How a microcosmic conspiracy marks decades of hostility

the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf

Not only do last week’s condemnations of the Iranian regime by the Obama Administration demonstrate a break with the past three years of attempts at reconciliation and – some might say – appeasement. They also cast an illuminating light on Saudi-Iran relations and the relationship between the United States and its repressive Saudi client, while hinting at a somewhat obvious desire on the part of the Administration to shift the emphasis from al-Qaeda to the Islamic Republic of Iran. After ten years, including two wars in which the verminous organisation has met head on with the United States, several successful (as well as foiled) terrorist plots in the West culminated in May with the death of al-Qaeda’s leader and main ideologue, Osama bin Laden. In September, with the 10th anniversary of the atrocities on September 11th 2001, it now seems Iran will once again return to the spotlight. Since the Iranian people’s revolution against the Shah was stolen from them by a fundamentalist clerical class in 1979, the regime has been constantly at heads with the United States.

Nevertheless, the past ten years have seen the Iranian regime (i) deplore the 9/11 attacks, (ii) support and fund the Northern Alliance as part of the West’s attempt to depose the Taliban in Afghanistan, and (iii) be somewhat strengthened by the removal of Saddam Hussein. The final point is perhaps most crucial to understanding the regime’s penchant for terrorist activity, and the ‘Qods Force’ – the unit considered to be responsible for the foiled plot to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington.

The ‘Qods Force’ has been cited as one of Iran’s main inroads into Iraqi internal affairs since the U.S. intervention in 2003. Along with Moqtada al-Sadr’s ‘Mahdi Army’, and other Iraqi Shia militias (the Shia of Iraq making up a vast majority of the population), Iran has tried to extend its sphere of influence, even, in some cases, interfering with Iraqi government policy. Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, however, showed that he was not entirely a pawn of either Iraq’s Shia militias, or the Iranian regime, when he sent troops into Basra in 2008 to flush out these militias, and crack down on sectarian violence.

As with Iraq, it’s also evident that the Iranian regime has been intervening in the internal affairs of another neighbour, Afghanistan. Despite the two anti-Taliban/al-Qaeda policies listed above, as well as their intention in 1999 to invade Afghanistan after the Taliban murdered Iranian diplomats, Wikileaks revealed last year that the Taliban insurgency has been backed by the regime. In some cases they have been accused of hiding senior members of al-Qaeda after the U.S. invasion in 2001. This bridge in extremist Sunni-Shia relations is puzzling, but not entirely impossible. After all, the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad harbours and funds Hamas – a fundamentalist Sunni Palestinian group – in what might be called a relationship of convenience. The Iranians are said, for example, to have permitted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (who would later go on to commit serious atrocities against Iraq’s Shia communities) to cross through their territory from Afghanistan to Iraq, prior to the U.S. invasion. (Yes, there was al-Qaeda in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.)

It should be understood clearly that all of these actions are mandated in the Islamic Republic’s Constitution. It maintains that the Revolutionary Guards will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world”. Other means by which the regime “exports” the Islamic Revolution – while at the same time keeping its people tamed – is by supporting proxy forces in the Levant. Hamas and Hezbollah serve the regime as an armed foreign nexus against the “Zionist entity” (Israel), as well as the “Great Satan” (the United States). In 1983, during the Lebanese Civil War, Hezbollah were arguably responsible for a huge truck bombing in a Beirut barracks, in which almost 300 U.S. and French servicemen were killed.

Attacks of this kind continued throughout the civil war, and extended into 1994, with Iran-Hezbollah’s bombing of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. In 1996, also, Iran was accused of ordering Saudi Hezbollah to blow up the Khobar Towers, in which 19 U.S. servicemen were killed. Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s former “Security” chief (before his death in 2008), is said to have been behind these attacks, and had been in Iran on a regular basis. (He was also present in the Sudan during the mid-90s. Some have argued that al-Qaeda’s 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam resemble Mughniyeh’s bombings so much that it is very likely that he was also involved – marking another possible relationship between the radical jihadi organisation and the Iranian regime).

Nevertheless, the aforementioned obviously illuminates the violent aspects of only one member of the U.S.-Saudi-Iran triangle. The United States’ overwhelming support for the repressive Wahhabi Saudi royal family is rooted in economic and strategic interests – with little or no concern for the general wellbeing of the people living under its jurisdiction. (The decision to topple the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, however, has the potential to undermine Saudi Arabia’s monopoly on the Middle East’s oil exports). The United States’ hostility towards Iran (and vice versa) is rooted in decades of antagonisms, stretching back to 1979, with the IRGC violation of the U.S. Tehran embassy’s immunity, and the taking of diplomats as hostage. It can be argued that the antagonism stretches further to 1953, when the CIA overthrew a democratically elected government led by Mohammed Mossadeq in order to prevent the nationalisation of the country’s energy resources. While these things explain U.S. policy towards the region, Saudi-Iran relations are poisoned by a sectarian element, dating back to the House of Saud’s support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Indeed, in 2011, the Saudi government deployed GCC troops to Bahrain to help its Sunni monarchy crack down on a popular uprising (supported by Iran, largely because Bahrain has a majority Shia population). This triad of violence and hostility could have met head on in Washington. It looks likely to dominate our discourse for the foreseeable future.


Tom McLachlan

Image Credit- NASA Goddard Space Flight Center