Interview: Dilip Hiro

Struggle for supremacy

Print edition : April 26, 2019

Dilip Hiro. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Interview with the author Dilip Hiro.

DILIP HIRO is not only one of the most distinguished geopolitical commentators on West Asia, he is also among the most prolific. Since the United States-led attack on Afghanistan in 2001 and later Iraq in 2003, hardly a year has gone by when he has not come up with a new study of the region. His books, among them Iraq: In the Eye of the Storm, War Without End: The Rise of Islamist Terrorism and Global Response, The Iranian Labyrinth: Journeys Through Theocratic Iran and Its Furies and Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World’s Vanishing Oil Resources, have tapped into the latent discontent in the region.

In his latest book, Cold War in the Islamic World, Hiro dwells at length on Saudi Arabia and Iran’s struggle for supremacy in the Islamic world. He, however, prefers not to call the struggle a rivalry, arguing that since “Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are not siding with Saudi Arabia in its competition with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the term Arab-Iran rivalry is inapplicable”. He agrees, though, that both Saudi Arabia and Iran, which were on the same side of the fence until the 1970s, are involved in a struggle for supremacy in the Islamic world today. The watertight Shia-Sunni divide, though, does not hold, as more and more Muslim countries give primacy to their economic aspirations over sectarian divisions, the latest example being the axis of Iran-Qatar-Turkey. As for Saudi Arabia, its Crown Prince is busy defining imperial power. Talking of his anti-corruption drive in which royals were detained for long periods, Hiro writes in the epilogue of his latest work: “During their detention, many were subjected to coercion. And a lesser number were deprived of sleep, roughed up and interrogated with their heads covered while their interrogators pressured them to sign over large assets. The aggregate sum thus collected from 326 detainees, according to the Public Prosecutor, Shaikh Saud al Mojeb, would amount to $106.6 billion, and include real estate, company shares, cash and other assets.”

Interestingly, on the treatment meted out to the detainees, Hiro quotes Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, as saying: “It is just like playing Monopoly with a bunch of guys. But you are in charge of everything, you can change the rules, and everyone has to stay at the table and play with you.”

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

How would you look at the latent conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Is it a product of the geopolitical aspirations of the two countries or does it date back to earlier than the late 1970s?

Conflict between these leading countries in the Gulf region arose after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which ended the monarchy and turned the subsequent republic against the U.S. Before that, Iran under the Shah and the Saudi kingdom were in the U.S. camp. As a nation state, Iran has a long history whereas the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia came into existence only 86 years ago, in September 1932.

At some level, is it not a struggle for the leadership of the ummah, caused at least partly by the Shia-Sunni divide? We have Saudi Arabia claiming custodial rights over Mecca and Medina and Iran talking of an illegitimate monarchy in Saudi Arabia.

Yes, as the subtitle of my book says, Saudi Arabia and Iran are engaged in “the struggle for supremacy” in the Islamic world. More specifically, this Muslim region covers the Greater Middle East [West Asia]—that is, the Arab Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia claims to be the first among equals [primus inter pares] in the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation [OIC] because it houses Islam’s two holiest shrines—Mecca [containing the Kaaba] and Medina [with Prophet Muhammad’s mosque]. On the other side, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, argued that because Saudi monarchs were in breach of the Quranic injunction “Take counsel with them [the believers] in their affairs” [3:159], their rule was illegitimate.

Has the U.S. ended up strengthening the hands of Iran with the rise of Shias in post-2003 Iraq?

This is a glaring example of an unintended consequence of a war. Goaded by his neoconservative, pro-Israeli aides, U.S. President George W. Bush invaded Iraq on the dodgy grounds that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. In post-Saddam Iraq, when free and fair elections were held, the Shia majority [mistreated under the minority Sunni rule dating back to 1638 as part of the Sunni Ottoman Turkish Empire] acquired power through the ballot box. The democratically elected Shia-led government in Baghdad forged friendly ties with Iran.

The book has universality. Yet it has a specificity of its own with non-political characters lending their voices. Like how you describe Juheiman bin al Utaiba at Mecca's Grand Mosque. Or the way you talk of Amir Zarkesh, a kitchen staff member from across the old U.S. Embassy in Tehran. How was it to hear from the likes of Zarkesh? How swayed were commoners with slogans such as “Allah-u-akbar, Khomeini rahbar”?

The answer lies in the writing style. A chapter either opens with an engaging story to capture the reader’s attention, or an anecdote appears intermittently in a chapter to lighten long passages of abstract text. Juheiman bin al Utaiba was the leader of the armed Wahhabi militants who seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in November 1979. His actions and statements are recorded at length. What happened in Iran in 1978 and early 1979 was a grass-roots revolution in which lakhs of people participated, with 10,000 to 40,000 people getting killed by the security forces. I spent six weeks in Tehran after the U.S. hostage crisis and witnessed daily demonstrations by different groups of Iranians marching past the former U.S. Embassy. During my 1999 visit to Tehran to cover 20 years of the revolution, I planted myself at a restaurant overlooking the old embassy, and got Amir Zarkesh to recall that historic episode.

After the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, we see the U.S. moving away from Iran. Can you throw some light on how Iran and the U.S. ended up as antagonists while Saudi Arabia continues to enjoy the overt support of the U.S.?

As early as 1963, Ayatollah Khomeini opposed Washington’s interference in the internal affairs of Iran. As a result, the pro-U.S. Shah of Iran banished him to Turkey. From there he moved to Najaf, Iraq, a leading centre of Shia learning. He combined his anti-Shah sermons with anti-U.S. perorations. After the revolution, he withdrew Iran from the Western-sponsored Central Treaty Organisation and cancelled the contracts that the Shah had signed with U.S. arms manufacturers. He set out to expel U.S. influence from all walks of Iranian life. The seizure of the U.S. Embassy by radical students in November 1979 provided him with a chance to conduct the Second Revolution in the Islamic Republic. It became a routine to describe the U.S. as the Great Satan.

In stark contrast, the U.S. has been the protector of the Saudi kingdom since February 1943 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an Executive Order, saying: “I hereby find that the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the United States.” This stance has been endorsed by all his successors. Riyadh was the first foreign capital that Donald Trump visited as U.S. President.

In view of the long-standing Iran-Saudi conflict, is the fact that Yemen is now staring at a humanitarian crisis collateral damage?

It was the rash decision of Saudi Crown Prince [and Defence Minister] Mohammed bin Salman in March 2015 to intervene militarily in the long-running civil war in Yemen—which had nothing to do with Iran—that the situation in the poorest Arab country has become dire. Unlike Iranian Shias, who believe in the Twelve Imams, the Zaidi Shia Houthis in Yemen believe in five; and so there were no historical links between the two.

How do you see the emerging axis of Iran-Qatar-Turkey? In some ways, it overrides the Shia-Sunni schism?

Finding themselves on the defensive because of depriving Saudi citizens of their say in the running of the government—in violation of the Quranic injunction—Saudi royals have resorted to harping on the Sunni-Shia division. By contrast, the constitution of the Islamic Republic accords “full respect” to the Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki and Hanbali schools in Sunni Islam while declaring Islam and the twelve Jafari schools as the official religion.

Tehran’s policy of financial and arms support for the Palestinian Hamas, which is 100 per cent Sunni, shows that it judges an organisation or a Muslim country on the basis of its political aims rather than its sectarian affiliation. The Saudi Crown Prince shot himself in the foot in 2017 when he pressed Qatar to cut its diplomatic and trade relations with Iran. Given that Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest gas reserves in the offshore South Pars/North Dome gas field, this demand was virtually impossible to meet. And since Turkish construction companies are heavily involved in building nine new stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments with imported materials, Turkey sided with Qatar. To show its solidarity, it dispatched an army unit equipped with tanks to march in the Qatari capital of Doha.

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