The History of Saudi-Iranian Competition

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Jon Alterman: Kim Ghattas is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of the recent book Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East. I first met Kim when she was a BBC News correspondent. She's been a journalist for many years in Washington and the Middle East. Kim, welcome to Babel.

Kim Ghattas: Thank you very much for having me, Jon. Greetings from Beirut.

Jon Alterman: Thank you very much. You talk about 1979 being a year in which the Middle East changed. And you pointed to the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Iranian Revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Why do you think all those things happened in one year? Was there a connection between them that came to a head in 1979?

Kim Ghattas: There wasn't a connection per se between those three events, but they were happening at a time of the Cold War, the battle for influence between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, but the three events were not actually directly connected. But they became intertwined because the confluence of these three events in one year is the reason why the Middle East changed so much in the following four decades, and why we are where we are today.

And to sum it up in a couple of lines, what this year did is turn Saudi Arabia, a Sunni country, and Iran, a Shiite country, two countries that had been friends, allies, competitive—but not enemies-—turned them into mortal enemies. When that happened, because Khomeini upon his return from exile to Iran, as he turned the revolution from a very diverse, vibrant group of revolutionaries into a purely Islamic revolution, he started to want to vie for leadership of the Muslim world, something the Shah of Iran had never really wanted for himself. And that's Khomeini started undermining the Saudi role as custodians of the two holy sites of Islam, making them feel insecure. And therefore they started to deploy religion as well as a soft power tool to counter the message that Iran and Khomeini were spreading. And so these two countries suddenly start using religion and they start exacerbating long dormant differences between Sunnis and Shias, and they unleash hell.

Jon Alterman: One of the things I found surprising was that you didn't concentrate more on the economics of the region, and the fact that as oil prices rose in the 1970s, suddenly large oil exporters, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, had a lot of disposable cash which they could use for regional influence. Why did you make the choice not to talk a lot about the economics and to talk more about the religion?

Kim Ghattas: It’s implicit because if they were suddenly able to deploy their power like this, especially the Saudis. It was because they had all this cash at their disposal, certainly the Saudis. The Iranians had a rougher time, and then they were stuck in the Iran-Iraq war, which was devastating from a human perspective and from an economic perspective. And after 1979, it was mostly Saudi Arabia that could use the billions at its disposal to exert its soft power—by building mosques, and funding newspapers and schools and religious seminaries around the world, not just the Middle East. The Iranians had less cash at their disposal, and they already at the time used much more asymmetrical tools, including disrupting the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, and setting up footholds elsewhere with militias like Hezbollah, which they helped fund and start in Lebanon in the '80s.

Jon Alterman: There's also, I think, both in Saudi Arabia and Iran, a turn away from cosmopolitanism. I'm sure you saw a lot of that growing up in Beirut, which was talked about as the “Paris of the Middle East,” the crossroads of many different cultures. As you know, I've spent a lot of time in Egypt, and it always seemed to me that the rise of parochialism and the decline of cosmopolitanism was partly linked to a class difference, that the old cosmopolitan elites were pushed aside economically and politically. They were pushed aside culturally as well. Is part of what we're seeing in the Middle East that you've described in this book a consequence of non-cosmopolitan elites coming to power in individual countries and trying to change it, in addition to this sort of Cold War between the Iranians and the Saudis?

Kim Ghattas: So the slow death of cosmopolitanism in the region proceeds 1979, but it is accelerated by the events of 1979. Because of course you had Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt who started nationalizing the economy, expelling foreigners-

Jon Alterman: And large minority communities.

Kim Ghattas: And large minority communities, the Greeks, the Italians, the Jews, et cetera. So that happened before 1979. It happened in Iraq as well, a little bit, although Iraq was on a different trajectory with the Baath party. It began to accelerate a little bit more after the defeat of 1967, during the Six Day War between Arabs and Israel. There was a sense that if nationalism wasn't going to help the Arabs win a war against Israel, perhaps religion could help. Perhaps it was time to have a return to God and more conservative values. And so you started seeing a return to conservative values then, but it was still one of many trends and it still was itself cosmopolitan.

But what 1979 does is really turn the spigot open on funding of conservative movements. Iran by 1979 is exporting a very radical understanding of Shiism that is also puritanical and very conservative, and that in essence is if they weren't Shias they would ... If Khomeini wasn't so opposed to the Saudis, he could have gotten along with them because that's how the Saudis initially saw him, right? They saw this conservative man who spoke their language initially. That's how they first viewed Khomeini. And then they realized that he had designs of his own as leader of the Muslim world. So the transformation in Iran is quite radical from before the Shah to after the Shah. And Saudi Arabia, it's a lot more subtle because Saudi Arabia is already a very conservative country under the Al Sauds. And the Al Sauds themselves have started to erase the cosmopolitanism that existed in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in the Hejaz province on the Red Sea, where you have Mecca and Medina.

Jon Alterman: And Jeddah, of course, is the major port.

Kim Ghattas: And Jeddah, yes, absolutely. And after 1979, they unleashed this torrent of money within their country to empower the religious police even further, and then they start spreading it abroad. But you raise a very good question about the death of cosmopolitanism. It cannot exist under radicalism of the sort that the Iranian regime today wants to impose, or the understanding of Saudi Arabia and literalist Islam. It doesn't allow for diversity, even though people keep pushing against the boundaries, both in Iran and in Saudi Arabia.

Jon Alterman: What do you think the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran want now? I understand that there might have been a revolutionary impulse 40 years ago, the Saudis felt threatened, but as we look now, what do you think these governments are really looking to do?

Kim Ghattas: It's a very interesting question at this point in time, because the leadership in Saudi Arabia is very interesting under Mohammed bin Salman. It's a different approach to foreign policy, to domestic policy. And I think Mohammed bin Salman is a lot more feisty, a lot more militaristic, a lot more gung ho about breaking away from the compromised style ruling that the Al Sauds have had so far. He wants to be a little bit like the Iranians, a little bit like Qasim Suleimani before he was killed.

Jon Alterman: And you have this great quote in your book. “This is what MBS wanted, something the kingdom had never quite managed to attain despite the billions of dollars it had spent over decades to buy friends, something the revolutionary Iran had mastered with strategy and thuggery. He wanted to be respected and feared.”

Kim Ghattas: Yeah, absolutely. That's something that the Iranian regime has been very good at over the last 40 years. You can dislike their policies. You can dislike their worldview. You can criticize them all you want, but they're quite strategic. I'm not saying they’re omnipotent and perfect, but they're quite strategic.

Jon Alterman: What are they trying to do?

Kim Ghattas: I think that for the Iranians, it's about having a sphere of influence in the region that overlaps, where there's sort of Persian nationalism that allows them to stand up to America, the imperial West, and by extension stand up to Saudi Arabia and try to eat away at Saudi Arabia's own sphere of influence. I have to say that they've been quite successful because Iraq ... It's kind of true when Iranian officials say that Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Yemen are very much not under Iranian control, but very much under their sphere of influence. And that's something that was Saudi Arabia's to lose and they lost it.

Jon Alterman: So what do you think Mohammed bin Salman is really trying to do?

Kim Ghattas: He would like to, first of all, avoid full-on war with Iran. I don't think that we need to worry that that is his intention, to go to war with Iran. There could be mistakes, but you saw at the end of last year—when Abqaiq was attacked and then when Qasim Suleimani was killed in January—the Saudis very quietly—behind closed doors, behind the scene—rushed to calm things down because they did not want an all-out conflagration. I don't think they even wanted an all-out war between the U.S. and Iran. So Mohammed bin Salman would like to avoid an all-out war, but he would like to contain Iran as much as possible with help from his friends, and that includes Israel at the moment. He would like to exert his influence and possibly try to regain a better foothold in countries like Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Although that requires strategic thinking and capacity within the ruling circles of Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry that I don't think they quite have yet.

And the other thing that Saudi Arabia wants, I think, is to remain America's friend in opposition to Iran. I mean, I always say that the Saudis kind of need the Iranians to be America's enemies so that Saudi Arabia can remain America's friend forever, but they're going to have a rough time on all these fronts because of the Covid-19 crisis, the drop in oil prices, and the potential of a Democratic president in the White House in November, who's going to be a lot less forgiving about their behavior.

Jon Alterman: What do you think Mohammed bin Salman has learned over the last five years, and what do you think the Iranians have learned over the last five years?

Kim Ghattas: The Iranians have been learning for the last 14 years. I think they, as I said, they play the chess game very, very carefully. I don't want to make them sound all-powerful. They benefit a lot from their opponents’ mistakes, but I think they have learned that they can get away with a lot while the U.S. is retreating from the region. And that retreat started under President Obama.

What I'm saying is that when you want to disengage from the Middle East, you need to make sure that you've checked the whole chess board. And I don't think President Obama did that. I think that he could get to a deal with the Iranians, pocket that, and then see how things would unfold. But he did not take into consideration the rest of the chess board, which was that the Iranian regime was gaining influence in Syria, helping Assad, that the Saudis were freaking out about this nuclear deal, and that therefore they became very belligerent and went to war in Yemen. And the 2013 red line episode showed that the United States was not willing to step in to counter others filling the vacuum, like Russia and like Iran.

Jon Alterman: And what have the Saudis learned from all of this, do you think?

Kim Ghattas: I'm not sure because Mohammed bin Salman has been on the rise since 2015, so that is five years. But he's been on an interesting learning curve. One of the things that he has learned is he's eaten a little bit of humble pie because he felt that he could waltz into Yemen and end this in five seconds. And five years later, we're still at it. And it's a humanitarian disaster that is also a stain on Saudi Arabia's conscience, just the way that Syria should be a stain on Iran or the Iranian regime's conscience. It's not that easy to go to war and have a success.

Jon Alterman: As George W. Bush can tell you from his Iraq experience.

Kim Ghattas: Absolutely, absolutely. And many others. I mean, the Israelis and Hezbollah. And I think the other thing he has learned, or that he came knowing when he came to power, he wanted to make sure that Saudi Arabia would not be fooled again by the smiles of Iranian moderates. His view is very much that during the years of rapprochement during the '90s, for example, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Saudis were fooled by the smiles of Rafsanjani and Khatami and that while they were all nice and talking about diplomacy and signing security agreements, the revolutionary guards were still very busy carrying out this expansionist policy, and the nuclear program of Iran was expanding at the same time.

And Mohammed bin Salman thinks that was a terrible mistake. And he's not going to get caught doing that again, compromising with the Iranians, just because they're smiling at him. That is in a way a smart lesson, but it's also a dangerous one for the region, because it means that you have an uncompromising leadership in Iran and an uncompromising leadership in Saudi Arabia. The good thing is that the Saudis don't want a full-on war, as I said.

Jon Alterman: As a final question, you covered the Clinton State Department closely. You wrote a book on Secretary Clinton. You've thought a lot about U.S. foreign policy. You've done a book about the last 40 years in the Middle East. It's easy when you're following the State Department to think that everything matters and all the decisions are consequential, and there are a lot of small things that go on—

Kim Ghattas: The only thing that matters is the Middle East and Lebanon. That's all that matters. Beirut. It's all about Beirut now.

Jon Alterman: It's all about Beirut. In your book, Black Wave, the United States isn't the driver of many of these trends, and it's often unable to shape or redirect them. Have we given too much credence to the small decisions the U.S. makes or their kinds of decisions where the U.S. has more impacted and certain kinds of decisions that people focus on and talk about, but they end up not being very consequential in the region?

Kim Ghattas: I love to quote Jake Sullivan, who was with Clinton at the State Department and then in the White House with Biden. He told me when I said, "How does American foreign policy get made?" and when I was writing the first book, the Secretary. He said, "Look, it's carried out by and it's thought through and carried out by fallible human beings who are trying to do the best with what they have at hand." And that's not to dismiss the power of the United States and its might and its intelligence and military and everything. But at the end of the day, it is about human beings, and human beings make mistakes and they don't know everything. And we have this impression that in Lebanon and the Middle East and elsewhere, I mean, in India and Pakistan, in Latin America, that if the United States decides something, it shall be.

But even during the golden age, if you will, of America as a almost sole super power during the '90s under Bill Clinton, Madeline Albright wrote about how difficult it was to get their allies to do anything they were telling them to do. So it’s not that easy, and I get that. But the United States has the power to make things happen in a way that is different from China or Russia.

When it comes to my book, Black Wave, and why I don't focus so much on the United States' actions, it's not because they're inconsequential or because the United States is not a driver of the events. It is there at every turn. And sometimes it succeeds at pushing things in one direction or another, and sometimes it fails. But what I wanted to achieve with this book was to show the power that regional players had as well, Saudi Arabia and Iran, in driving the action and in sometimes driving American action and in sometimes playing America. I mean, I think the Saudis play America often, and a lot. And in their own way, so do the Iranians. But it's too easy for everyone in the region and elsewhere to always say, "Oh, it's America's fault." A lot of it is, but Iran and Saudi Arabia should take responsibility for their actions too, because they're not pawns. They are regional, big powerful players. Even Iran under sanctions is a powerful regional player.

Jon Alterman: Kim Ghattas, Thank you very much for joining us.

Kim Ghattas: It's great to be on the show. Thanks so much, Jon.