Saudi-Iranian Relations 1932-1982.
As Saudi scholar Saeed M. Badeeb points out in the introduction to this book, history and geopolitics have repeatedly shown the importance of Saudi Arabia and Iran to the West. The economic, military and political importance of these two Gulf countries to U.S. strategic interests has long been accepted by American pundits and foreign-policy experts. Over the past 20 years, however, the Iranian revolution and two major conflicts in the Gulf have brought home to the American public the volatility of this oil-rich area and the difficulties that U.S. leaders face in devising an effective policy to establish and sustain a satisfactory degree of stability throughout this region.
With the rise to power after 1958 of a series of anti-Western regimes in Iraq and the 1968 British decision to relinquish its century-old security role in the Gulf, U.S. foreign-policy planners looked first to Iran and Saudi Arabia to preserve Western interests in the Gulf region. However, the Nixon administration's "two pillars" policy of relying on Iran and, secondarily, on Saudi Arabia to maintain regional security against Soviet and radical Arab inroads collapsed in 1979 with the fall of the shah. Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait brought an end to any hopes in Washington and Riyadh that Saddam Hussein might become an acceptable partner in countering revolutionary Iran's efforts to export its anti-U.S, and anti-monarchial ideology across the Gulf. The two-pillars policy therefore was succeeded in the 1990s by the Clinton administration's strategy of "dual containment" of both Iraq and Iran, an approach that has had at best limited success in achieving U.S. goals for peace and security in the Gulf.
Following the election last year of the relatively moderate cleric Mohammed Khatami as Iran's president, there has come a new if still very cautious willingness in Washington and in the Gulf to explore whether Iran can once again play a positive role, together with Saudi Arabia and its smaller partners, in the search for regional stability. Key to the success of any such exploration will be the evolution of Iran's attitude toward the United States and its strategic and economic interests in the Gulf. Another key factor, however, must be further improvement in Saudi-Iranian relations, long strained by the Khomeini regime's antipathy toward the Saudi royal family and its collaboration with the United States in regional affairs. Understanding the respective political interests and priorities of these two Gulf states and their attitudes toward each other is therefore important for American policy makers who wish to comprehend intra-regional political dynamics.
The objective of Mr. Badeeb's slim volume is to examine Saudi-Iranian relations in their historical, political, foreign-policy, religious, economic and military contexts. Despite the title of this book, his historical narrative really begins in 1925, when the Saudi conquest of the Hijaz brought the Islamic holy places in Mecca and Medina under Wahhabi control. The first formal contacts between the countries began when the Iranian government of Reza Pahlavi unsuccessfully sought to mediate between Ibn Saud and King Ali, the sharifian ruler of the Hijaz. After the Saudi conquest, Persian diplomatic delegations visited the holy places at Ibn Saud's invitation to assure themselves that the Wahhabis had not damaged the most sacred sites in Islam. The signature in 1929 of a Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty paved the way to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations.
Over the next five decades, however, the relationship waxed and waned as differences over religious practices, especially during the hajj, and Iranian territorial ambitions led to occasional frictions. In 1943, Saudi execution of an Iranian pilgrim who allegedly desecrated the Kaabah during the pilgrimage led to a break in relations while Reza Shah's 1925 seizure of Arabic-speaking Khuzistan and Iran's claims to Bahrain and to various smaller Gulf islands aroused Saudi concerns about Iranian expansionism. Other differences arose over Iran's refusal to cooperate with the Arab boycott by blocking oil shipments to Israel or to participate in the 1973 Arab oil embargo against the United States. There were also serious disputes over oil-production policy within OPEC, with the shah seeking for a more gradual escalation of prices and production levels less likely to harm the interests of oil consumers or drive them toward conservation and alternative energy sources.
At the same time, there were important areas of Saudi-Iranian cooperation, especially as both countries sought to halt the spread of revolutionary nationalist and Soviet influence in the region. Proposals in 1957 for a joint military pact came to nought (in part, Badeeb says, because of British fears it would be aimed against their interests in the Gulf) but the two countries separately backed anti-Egyptian royalist forces in the Yemen civil war and shared anticommunist intelligence in a French-instigated group code-named the "Safari Club." The shah of Iran supported King Faisal's efforts to promote Islamic solidarity and participated in the establishment of multinational Islamic institutions like the Organization of the Islamic World Congress, the Muslim World League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Conclusion of a Median Line Agreement in the Gulf in 1968 and the shah's acceptance of a U.N.-supervised solution to the Bahrain dispute removed some problems even as the Iranian seizure in 1971 of Abu Musa and the Tunbs and the shah's heavy expenditures on armaments kept alive Saudi suspicions of Iranian intentions in the Gulf. In Badeeb's view, the 1970s were "the decade of mutual understanding" during which "the [two] countries learned to cooperate in certain specified areas without letting their disagreements and rivalry disrupt the wider relationship" (p. 62).
Saudi-Iranian relations deteriorated sharply after 1979, when the Iranian revolution brought to power a regime dominated by Shiite clerics hostile to the West and to Islamic regimes seen as "corrupt." The Iran-Iraq War, in which Saudi Arabia and its smaller Arab Gulf neighbors supported Iraq, put still further strains on the relationship, as did attempts by Iranian pilgrims to mount political demonstrations during the hajj and to smuggle drugs into Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, for reasons not explained, Mr. Badeeb's survey of Saudi-Iranian relations ends with the year 1982, although his research was not completed until 1991. His conclusion that Saudi-Iranian relations at that point had "stabilized" therefore seems quite premature. Those relations continued to worsen throughout the 1980s, especially during the 1987-88 "tanker war," when Iranian air and naval forces attacked shipping bound for Saudi and Kuwaiti ports in the Gulf and, in Mecca, Iranian pilgrims clashed with Saudi security forces, leaving hundreds killed. In one notable incident, a Saudi interceptor shot down an Iranian fighter aircraft that intruded into
Saudi airspace. Only since late 1997 have the two countries begun to move cautiously toward a new modus vivendi with the participation by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in an Islamic summit conference in Tehran, the signing last May of agreements for bilateral cooperation in commercial, cultural and technical matters, and visits by President Khatami and former President Rafsanjani to the kingdom.
The scope of Mr. Badeeb's book is therefore limited primarily to relations during the period of the Iranian monarchy and offers relatively few insights into the current dynamics of this relationship. Another problem with this book is the organization by topics, beginning with "historical background" and going on to chapters on political systems, foreign policy, religion, economics and the military. The author uses this organization to examine and compare developments in the two countries. This analysis tends to be superficial and more often than not reflects the author's pro-Saudi bias rather than a carefully balanced weighing of the strengths and weaknesses of both states and of their political/economic/religious systems. For example, the author cites statements by Saudi leaders that in supporting Iraq against Iran in the early 1980s, their purpose was never to harm Iran or its people; however, he does not try to explain why Iranians might find such assertions disingenuous.
There are also some errors and inconsistencies. Among the notes on page 150, there is the erroneous statement (note 18) that from the mid-eighteenth century, Mecca and Medina had been under Saudi-Wahhabi control, when in fact the initial Wahhabi occupation of the Hijaz lasted only from 1803 (not from 1765, as stated on page 75) to 1814. Note 28 is confusing when it states that a 1988 decision by the Islamic foreign ministers to limit to 10 percent the total population of each Muslim country allowed to make the annual hajj means that only 45,000 of Iran's estimated 45 million population could be pilgrims. While 4.5 million Iranian hajjis would clearly be impracticable, some formula other than 10 percent of total population was used to establish the permissible number.
Despite its limitations, this book does provide some interesting historical tidbits on such subjects as the slave trade in the Gulf in the 1920s (p. 103) and early Saudi-Iranian political contacts (p. 47ff). It could therefore serve as a brief introduction to the subject for readers with limited time or background understanding of the Gulf region. While it is helpful in providing a Saudi perspective on the subject, American students of the evolving political-military situation in the Gulf will need to look to other sources for a more up-to-date and thorough analysis of the Saudi-Iranian relationship.
U.S. Foreign Service officer (ret); consul general, Dhahran, 1987-89
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|Publication:||Middle East Policy|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1999|
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