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Iran and Saudi Arabia:   Rivalry before the Gulf Wars

The 1953 Iranian coup d'etat overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. (According to Wikipedia, in August 2013 the CIA "would admit that it was in charge of both the planning and the execution of the coup, including the bribing of Iranian politicians, security and army high-ranking officials, as well as pro-coup propaganda." According to the CIA it was "an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government".

The coup put in power the Shah, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, an absolutist monarch. Four years later there was the Iranian Revolution broadly supported by the Iranians. In December 1979, The Revolution's hero, the Ayatollah Khomeini, became Iran's "Supreme Leader." He created a theocracy. He spoke of monarchies as illegitimate and an un-Islamic form of government, and had spoken of toppling not only the Pahlavi monarchy but also the ruling family in Saudi Arabia. Khomeini was Shia, as were most Iranians. The ruling Saud family was Sunni, and they didn't want Khomeini's revolution to spread. Nevertheless, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia sent Khomeini a congratulatory message, stating that "Islamic solidarity" could be the basis for closer relations of two countries and that there were no obstacles that inhibited the cooperation between their two countries.

In November 1979, an attempt had begun to take over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's most holy place, in the care of the Saudis. A man named Juhayman (age 33) whose family was of Bedouin and of Wahhabi heritage, believed that the Saud family had become corrupted by Western influences. Juhayman had built a movement dedicated to establishing rule in Mecca that was true to Islam. On 21 November, Juhayman and his co-conspirators, "hundreds" in number, gathered among the more than 100,000 pilgrims from around the world. Juhayman's men closed all gates to the mosque, fired their weapons into the air and announced what they were doing. The pilgrims were now prisoners. One by one, with weapons in hand, the conspirators knelt down and offered an oath. Some pilgrims joined in. In a broadcast over Iranian radio, the Ayatollah Khomeini accused the US and Israel of orchestrating the "horrors" in Mecca.

Youths belonging to the Shia community in Saudi Arabia's eastern oil-producing region, along the Persian Gulf were moved by events in Mecca and staged a rebellion. The Saudi government blacked out all news of the uprising. Blood flowed as the Saudi National Guard used armored personnel carriers, machine guns, helicopter gunships and artillery against the uprising. The rioting youths were dispersed and in shock as an older generation of Shia leaders in the area successfully sued for peace.

By December 5, with the help of France's military, the Saudis ended the takeover of the Grand Mosque. The House of Saud responded to recent events by investing millions of dollars toward more security for the Grand Mosque and by cracking down on dissent and rolling back social reforms within the country. Women news readers without head-scarves disappeared from television. In response to the accusations that it was insufficiently pious, the royal family was reported as having resolved to become the unequivocal leader in Islamic thought.

Saudi Arabia became a supporter of the "Islamisation" programme by the military ruler General Zia in Pakistan that included the creation of schools — madrassas — devoted to Wahhabist Islam, where many Taliban would be educated. In Pakistan along with the Qurans distributed free of charge were doctrinal texts that followed the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

It was in late December 1979 that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia aided resistance to that invasion, alongside help from the Carter administration. One of those from Saudi Arabia who goes to Afghanistan to help the Muslim guerrilla forces in their "holy war" against the Soviet Union is Osama bin Laden. He would remain there through much of the 1980s, using construction equipment from his family's business to help build shelters, tunnels and roads through the rugged Afghan mountains, and at times he participated in battle.

War between Saddam's Iraq and Khomeini's Iran

Coinciding with all this was Saddam Hussein of Iraq making war against the Iranians — the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein was playing the anti-Communist West against the Soviet Union. He was buying weapons from the Soviet Union, while the West was hoping to lure him away from the Soviet Union and was also selling him weapons. Like the Saudis, Saddam found Khomeini's revolution a threat, ruling as Saddam was over many Shia Muslims and fearing d Iran's influence in Iraq. Saddam went to several Middle East nations that had Sunni heads-of-state, including Saudi Arabia, to gain approval for an invasion of Iran. Saddam had the support of many, including the US which was willing to give him weaponry — while claiming neutrality. Saudi Arabia also claimed neutrality. Meanwhile, Iran had only Qaddafi's Libya and Assad's Syria as friends.

On 22 September Saddam launched his land and air invasion into Iran, claiming that Iran had been shelling Iraqi towns. He said he would be in Teheran (Iran's capital) in three days.

US foreign policy strategists did not want Iran to gain control over Iraq's oil fields. The US removed Iraq's name from its list of nations supporting terrorism and it sent more arms to Iraq, including strains of anthrax for chemical weaponry. France supplied Iraq with more high-tech weaponry. In June 1981, Israel's air force destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor under construction 17 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring a nuclear bomb capability. The attack was denounced around the world, including in the United States. The Reagan administration (in power since January) was divided in approval of the strike and settled for denouncing it with others in the United Nations.

Roger Hardy of the BBC describes Iran's Khomeini as having "sent thousands of young Iranians to their death in human-wave' attacks." Saddam used chemical weapons against the Iranians, and both sides "pounded their adversary's civilian population from the air." Between half a million and 1.5 million people died in the war.

With Iranian successes on the battlefield, the United States increased its support of the Iraqi government, supplying intelligence, economic aid, and dual-use equipment and vehicles. President Ronald Reagan decided that the United States "could not afford to allow Iraq to lose the war to Iran", and that the United States "would do whatever was necessary to prevent Iraq from losing". In 1982, Reagan removed Iraq from the list of countries "supporting terrorism" and sold weapons such as howitzers to Iraq via Jordan and Israel. France sold Iraq millions of dollars worth of weapons, including Gazelle helicopters, Mirage F-1 fighters, and Exocet missiles. Both the United States and West Germany sold Iraq dual-use pesticides and poisons that would be used to create chemical and other weapons, such as Roland missiles.

Patriotic Iranians looked upon Saudi Arabia with bitterness as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf states were providing Iraq with funds to pursue his war, an average of $60 billion per year. The Iranian government told its citizens that they were involved in a glorious jihad that was testing Iran's national character, and most Iranians apparently responded with an intense patriotism. Iran's government used the war to consolidate the Islamic revolution's and dislike for the US and the Saudi monarchy. Reports exist of thousands of dissident Iranians having been shot or hanged by the government and anti-war demonstrations crushed.

During the war, Iran flew their aircraft into Saudi airspace and it threatened Saudi Arabia and Kuwait with severe consequences if they would not stop supporting Iraq. On May 7, 1984, Iranian warplanes targeted an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia responded with air defensive measurements to intercept Iranian warplanes. On June 5, four Iranian F-4 warplanes penetrated Saudi airspace to bomb oil facilities. Saudi F-15 eagles intercepted the Iranian warplanes, and shot down two F-4s, hit the third, while the fourth jet managed to strike a water tank in Al-Dammam city.

Saudi Arabia and Iran maintained diplomatic relations, but their strained relationship deteriorated further when Iranian-led demonstrators and Saudi security forces clashed in Mecca and 400 pilgrims to the Grand Mosque died. Protesters in Tehran ransacked the Saudi embassy and attacked Saudi diplomats. In response, Saudi Arabia cut its diplomatic relations with Iran and ensured that no Iranian could obtain a Saudi travel visa for performing a pilgrimage to the Grand Mosque.

It was in August 1988 that Iran accepted a UN-brokered ceasefire. (The war had dragged on while Iran insisted that Iraq admit that it had started the war.)


View this subject in a PBS Frontline documentary titled "Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia."


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