Four years ago, I read Kim Ghattas’ account of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom. The book was personal, clear, concise and analytical. Her latest book, BLACK WAVE: SAUDI ARABIA, IRAN, AND THE FORTY-YEAR RIVALRY THAT UNRAVELED CULTURE, RELIGION, AND COLLECTIVE MEMORY piqued my interest in light of recent events. Iran’s attack on Saudi oil fields, the proxy war in Yemen between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s machinations dealing with shipping in the Persian Gulf, and President Trump’s recent order resulting in the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the head of its Quds force makes the book extremely timely, but also very important as we seek to understand events in the most explosive region in the world trying to discern how the competition between the world’s leading Sunni and Shi’a countries will unfold.
Ghattas’ task is a difficult one, but she has met the challenge by presenting the relevant facts, personalities, theological ideologies, and major power interests in the area. She is able to break down the apparent and hidden complexities involved in the Saudi-Iran relationship and provides numerous insights.
In 2001, David W. Lesch wrote a short volume, 1979: THE YEAR THAT SHAPED THE MIDDLE EAST arguing that events that year; the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran; the seizure of American hostages; the occupation of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by radical students and Islamists; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all created a watershed for the Middle East and the world balance of power. Ghattas builds upon Lesch’s hypothesis and argues that 1979 began a process that transformed societies and altered cultural and religious currents in the region fostering an evolution that bears little resemblance to what existed before. For Ghattas, the year 1979 and the forty years that followed witnessed “the Saudi-Iran rivalry that went beyond geopolitics, descending into an ever-greater competition for Islamic legitimacy through religious and cultural domination, changing societies from within – not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but throughout the region.” The influence of this rivalry spread to Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan and unleashed sectarian identities and killings that had never defined these countries in the past.
Ghattas’ approach is to present her material in a clear and concise manner that is easily understood by the laymen as well as scholars. She begins in 1974 focusing on events in Iran under the Shah and the plight of the Palestinians and the emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini and his vision for an Islamic state. She explains the developing opposition to the Shah and the revolution that seemed to begin in 1977 with the death of Ali Shariati, a leftist Muslim revolutionary. The blame for the death fell on SAVAK, the Shah’s internal security service exacerbating the public outcry. In exile in Paris, Khomeini prepared cassette tapes of his ideas and promises which were smuggled into Iran provided a vehicle to chip away at the Shah’s popularity and reach the masses to foster revolution.
(The Shah of Iran, Rheza Pahlavi)
Once Khomeini replaced the Shah, Ghattas details how his movement consolidated power; founded the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corporation; dealt with foreign movements like the Moslem Brotherhood, the creation of Hezbollah or “Party of Guard;” Khomeini’s uncompromising approach to government and gaining the approval of the Iranian people; and of course the many important personalities involved. In creating the Islamic Republic, a tightly organized authoritarian regime, more repressive and murderous than the Shah’s emerges. Mass shootings resulted, students and clerics disappeared, newspapers shut down, and emissaries were sent throughout the Middle East to foster a regional movement led by the Shi’a.
Ghattas does a wonderful job unearthing information that was not generally known before as well as refocus on concepts and arguments that now appear acceptable with hindsight. First, the role of Yasir Arafat and how he developed a relationship with Khomeini from the outset hoping to gain support for his war against Israel. Khomeini would use Arafat for his own ends and never really earned the support he craved as only weapons and training were provided. Another example involves Saddam Hussein who wanted to kill Khomeini but would not act without agreement of the Shah. The Shah would refuse, and one could only imagine how history would have unfolded had he agreed. Ghattas also argues that though Khomeini did not order the seizure of the American Embassy in Teheran, feeling pressure from nationalists, Marxist students, and others who hated the United States dating to the assassination of Mohamad Mosaddeq in 1953 he would manipulate the situation for his benefit by publicizing his radical credentials.
(Seizure of American hostages at US Embassy in Iran, 1979)
Ghattas employs a number of individuals to create her narrative about important events. The seizure and occupation of the Holy Mosque in Mecca is told through the eyes of Sami Angawi, an architect and lover of history who describes the changes in Saudi Arabia after the 1973 Oil embargo and the massive wealth that flowed to the Saudi royal family. The zealots who took the mosque wanted the country to cut ties to the west, expel all foreigners, redistribute the oil wealth to the poor, and remove the House of Saud and their clerics who failed to uphold the purity of Islam. For the Saudi royal family this reflected weakness and they needed to counter the move to place the holy sites in Medina and Mecca under the trusteeship of the Moslem world.
The author does a nice job comparing the cultural changes in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was a case of arrested development, in Iran it felt like whiplash as a violent and dramatic undoing of decades of social, political, and cultural advancement that took place under the Shah was gutted. Khomeini created a cultural revolution accompanied by a reign of terror. Ghattas correctly points out that “these revolutions were amplified by the bitter rivalry that emerged that same year between two countries that had once been allies, a rivalry born out of Khomeini’s desire to upstage the Saudis as the leaders of the Moslem world.
All the events of 1979 seemed to be linked. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 the Saudi government fresh from the embarrassment of the Holy Mosque seizure, its recapture and its high death toll saw an opportunity to recoup its lost image by supporting and championing a move against “godless communists,” in addition it provided a vehicle to send radicals outside the country to fight against the infidels.
Ghattas describes the relationship between Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian strongman and Khomeini which portends a great deal for the future destruction of Syria that we are witnessing today. In 1982 when Assad crushed the Moslem Brotherhood and killed over 15,000 people in Hama, Khomeini just stood by. Though Khomeini was an Islamist, he was also a pragmatist and with Assad, an Alawite (a sect of Islam that made up about 15% of the Syrian population) an alliance with Shi’a Iran was formed that continues to this day.
Saddam Hussein witnessed the instability in Iran and began to expel Iraqi Shi’a, placed clerics under house arrest, brutalized the Kurds, leftists, and anyone who opposed his regime. After Saddam executed Ayatollah Mohammad Bager al-Sadr, the “Iraqi Khomeini,” Khomeini called for Saddam’s overthrow. On September 22, 1980, Saddam declared war on Iran as the Iraqi military deemed Iran weak, isolated and unable to defend itself. Saddam believed he could win a quick war cutting Khomeini’s ambitions down to size. As we know the war would continue for most of the decade causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.
(Soviet Mig-17s at airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan after the invasion)
Events in Egypt also would come to a head in 1979 as President Anwar Sadat took the gamble of recognizing Israel and agreeing to the Camp David Accords as a means of gaining US aid with his economy disintegrating and the poor ready to take to the streets. Ghattas describes her narrative through Nageh Ibrahim, a medieval studies student who helped create Gama ‘a, a radical Moslem organization that was gaining strength believed that Sadat’s negotiations went too far, particularly as it left out the Palestinians. By 1981 opposition to Sadat had increased especially with the purge of 3000 Islamists, leftists, and socialists including journalists, feminists and others. Sadat had managed to unite disparate groups to assassinate him. The killing was carried out by Gama’a who believed conservative Egyptian society was ready for a revolution. It was not as the military under Hosni Mubarak would retain power. Interestingly Ghattas argues the killing of Sadat had less to do with religion because he was a pious Moslem, he called himself the “believer president,” and more to do with the attempt to seize power by radical Islamists. What is increasingly clear as one digests Ghattas’ narrative, if 1979 was a turning point, 1980 was the point of no return.
Ghattas offers clear explanations as she discusses the disparate relationships among the leading characters she explores; in addition to their policies, beliefs, actions, governments they led and movements they represented. Whether analyzing the strategies of Khomeini, Saddam, Assad, Arafat, or Saudi princes she is able to link their narrative to each other reflecting the powder keg the Iranian Revolution sparked in the Middle East. Events in Lebanon and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s fit well into her narrative. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, “Operation Peace for Galilee” would contribute to the fracturing of Lebanese society. Iran would take a major role as they ensconced themselves in the Beqaa Valley with the Syrian army and Hezbollah would ramp up its participation in Lebanese society into the poor areas of Beirut. In Pakistan the 1980s witnessed a proxy war between followers of Iran and Saudi Arabia which would result in Shi’a-Sunni sectarian violence as the ideological war spread. Ghattas tells the story of their differences through the eyes of Allama Ehson Elahu Zaheer who attended an Islamic University in Medina and Allama Arif Hussaini who studied in Najaf and was a follower of Khomeini.
(Saudi woman driving for the first time unaccompanied by a man!)
Saudi Arabia had a great deal of influence in Pakistan with longstanding ties to Pakistani clerics like Maarout Dawalibi who became a pseudo advisor to the Saudi leaderships well as Jamatt-eIslami a radical Pakistani Moslem organization. In February 1979, General Zia-ul-Haq, who overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar ali Bhutto imposed Shari’a law on Pakistan and Daealibi wrote the new legal code. Pakistan experienced a cultural revolution similar to what occurred in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Zia would become an ally of the US against the Soviets in Afghanistan as he needed American and Saudi support for his survival. Pakistan had a tradition of using religion as a balm to soften defeat, i.e.; the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, the overthrow of Bhutto in July 1977, and its overall relationship with India. Pakistan’s radicalization is linked to Peshawar, a city near the Afghanistan border which became a center for radical mujahedeen fighting the Soviet Union. It was also the location for Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who was implicated and jailed for his role in Sadat’s assassination who later would become number two to Osama Bin-Laden in the al-Qaeda hierarchy who would move his family to Peshawar in the mid-1980s. Peshawar would become the nerve center for Arab jihad. As Ghattas astutely remarks, if Beirut was the supermarket of the left in the 1970s for Palestinians, Iraqis, Egyptians and Marxists, then Peshawar was the supermarket of the Islamists in the 1980s where “Islamic law, fatwas, the war of the believers, the unity of the Muslim nation, and the humanitarian needs of Afghan refugees” was discussed and acted upon.
As Saudi money poured into Peshawar, Zia allowed Saudi charities to build hundreds of madrassas, religious seminaries along the border with Afghanistan that taught the exclusionary teachings of fundamentalist schools of Saudi puritanism. Many of the graduates of these schools became the core of the Taliban in the 1990s. Ghattas writes that “the Saudis were helping to create an environment in which ideas and actions could be taken to the extreme, and they were blinded to the consequences of their creation because they could not recognize the intolerance of their own ideology,” a problem that haunts us in 2020.
Ghattas comes to a number of important conclusions with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan which the Saudis took a great deal of credit. Teheran wanted a say in the post war period but when they were not able to impose their will Khomeini unleashed a culture war by calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for his depiction of Mohammad in his book SATANIC VERSES. Another major point was the removal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait. President Bush made a grave error by allowing the Syrians to dominate the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon along with their Hezbollah ally in return for Damascus’ support against Saddam. The American presence in Saudi Arabia because of the war was part of the impetus for Osama Bin-Laden and the creation of al-Qaeda as “the infidels” seemed all over the kingdom. The Saudis had their own culture war with women and radical clerics continued to rail against the royal family. Ghattas is dead pointing out that “until 1979, the kings had bent that product and the clerics to their will, keeping them in check. After 1979, the Wahhabi religious establishment had become king.”
(Khobar Towers, Dhaharan, Saudi Arabia before bombing of June 29, 1996)
It is fascinating to explore the rapprochement that was reached between the Saudis and Iran following the death of Khomeini. They did share a common interest that trumped their ideological differences as Teheran wanted to lessen the Sunni-Shi’a rift to allow greater access to the holy places in Mecca. Even the Al-Khobar Towers bombing by Hezbollah elements did not cause a renewed rift. But dark forces existed on both sides that hampered a continuation of any honeymoon. For Iran supporters of Khomeini’s revolution remained in power – the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and radical clerics. On the Saudi side money was used to pursue an anti-western ideology in the madrassas and they continued to fund radical clerics throughout the region as well as the remaining mujahedeen from the Afghan War.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry continued unabated after their brief lessening of tension in the 1990s. It was rekindled after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq and it resurfaced with a vengeance during the Arab Spring. With the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, elections brought about the rise to the presidency of Mohammad Morsi, a member of the Moslem Brotherhood. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei compared the overthrow of Mubarak to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and called for an Arab awakening in the region. The Saudis were not amused, and they feared their own people would rise up and worked behind the scenes with the Egyptian army to get rid of Morsi which occurred on July 3, 2013. The result was Field Marshall Abdel Fattah Sissi assuming the presidency. Sissi was a friend of the Saudis who was officially elected President in May 2014 and maintains his hold on power in Egypt today.
In the last pages of her narrative Ghattas discusses the tragedies that are Syria and Yemen, with the spotlight on the roles Saudi Arabia and Iran in the carnage. In Iran domestic opposition and demonstrations against Teheran’s expansionist policies were met with violence and repression. In Saudi Arabia, the new king and his Defense Minister son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) proceeded to use its American military toys to wreak havoc in Yemen and kill Saudi citizens at home and abroad. Ghattas recounts the murder of Washington Post reporter and Saudi citizen, Jamal Khashoggi by MbS and his minions providing the reader a taste of what the new Saudi regime was like and who President Trump’s latest “buddy” really is.
There are many themes in Ghattas’ presentation. The exploitation of Islam by dictators stands out. Further, the chaos that has convulsed the region over the last four decades; the Iran-Iraq War, the upheavals in Afghanistan, the assassinations in Pakistan and civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are all in some ways fallout from the fierce competition between two parallel “Islamic revolutions” in 1979. Ghattas also reminds us that the region was not always this intolerant as before 1979 as modern art, abstract sculptures, and literature was allowed to proliferate in certain areas of the Middle East. What makes Ghattas’ book special is that she tells many of her stories through the eyes of numerous men and women who spoke out against the repression that emerged after 1979 making the history relatable to the reader and an important contribution to the literature that tries to explain events that are at times incomprehensible, but continue to plague us.