I looked at those three events in 1979 because they changed the geopolitical, culture and social trajectory of the region. What happened in 1979 was the Iranian revolution, the siege of the Holy Mosque in Mecca and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These three events are, on the face of it, not connected but they become completely intertwined over the course of time because they did three things: They turned Saudi Arabia and Iran from friendly competitors, twin pillars of US policy in the region, to mortal enemies and in doing that, it launched a competition for regional, cultural and religious supremacy between these two countries, one Sunni and one Shia. Being Sunni or Shia had never been a problem before but it became part of the tools they are using in their battles for supremacy. That had implications over the course of 40 years. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brings the gun into this battle. The region begins a new trajectory which is not apparent initially but the impact of which becomes clear as time goes on and as we look back today at the last 40 years.
You draw a parallel between the events that marked the region and the journey of 15 different people during the same period. How did their experiences help your analysis?
The other thing I found interesting was how little Iranians and Saudis know of each other and about each other. Partly because of the language barrier, partly because they are two big countries that are not necessarily turned towards each other when it comes to people. They are however conscious to a certain extent when it comes to their leadership because they are obviously engaged in that battle. But what really struck me is that the people had some of the same questions. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, they’re also asking themselves ‘What happened to us’. It is also the question with which I open the book. But more than anyone in the region, both young Iranians and Saudis are asking their parents ‘How could you let this happen?’ That is the impact of 1979 where you had the rise of the Islamic theocracy in Iran and the sudden increase in conservative values and the power of the more puritanical religious establishment in Saudi Arabia.
How did the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran fuel Sunni-Shia tensions?
When Khomeini came (to power) and turned out to be as religious, if not more, as the Saudis, their reaction was to give their support to the revolution. Then, they quickly realized that he had designs beyond just Iran: he had his eyes on Mecca and Medina particularly. They realized he was challenging them as leaders of the Muslim world and as the custodians of the two Holy sites in Islam. We can dismiss the Saudis as a bit paranoid, or overly anxious about everything, but it’s true that Khomeini had his eyes on these cities and he wanted to expand his reach beyond Iran and the Shia community. This is why he used the Palestinian cause as a way to appeal to people in the Sunni world as well. The Saudis decided to try to reduce Khomeini to "nothing but a Shia from Iran" and push back against Shiism with tools that were at their disposal. In Saudi Arabia and within what is described by some as Wahhabism, you have the anti-Shia lexicon. So, they started promoting anti-Shia writings, some really horrific vitriolic books that were published in 1979-1980 -- promoted by Abdelaziz ben Baz who would later become the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia -- and distributed in Pakistan where the Jihadists were fighting the Soviets. That peltry dish then explodes everywhere. It becomes a cultural and violent trend, which led all the way later in 2003 to the explosion of sectarian violence in Iraq and to the lynching of a Shia in Egypt in 2015. We forget that Sunnis and Shias, even in the region, have not always killed each other. Yes, the divide is there, yes there are differences, but the violence that we see today is not the norm.
The violence in the Middle East was not about Sunni and Shia, as seen in the civil war in Lebanon. So, it’s important to understand how it happened, how and why it began, particularly because the first incident of real state-sponsored sectarian violence by a militia in modern times happened in Pakistan, in 1986 under President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. That’s when the normalization of Sunni-Shia killings began.
To what extent are there strong divisions within the Sunni (Turkey/ Saudi Arabia) and Shiite (Iraq/Iran) poles? Can they reduce tensions between them?
Neither bloc is homogeneous, nor purely Sunni or purely Shia. The Turks and the Saudis have a long-standing rivalry when it comes to leadership of the Muslim world. Obviously, the Saudis are the leaders of the Muslim world in the sense that they are custodians of the two Holy sites. The Turks certainly under (President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan with neo-Ottoman visions of grandeur would have wanted to lead more and set an example. Also, there’s a history there between the Ottoman Empire and the Al-Sauds: in the 1800s, the forefathers of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) were put to death in Constantinople. They were decried as not quite heretics but as being outside the fray of mainstream Islam at the time because of their ultra-orthodox, puritanical, literalist version of Islam which today we refer to as Wahhabism.
Also the Saudi-led Sunni bloc is not necessarily divided but not everybody is in synch with Saudi Arabia because the Saudis are actually not very good at forming coalitions and keeping allies in line. They cannot snap their fingers and make Egyptians or Pakistanis show up, no amount of money is going to make that happen anymore. Similarly, on the Iranian side, they have their network of proxy militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. But they don’t run a coalition of States. Their only ally is Syria but it has almost become a vassal state. Obviously, they’re in competition with Turkey and Russia in this sphere.
Does any of this help bring détente? No, not anymore, because the détente and the rapprochement of the 1990s was set about by a very specific set of circumstances, after the Iraq-Iran war when Iran was exhausted and bankrupt, or in deep need of financial assistance. Tehran realized the pragmatic thing was to open up to the world. Saddam Hussein helped them greatly by invading Kuwait. The Saudis suddenly feared Saddam more than they feared Iran, and you had leadership in both countries that saw the benefit of a rapprochement with (Saudi) King Abdallah still Crown Prince at the time, and Hachemi Rafsandjani and then Mohammad Khatami. Today, you don’t have that configuration of leaders who I think could make that happen. So, it is up to us, the people, to find our own little islands of peace here and there and see whether we can join them up. I know it sounds idealistic, but you can never give up.
How did Iran and Saudi Arabia try to block the Arab Spring? How did their rivalry impact these uprisings?
I am not sure I want to go as far as saying that the Arab uprisings have so far been unsuccessful because of the Saudi-Iran rivalry but I think it played a huge role. If you look at Egypt, when the Saudis watched what was happening there and saw an American ally, Hosni Mubarak, challenged in his hold on power and abandoned almost overnight by the Americans; they had flashbacks to 1979 with millions of Iranians in the streets and the Shah, an American ally, abandoned overnight by the US…What did they get? Khomeini came back to Iran. The Saudis did everything they could to prevent the repeat of the 1979 Iranian scenario. That’s how you get Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. So, with the Emiratis, they did everything they could to undermine President Mohamed Morsi and support the army and its coup against him. Morsi (Egypt's first democratically elected president in 2012) made himself no favors. I’m not defending his power grab, his changes to the constitution…but he was also undermined at every turn. That set the Arab uprisings on a different trajectory.
Similarly, and one of the reasons I think the Saudis freaked out, it is because the Iranians were watching the Egyptian uprising and thought it was their chance – Khamenei did declare this an Islamic awakening. The irony of ironies is that Hosni Mubarak fell on February 11, which is the anniversary of the Iranian revolution.
In Syria, the Saudi-Iran rivalry played out directly and indirectly, where the Iranians thought it was an opportunity for them. We know now that (Iran's Quds Force commander) Qassem Soleimani was already involved very early on in 2011 to help (Syrian President) Bachar Assad. The Saudis were calling early on to arm the rebels, because they saw Assad as part of the Iran camp.
I describe ISIS as the rebel child, the progeny, of Saudi Arabia indirectly. You have this competition in Syria between ISIS and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Raqqa. For the last few decades, Raqqa was part of Iran’s sphere of influence in the region where you have two tombs of Saints that are mostly claimed by Shias but also visited by Sunnis. These two tombs were turned into huge mausoleums, where Shia clerics would speak, members of Hezbollah would go, pilgrims from Iran would come…Then ISIS takes over and they blow them up. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia exploded in a place like Raqqa. Obviously, ISIS is not directed by Saudi Arabia, but it is a byproduct of years of Saudi policy.
You have referred to the disenchantment of the new generations with regard to their ancestors, believing that they have not sufficiently opposed the authoritarian regimes. What does that say about the mood of young people across the region?
The younger generation, the 20s and 30s, wants a different future. They don’t want to be hostages to 1979, to sectarian politics, corruption, mismanagement and so on. They maybe don’t have an exact awareness of what 1979 has meant and why it is connected to it. When you look at the opinion polls, the young generation is less and less interested in religion, they think it has too much of an impact with sectarian identities. They want to forge a different path forward and they’re trying very hard to do that in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Algeria, in Sudan… Can we forge a future that is different? You have to keep hoping. Does it undo the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia? No. Those are two separate things. I don’t think it changes the fact that the rivalry will go on until something changes in the makeup in either country. MBS is there for 50 years and the leadership of the country is there to stay. If it’s not MBS, it’ll be someone else. The change will have to come from within Iran. I’m not calling for regime change but there might be pressure for change from the people. The regime could also realize it needs to shift, tweak, adapt, otherwise it risks losing everything. Mostly, I think the only thing that could defuse the Saudi angst about Iran is if Iran curbs its regional power play. But I don’t see that happening at the moment.
(This interview was originally pubished in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 9th of March)
Your book revolves around the year 1979 and three key events in the Middle East: the Iranian Revolution, the siege of Mecca and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Why these events are providing key insights to understand developments in the region 40 years later?
I looked at those three events in 1979 because they changed the geopolitical, culture and social trajectory of the region....