Left Think Tank Mystifies Iran-Saudi Tensions

No one should be surprised when The Economist or another controlled opinion source misrepresents tensions in the Persian Gulf as religious rivalry while overlooking decades of U.S. and Israeli success in stoking them for imperial gain.  The so-called mainstream press typically repeats unsubstantiated charges to pretend that Arab client states of Washington buy tens of billions of dollars of advanced weaponry as a response to alleged Iranian fanaticism.  No mention that Iran’s military spending per capita is among the lowest in the region, even though it faces the credible threat of a devastating US or Israeli attack.  We expect such “analysis” from the guardians of Western elites’ perverse campaign to confuse the public about what causes conflicts.

But shouldn’t we expect less ignorance from a think tank that is known for advocating responsible positions on Latin America, race relations, domestic surveillance, and the environment?  At a time when the corporate media are in a race to scapegoat Iran as they did pre-occupation Iraq, shouldn’t a pro-UN, anti-militarist research institute correct false claims that Iran’s foreign policy is guided by sectarian dogma?  Who else is there to highlight the fact that Shi’i Iran has far better relations with Christian-majority nations Brazil, Venezuela, and Nicaragua than with the Republic of Azerbaijan, a close US ally whose population is two-thirds Shi’i?  Doesn’t the brainwashed public deserve to be reminded that Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, which now confronts Tehran for claimed fear of Shi’i zealotry, was even more hostile during the 1960s towards Gamal Abdel Nasser, the popular anti-colonial leader of Sunni-majority Egypt?  Why stop at attributing strained Saudi-Iran relations to religious schism and not claim that tensions between Venezuela and the US are animated by Catholic-Protestant rivalry?!

We should of course expect such questions, and enlightened answers, from an alternative source like Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF), a project of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.  If FPIF seeks to “advance and influence debate and discussion among academics, activists, policymakers, and decisionmakers” as it declares on its website, it should welcome the burden of countering demonization of Iran with truthful analysis at a time when the likelihood of war on Iran is again growing.  But a recent FPIF post delivers instead discredited neoconservative groupthink in an article titled “Iran-Saudi Relations: Rising Tensions and Growing Rivalry.”  (Ironically, consistently reliable insight on Iran is co-authored by former senior National Security Council and CIA official Flynt Leverett and former senior State Department and NSC official Hillary Mann Leverett.  See www.raceforiran.com.)

The FPIF article, authored by Richard Javad Heydarian, makes only scant, passing reference, without condemnation, to the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, on either side of Iran, and no mention of the US military bases and naval forces that circle Iran with full Saudi support.  As is the case with much of the controlled media, the reader of this sanitized article is left with a distinct impression that tensions between Iran and conservative Arab states to its south

  1. take place in a geopolitical vacuum;
  2. are based in Shi’i-Sunni schism; and
  3. are attributable to “Iran’s enmity” towards Saudi Arabia.

Words like strategic resources, global hegemony, superpower, client state, self-determination, and control of energy markets are mentioned nowhere in the text.

Near the end, the author comes close to hinting that the threat the Saudi royals feel is that Iran represents a “counter-discourse” in the region.  But even there he misrepresents what the region’s publics adore about Iran as a Shi’i alternative, not as independence from Western domination.  A RAND Corporation think piece is usually more accurate than that.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are referred to as the “two pillars of regional-power configuration,” (not as revolution and counter-revolution), which could possibly be considered remotely half-valid thinking before the first Gulf War two decades ago.  Today such characterization of the players reveals extreme bias or ignorance.  It overlooks the US forces stationed permanently in the region, equipped with a nuclear arsenal, for the purpose of asserting “America’s vital national interests” with Saudi and Israeli partnership, which makes the world’s most notorious serial invader-bomber literally a hostile neighbor of Iran as much as Saudi Arabia is, to say the least.  Not to mention that the oil-thirsty superpower already overthrew one government in Iran this month in 1953 to prevent national self-determination from spreading in the region.

If it ever seemed permissible not to include the US itself as a pillar in the Gulf “regional-power configuration” because its missiles and warships were stationed faraway at Diego Garcia or in NATO member states, such non-inclusion is certainly deceitful today.  One has to be blind not to see that the First Gulf War and later the “War on Terror” brought US warships, combat troops, advisors, bases, anti-Iranian military aid and terrorist funding, and so on to every corner of the neighborhood except Syria and Gaza.

Evidence of the writer’s poor grasp of the geostrategic David versus Goliath contest in the Gulf begins in his opening line, where he claims that until 2003 “Persian Gulf region — subsumed under a latent Sunni-Shia divide — was animated by a drama of Iraq-Iran rivalry.”  Why avoid taking into account that this rivalry peaked in the early 1970s after Nixon and Kissinger connived with the CIA-installed Shah of Iran to arm Iraq’s Kurdish rebels?  Were the Shah or his Washington masters motivated by Shi’i doctrine?  Across the political spectrum no one has suggested they were, but FPIF’s contributing analyst apparently differs.

What evidence exists for Heydarian’s suggestion that Iranian foreign policy today is based on anti-Sunni dogma when Tehran’s 30-year mantra has been Islamic unity — never Shi’i unity — against foreign domination in the region?  When and where exactly did President Ahmadinejad call “upon the Shia minority [in the Gulf  monarchies] to fight for their rights”?   No facts are cited by Heydarian to support his conviction that Gulf Arab power elites distrust Iran because the latter is aggressively Shi’i or because the former’s Shi’i minorities are gullible.  That is a scenario that the conservative Arab elites have concocted, argues Graham E. Fuller, former vice chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA .  According to Fuller, “Sunni leaders do not actually fear the adherents of Shi’ism per se, but rather the growing power of popular, radical or revolutionary forces craving change, which is now emanating from within the Shi’ite world.”*  So why should FPIF become a vehicle for spreading elite-friendly fiction?  Perhaps its better informed Middle East editor, Stephen Zunes, was on vacation at the time this article was approved for posting.

Virtually every one of Heydarian’s key points implicitly or explicitly repeats vacuous NATO ideology, if not neoconservative hallucination.  His statement that “In the last decade, Iraq, Lebanon, occupied Palestine, Afghanistan, and Yemen have served as a chessboard for Iran-Saudi strategic maneuverings” would be true only if it were rephrased to read, “In the last decade, Iraq, Lebanon, occupied Palestine, Afghanistan, Yemen, AND SAUDI ARABIA have served as a chessboard for Washington’s power projection and Iranian resistance.”

Similarly, it would be much closer to reality to say, “President Ahmadinejad’s and Lebanese resistance leader Nasrallah’s popularity among Sunni majorities scare the US-propped dynasty of Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf countries,” than to assert, as Heydarian does, that “worries over Iran’s growing regional influence and burgeoning nuclear program are beginning to accentuate the deepening fissures in Saudi-Iran relations.”

It is also misleading to simply report that the Saudi royals consider themselves as “the guardians of Arab and Sunni interests in the Persian Gulf region” as if no further discussion is warranted, when they actually protect the Western and local opponents of independence.  Any undergraduate student of Middle East history learns that the House of Saud, acting on behalf of the non-Sunni and non-Arab US, ferociously undermined the Arab and Sunni interests of Egypt and Syria after their respective puppet regimes were overthrown by nationalists.  In fact, confusing the reader by framing the argument about Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, etc., as if each were a unitary entity whose Sunni population agreed with its US-backed leadership is an overriding flaw that renders the article as a whole useless.

Recent polling in US-dominated Arab countries shows how the Sunni masses increasingly favor Iran more than they trust their own national leaders.  Consider for example that, “In six Arab countries where the ruling authorities have devoted a lot of effort in recent years telling their people that the Islamic Republic aspires to regional hegemony, is seeking nuclear weapons, and that this would be a bad outcome for Arab interests — local Arab populations are not buying the argument.”

There is no credible evidence for Heydarian’s claim that “As host to large disgruntled Shia minorities that could be potentially mobilized by Iran’s revolution, the Arab monarchies feared for their regimes’ survival” after the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 (emphasis added).  One could argue with more validity that the Saudis and smaller Gulf clients of Washington trembled to their core when the Shah fled because they saw how a NATO-level arsenal and thousands of military and security advisors from the US could not save the self-assured monarch from a spontaneous, unarmed uprising by average citizens.

The Iranian revolution shook them because they realized they could well suffer the same fate if their Sunni as well as Shi’i subjects were inspired by the Iranian example, not because of “Iran’s enmity,” as Heydarian suggests.  He acknowledges that the Gulf’s conservative Arab elites helped fund Saddam’s vicious eight-year war on Iran (fortunately, the author’s casualty figures are exaggerated), but he refuses to see that they did so to prevent Iran from serving as a successful model for revolution from below — not for fear of Shi’i insurgency.  (Analysts who claim Saudi hostility to Nasser’s Pan-Arab nationalism was due to his Soviet sponsorship cannot explain why a Revolution in Iran that no outside power supported also faced Saudi animosity, unless the overriding anti-colonial character of Egyptian and Iranian cases and the utter dependence of Saudi ruling family on US protection are recognized as the key constants.)

The sad truth is that the Gulf’s US-propped dynasties did not — and, with the possible exception of Qatar and Bahrain, still do not — feel wanted by most of their own subjects, Shi’i or Sunni.  What the royals fear most is not Iran’s Shi’ism, but how wildly popular Iran’s championship of the cause of Sunni majority Palestine is among their citizenry, who deplore the ineffectiveness of Western-backed Sunni Arab elites against Isreali and Western terror and plunder.  To pretend otherwise is like believing that Columbia’s corrupt, US-sponsored oligarchs loath socialist Hugo Chavez because the Venezuelan is helping spread Shi’ism in Latin America!  But given that Heydarian hails the 1991 restoration of an unreformed US-dependent elite as “liberation of Kuwait,” one can not expect him to stray from the prevailing fiction among about Iran-Saudi tensions.

Failing to note the real Saudi fear that a US-Iran rapprochement would reduce the royal family’s utility for Washington, Heydarian goes on instead to claim, “Iran’s meteoric rise in the last decade has reinforced Arab fears of a ‘Pax Persiana’ in the region.”  He nearly acknowledges Iran’s own more realistic concern about hostile foreign forces that the Gulf  monarchies host but quickly returns to form with this justification for US and Saudi animosity towards Tehran after the fall of Saddam: “Iran’s grand designs were now manifesting themselves in clearer terms . . . gradually establishing its foothold in the Levant region.”  No such loaded language for the Israeli devastation of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 or the massive and destabilizing US aggression in the region.  Instead, he falsely accuses President Ahmadinejad of “calling upon the Shia minority [in the Gulf  monarchies] to fight for their rights.”

On its website, FPIF denies responsibility for the opinions of its contributors, but it also specifies that it “aims to amplify the voice of progressives.”  If that is the mission, the article I deconstructed above represents a terrible FPIF failure at a time when “all options are on the table” to reduce Iran to rubble and responsible analyses of the country’s foreign policy and defense doctrine are rare.


*  Elaborating on this point, Fuller continues, “The real regional fault line is thus not along a Sunni-Shi’a axis.  Instead, we witness entrenched, threatened authoritarian rulers supported by the United States who are opposed by domestic populations that seek to dislodge these rulers, end the U.S. and Israeli occupations of Muslim lands, and resist overall U.S. policies.  Sunni public opinion is galvanized at the prospect of changing the hated status quo through Hizballah’s and Iran’s unyielding posture towards Washington.”

Rostam Pourzal is a Washington, DC-based political analyst.

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