facilitate Iranian power against Zionism and the West – to Saudi Arabia’s spreading of its vile, divisive, dangerous ideology around the world do us a disservice and make us look stupid. Pakistan has no reason to respect KSA; culturally, religiously, geographically and even historically even a slight amount of research would reveal our closeness to Iran compared to the Arabian peninsula or whatever other strange connections Pakistanis feel they have with the ‘Khadim e Haramain’ (a position they achieved through no competence of their own). Iran also does not seek to shun Sunni allies. Hamas, owing to its Qatari patronage and Qatar’s initial support for the terrorist-mercenary war waged with multilateral funding against Syria from 2011 onwards (accompanied by a promptly and comprehensively debunked trainwreck of a propaganda narrative by the West and media based in the GCC such as Al Jazeera about a ‘popular revolution’ or ‘moderate rebels’ or ‘Syrian regime using chemical weapons’), turned on its long time supporter in the Syrian government headed by secular Arab nationalist Bashar al Assad in 2012 and supported the terrorists (Jabhat al Nusra, FSA, Ahrar al Sham, ISIS etc) against his government. Syria had, like Iran, supported the Palestinian cause albeit from much earlier on considering the civilizational, ethnic and cultural links Syrians have with Palestine and Syria’s continuity of national anti-colonialist and anti-Western narrative. Iran, quite obviously supporting Assad throughout the conflict alongwith its Lebanese partner in Hezbollah (perhaps the most powerful armed group in the Levant, with an impressive military victory registered over Israel in 2006), could have found this as an ideal excuse to not only shun Hamas but build up the notion of Sunnis as untrustworthy. Instead, Iran would restore relations with Hamas in 2017 as the Syrians and their allies closed in on victory after having cut them off during the war. Iran would then also begin reconciliation between Syria and the new Hamas leadership.
I’ll cut it short here, seeing as this is my first post on WordPress, and seeing as it is after all a truly simplistic fallacy I wished to address. There’s a lot more examples of how KSA serves its Western masters and collaborates continuously with Israel, but this information itself should suffice in demonstrating that Iran combats an enemy of whom KSA is merely a puppet. Saying that Iran-KSA ‘Shia Sunni’ conflict is what’s wrong with the Middle East is plain stupid and wrong.