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

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 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.

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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.

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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.