‘Bitter Rivals’: A provocative Frontline examines the complicated Iranian-Saudi conflict

The Mideast is a mess. What else is new? At least since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the region has spawned more than its per capita share of wars, near wars, civil wars and revolutions, terrorist movements, etc.

To American eyes, watching that region from afar, it’s hard to find a starting point for understanding. Is it ethnic hatreds between Arabs, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Jews etc.? Is it religious hatred? Is it the oil? Can we still blame it on the hideously imperialistic Sykes-Picot deal by which Europeans after World War I carved the region up into spheres of influence and imposed a crazy map creating a mixture of brand-new countries that made no sense?

A provocative two-part documentary, premiering tonight by the great PBS series “Frontline,” suggests a cause for the chaos, at least over the last 40 years, that may be unfamiliar to many viewers.

For decades, Frontline argues, much of the trouble in the Mideast has been a cover for a power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, each of which sees itself as the rightful leader of the region.

The documentary is titled “Bitter Rivals,” which explicitly refers to the Iranian-Saudi conflict. I will confess that argument caught me a bit off guard, although I’ve paid more than a little attention to the region’s history. I found the film challenging and complicated. But, if you watch for it, you’ll see the pattern. In almost every Mideast conflict, the Saudis and the Iranians are backing opposite sides.

Iran’s claim to be the rightful leader of the region, and of Islam, dates perhaps from the 1979 revolution that deposed the Shah and repudiated the British and the Americans, who had treated Iran as a virtual colony. (The Shah was a U.S. puppet; the post-Shah regime thrives on antagonism to America.)

It’s important to quickly note that Iran is the most Shia of nations and Shi’ism (according to the film) is the sect of only about 12 percent of Muslims in the world. The Sunni/Shi’a split turns out to be just one more dichotomy that’s real, but does not explain everything.

The Iranian revolution put in place an Islamic theocracy of sorts, in which an ayatollah is the “supreme leader.”  That concept, on its face, is a threat to all the secular governments of the region. The Ayatollahs refer to monarchies in the region, as Shah-like systems, needing to be overthrown and replaced by religious rule.

Saudi Arabia is, of course, a monarchy, which understandably feels threatened by this aspect of Iran’s claim to be the leader of the region and the faith.

The Saudis claim to be the rightful leader of world Islam stems partly from the fact that Saudi Arabia includes the home of the Prophet Mohammed himself, and that the two holiest cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi royals have allied themselves with a very strict, fundamentalist variant of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism.

The Sunni-Shi’a divide had huge implications during the period of the two recent U.S. wars in Iraq. Iraq has a Shiite majority, but Saddam Hussein’s relatively secular rule was nonetheless more Sunni in character than Shiite.

So just to give you one example of how the Saudi-Iran rivalry plays out across the region, Saudi Arabia, generally one the United States’ closest Arab allies, was opposed to the U.S. determination to depose Saddam Hussein, for fear that without Saddam, Iraq would become a Shiite state, and become more favorably disposed toward its Shiite neighbor, Iran.

And that happened. Several important Saudis are in the film bemoaning the fact their friends, the Americans, would have brought this about.

I’ll stop summarizing the film here. I found it difficult to grasp and assemble all the evidence, all the conflicts, and all the views presented. But it has certainly conditioned me to include the Saudi-Iranian competition into my thinking as I try to understand the complicated ethnoreligious politics of the Mideast.   

Part One of “Bitter Rivals” runs two hours and airs tonight (Tuesday, Feb. 20) from 8 to 10 p.m. on KTCA-Channel 2 and other PBS stations. Part Two, a one-hour finale, airs a week from tonight (Feb. 27), from 9 to 10 p.m.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 02/20/2018 - 10:36 am.

    Religious parallel

    Hmmm… sounds a lot like Western Europe a few centuries ago, during and after the Reformation. Protestants killed many thousands of Catholics, who killed many thousands of Protestants, over the questions of which was the “true” church, and whether or not I (or you) could communicate directly with God. The Hundred Years’ War and assorted other conflicts to establish European supremacy between England and France, England and Spain, fratricide in Switzerland and in France, etc., etc., ad nauseum, and lingering prejudice against Catholics in the English-founded United States, all testify to a major drawback of fundamentalist religious faith – the conviction that my answer to cosmic questions is the only “right’ answer. The notion of “heresy,” and the characterization of non-believers as “infidels” is neither recently-developed nor exclusive to Islam. Those concepts have been used as justifications for murder for a long time.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 02/22/2018 - 04:06 am.

      Yup. Sounds like anywhere in the entire in the entire world where humans with conflicting cultures interact.

      It was quite a program and I can hardly wait for part two, but until we all embrace our biology and respect one another’s traditions through secular government, it is what to expect for a long, long time.

      We’ve had an inkling of our true nature for only a short time, but given the past tolerance within Islam while all that Christian mayhem took place, perhaps things will be more peacible sooner as it has been just decades, not centuries that we have known how we assimilate the prevailing culture from our birth.

      If popes can see it, perhaps Shiites and Sunis can before too long, and we will only have to worry about the occasional religious terrorist.

  2. Submitted by Hektor Bleriot on 03/16/2018 - 10:54 am.

    Historic Shortsightedness & Huge Glaring Gaps

    Mr. Black’s first reaction was also mine. Bitter Rivals (BR) seems to practically ignore the fact that the regional conflicts may be rooted in the centuries before even Islam arose, viz. Arab vs. Persian. In fact, I was struck by the way the term Persian appears only once or twice in Part 1, and then after about an hour or more in, and only in reference to language learning.

    Like Mr. Black, trying to figure out where to start to get one’s head around the issues feeding the recent past is a dizzying task. Still, it is an important if practically impossible one for anyone who wants to try.

    I also found it odd that the story, such as it is, completely ignores huge swaths of recent history, from the end of the Ottoman Empire and the clumsy/criminally shortsighted partition (and that’s starting relatively late in recent history), to the complete skipping over the period between Bush 41 & 43, as if nothing happened between them. Nothing? REALLY?

    I’m not trying to suggest anything (particularly) nefarious with my question. But the film, in both parts, treats the story like 1992-2000 never happened. I recall at least the first Twin Towers bombing in there somewhere…but…we cut from Bush I directly to Bush II. There’s more to the story, surely. Yes, that would mean probably another hour to tell. So, why not?

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