The FRONTLINE Interview: Randa Slim

February 20, 2018
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Randa Slim is a scholar at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced and International Studies. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE’s Martin Smith on Aug. 9, 2017 for the documentary Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has been edited in parts for clarity and length.

[In] 2016, you were talking with, I think Ben Hubbard, and you said the Saudis took the region for granted, while Iran, back in the ’80s, put a strategy in place that they’ve been implementing year by year and dollar by dollar. Talk about what you meant.

What I meant is that since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the mission of the Iranian regime is to export the revolution. They tried early on to do that, while [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini was still alive and leading the Iranian Islamic Republic.

And then the Iran-Iraq war happened, and that put a stop in their ability to do that. And for a while, the best they had is Hezbollah, which was the first group that they have been able to develop and to nurture and to mold along the lines that they would like to see proxy forces that are allied and loyal to them in the region be.

So Hezbollah, for a while, was the only model that was out there. Then they tried to work with the Palestinians, specifically Islamic Jihad, and that also worked for a while. But Islamic Jihad and Hamas were being funded as well by the Saudis, and they prefer to get Sunni money. And I think for a while also there was this [effort] between the Iranians and the Saudis, thinking that, OK, let’s try to live together.

To share the neighborhood, as Obama put it.

To share the neighborhood. The problem is all along, Iran has been trying to find opportunities and entry points to create the other Hezbollahs of the region. However, the Saudis were happy with their status as the leader of the Islamic world, as the guardian of the holy shrines, as being the pre-eminent region in power with petrol dollars to back them up, with strong networks of allies and proxy groups it has cultivated over the years through the petrol dollars in the region. It’s the nature of Saudi ways of exercising power. It’s not a confrontational power. It deals in closed doors; it prefers a quieter approach, rather than a revolutionary approach to politics.

So they said, “Let’s try to live together with the Iranians,” you know? They were watching what the Iranians were doing, but they were not willing at that point to confront them, to put enough skin in the game to confront the kind of leverage that Iran was trying to cultivate.

Iran was trying, but it was not succeeding. And then what happened is 9/11 attacks and the 2003 war. I think the 2003 war created the first serious opportunity for Iran to create this major entry point in a major Arab state, and that’s Iraq.

However, in 2011, the Arab uprising, with the removal of [Hosni] Mubarak from Egypt and then the Syria uprising and the weakening of the state system, that created the second-biggest opportunity for Iran to cultivate and to establish the kind of presence that it has been trying to do since 1979.

Why is exporting the revolution important to Iran?

I think it comes from the Khomeini creed of seeking an Islamic world. Partly it is rooted in Iranian revolutionary thinking that predates even the Iranian revolution among a small group that worked with Khomeini while he was still in Paris.

Iran is a Shia power, and they are trying to work in a Sunni majority environment. If you look at their narrative, from Khomeini’s time even to today, they are always focusing on an Islamic narrative. It’s never a sectarian narrative.

They feel that one way to protect the revolution is to make sure that it is viewed in the region not as a Shia revolution, but as an Islamic revolution. And exporting it is creating, again, anchor points and more leverage for this regime and for this revolution in an environment which they believe is going to be opposed to the regime and to the revolution, primarily because it’s a Shia power in a Shia country.

Why was Lebanon important?

For Iran to start cultivating this kind of influence, presence within the Arab region, it needed to work within an environment where state institutions were not strong, and more importantly, where you have a group that shares the sectarian identity with Iran, sectarian affiliation, and this sectarian identity provides the glue that enables Iran to build this patron-client relationship.

Well, there’s a contradiction in this in that Khomeini wanted his revolution as an Islamic revolution, not a Shia revolution, but yet what you’re saying is that—

Correct.

—he looked at Lebanon, and I believe Lebanon was Shia before Iran was?

Oh, a long time.

So how is that? I mean, they’re not contiguous. They’re quite far apart, separated by Iraq. Why is this the case that you had this Shia learning center here in Lebanon, and then, far away with the revolution, some say a Shia revolution, look to Lebanon as a place to be exploited?

Well, on one hand, it’s these links, these 500-year-old links between Iranian religious scholars and Lebanese religious scholars. And since then, you have hundreds and hundreds of links, especially in the religious community between Iran and Shia. So that’s a basis of trust.

So Iran, by working with the Shiites in Lebanon, it’s working with familiar faces; it’s working with faces it trusts and vice versa. There is this narrative of friendship and trust between these two communities, and that underpinned, in my opinion, this relationship between Iran and Lebanon, especially within the Shiite communities in Lebanon.

The second point is Lebanon is on Israel’s border, you know, and another credo of the Iranian revolution is to liberate Palestinian lands, to liberate Arab lands from Israel. So Lebanon enables Iran to have basically a presence on Israel’s front, on Israel’s doorsteps. And that’s something that Iran has been trying to have for some time. And the third point is that you had the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which created the raison d’être for Shiite groups, as well as Arab Nationalists.

Let’s talk about that. What happened? Israel invades in 1982 to rout the PLO, which they saw as a threat.

Yes.

They end up getting Hezbollah in the deal.

Yes, yes.

But what is Iran’s response in 1982?

Well, in 1982 Iran’s response was to help establish in Lebanon and help arm, guide, train, supply with weapons, how to say, the alternative to the PLO in terms of the fight against Israel.

Hezbollah did not come in vacuum. I mean, Hezbollah is a collection of at least three different groups that predated the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and they were working separately, you know?

They’re not a creation of Iran?

No.

There’s an indigenous movement going on here?

Exactly. They are not a creation of Iran. These are three separate groups that have been in Lebanese politics for sometime. What Iran did is it came and incentivized them to work together by providing training camps, by providing weapons, by providing ideological training, providing money, because eventually, the Iranian playbook, which evolved over time and which was really implemented and developed through trial and error with Hezbollah — and this is the playbook that’s now being replicated in Syria; it’s being replicated in Iraq; it’s going to be replicated maybe in Yemen in the future — is a playbook that involves developing militias, a good fighting force in terms of being able to fight Israel and being able to score some victories against Israel. But it’s not adopting the tactics of a regular army, you know? It’s adopting the tactics of an insurgency model.

Then the second part of this playbook is establishing a network of social and educational surfaces. And the importance of the schools is to train the next cadre of fighters. It’s to make sure that the next generation of fighters will have been trained in the ideological background that Iran would like militias to have in terms of commitment to the fight against Israel and in terms of commitment to a transnational Shia mission, if we can put it this way.

What does Tehran get out of this domestically? I mean, they’re doing this at a time when they’re bogged down in a grueling war with Iraq, and they’re expending resources, sending men and material, money to Lebanon.

That’s interesting, because to understand what’s going on in the region, we always use this, in my opinion, simplistic sectarian lens as an analytical lens, which really distorts the analytical focus.

It’s not only about Shia and Sunni. To be able to understand what’s going on in the region you have to look at the domestic politics, be it in the proxy states, where this contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia is being waged, or inside the two drivers of this contest, which is Saudi Arabia and Iran.

So when it comes to Iran and it comes to its domestic politics, I think what Iran is getting out of it is, again, this credo of exporting the Iranian revolution, of establishing its presence in the region, of becoming the regional hegemony that it has always driven to be.

And domestically that gives them legitimacy in the eyes of Iranians?

In the eyes of the Iranians, yes. It’s like the nuclear project. This is an Iranian national project, and having regional hegemony, being a power that is influential in setting the tempo of the political life of the Arab world is something that Iranians, be it supporters of the regime or not, it’s something that the Iranians feel proud of.

Now, the cost, what it’s going to cost them to exercise this role and to sustain this role, this is now what’s up for debate. And that’s what the Syria war is bringing to the front, is that the cost is not always as cheap as, for example, sending a few cheap weapons to Yemen. The cost is going to be loss of lives, as it happens in Syria; it’s going to be putting a lot of money in developing social service networks and educational networks in places like Lebanon, in places like Iraq, in places like Iraq at a time when hospitals in Iran are not as developed or at a time when money needs to be spent in educational sectors in Iran, in bringing industrial centers in Iran.

Let’s go back to the invasion. We got up to the point where Iran is sending men, material, money into Lebanon, bringing together disparate groups to form Hezbollah. How does that work, and where does it go from there? I mean, the victory is an immense event across the Arab world. 

What Iran needed is Syria. I mean, the big prize for Iran at the time was Syria—

Even then? Even in ’82 they’re thinking that?

Yes, oh, yeah. That was the big prize.

From 1982, Hezbollah is the model that is out there. It was developed through trial and error, and they eventually [create] a playbook based on what they learned and from Hezbollah. But the only way to have access to Hezbollah is through Syria. The training camps established in the ’80s in the Bekaa Valley could not be established without Syria’s blessing. And I know for a fact that at the time, there was a debate inside the inner circle around [then-Syrian President] Hafez Assad, about whether they should allow Iran to establish these camps, because the argument by some of the lieutenants around Hafez Assad is that “Why are we willing to give a part of the power that we have over Lebanese parties to Iran by enabling it to create this group called Hezbollah?” And it was a decision made by Hafez Assad himself at the time in opposition to the advice of most of his senior advisers.

Why does he do that?

At the time, he had two major enemies. He had Israel, and he had Saddam Hussein. And these are the two enemies that he shared with Iran. So for him, this alliance with Iran was more about blunting any kind of attack from the Israelis and the Iraqis rather than a strategic alliance that is underpinned by ideology. It’s more, in my opinion, a tactical alliance rather than a strategic alliance.

But he saw it as necessary?

He saw it as necessary, because he felt that when it comes to confronting Saddam Hussein at the time and to confronting the Israelis, the Saudis, the Jordanians, the Egyptians, remember, I mean, this was a period of the peace treaties between some of the Arab countries and Israel and talks of the peace treaties as well.

So he felt abandoned. And the only country that was going to help him and stand by him, especially in facing off the Israelis, but at the same time the Iraqis, was Iran.

So the Iranians were able to fly in material into Damascus and ferry it across the border into neighboring Lebanon.

Material and advisers — more important than material at the time. In the early days of forming Hezbollah, it was more advisers, people who can help train educational advisers. So it’s material and advisers. That was an important part that at the time the beginning of Hezbollah needed.

So they’re flying in these advisers, Hezbollah’s coming together, and they defeat the Israelis?

Later.

Later.

I mean, in 1996, the first major confrontation between the Israelis and Hezbollah, that’s before 2000, the Grapes of Wrath, they call it. I think Grapes of Wrath was the first signals that Hezbollah was becoming a fighting force able to stand up to the Israelis.

And talk about the significance of that to Iran and to the region.

To Iran, it was a realization that its investments are paying off. Remember, Iran has been now investing in developing the fighting skills of Hezbollah, in weapons acquisitions for Hezbollah, in funding social services and education services that provided the social milieu from which Hezbollah can recruit for the foreseeable future. That was a sign that the investment they had been putting on in Lebanon and in Hezbollah since 1982 are going to pay off, and they’re paying off big.

So this is a big “Voila, we’ve done it.

Exactly.

There was no assurance this would work out the way it did.

No, there was no assurance. But that was a gambit they were willing to take on, and it was an investment they were willing to put in and the stock proved to be a winning stock.

This model of putting insurgent militia into another country, you say it came from Khomeini, it came from their ideas about exporting a revolution, but where, historically, was this idea from? 

As far as Iranians are concerned, I really don’t know.

I mean, it’s quite remarkable that they sit around in Tehran and Khomeini says to the IRGC, “You know, we’re gonna do this kind of exportation, it’s good domestically, it sells well.”

I mean, the Soviets tried to do that, no? And then, the French Foreign Legion. So what we are having now is really an Iranian expeditionary force. I mean, especially since the Syrian War, since the Iraq War. They have moved from a proxy party in small Lebanon, to now having an expeditionary force that includes Hezbollah, Shiite militias from Iraq, Shiite from Pakistan, Shiite from Afghanistan, that now can be deployed at Iran’s wish and under Iran’s control in the future.

I mean, look at the success they have achieved. They have moved from this party in a country of two million, three million at the time to now an expeditionary force of hundreds of thousands skilled fighters, you know, who are united by this ideological creed, who are united by this sectarian identity, and who have been tested in a number of battlefields, lately in Syria, and who now can be deployed if Iran wishes to do so in other theaters of battle in which Iran wants to be involved.

The Saudis see what Iran is doing as an existential threat to them. The Americans see it as mischief. They see Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in the region. Is there a legitimacy from the Iranian point of view as a major power in the region to extend their influence and control like this? I mean, is there an argument to be made?

I think the problems that have always been is that Iran has been mining opportunities that were made available to it due to a number of historical developments, political developments, but primarily due to a state system in the Arab region that was growing increasingly weaker and weaker and weaker due to bad governance, dissatisfaction between citizens and government, due to the inability of governments to meet their citizens’ basic demand.

So the weakening of the state system that was taking place over the last 20 years created opportunities for Iran to be able to mine, having a strategy in place since 1980 to establish these proxy groups, and through these proxy groups to exercise its influence and to gain leverage over the political life of the region.

This Saudi-Iranian competition is primarily a competition about the direction of politics in the Mideast, and Iran wants to have a say in it. The two never fight, and they will not fight, but they have access to proxy forces throughout the region that can do the fighting on their behalf. There are some scholars and others have called this the “new Arab cold war.”

But how is a listener supposed to evaluate what Iran is up to here? In listening to you,  I might think, well, Iran has no business injecting themselves into all these Arab states. The Iranians see it differently. They see themselves as a major regional power, and therefore they are using the opportunities that have been handed to them. But how are we to think about it?

Well, assuming they have no business to inject themselves into the life and the politics of the Arab states, what have other Arab states been doing to blunt that, to counter that motivation or those ambitions, to counter those Iranian ambitions? What have the Arab states done?

You know, they have always looked toward the United States to protect them. And then, when they decided to counter Iranian influence, they decided to work with proxy groups like jihadi Salafi groups.

[Saudi Arabia] tried to play the Iranian playbook, which is, “Let’s find groups which share sectarian identity with us, and which are willing to fight and die for the cause.” And the groups that they were able to find were Salafi groups.

These are the groups that they could find, fund, share with them sectarian identity and they were willing to fight, to stand up to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards but also the Iranian proxy groups, be it Hezbollah or be it the Shiite militias.

And that’s the problem with the Saudis: that the Iranian proxy groups, meaning the Arab Shia, were not interested ever in being a threat to the Iranian regime. Whereas you have these Salafi jihadi groups — which Saudi Arabia has realized after funding them for a while — that their other motivation is to really come toward the Mecca and take control of the whole shrines, and they became a domestic threat to the Saudi leadership.

They became a domestic threat to the Sunni regimes in Jordan and in Egypt. And that’s the difference, and that’s where I think what happens in Syria is going to really go a long way in shaping the perception throughout the region of who is the winner in this contest? And right now, as of today, the winner in this contest in Syria is Iran.

You’ve written that [President Bashar al-]Assad is the only guarantor of Iranian interests in Syria and that there is no alternative.

Yeah, for Iran, yes.

He’s an Alawite; he’s not Shia.

Yes.

But he is, because of his father’s alliance with Iran, he is allied. I mean, there’s a confusion I think you get into here when you think of this in sectarian terms, because once you get into Syria, it’s not as clear.

That’s why I think thinking it in sectarian terms just, you know, eliminates a lot of the nuance that underpins all of this competition.

Take me through the early days in 2011 of the uprising and how the Saudis and the Iranians aligned themselves so we can understand the sort of genesis of those alliances in Syria.

Look, the first six to 10 months of the uprising, this was truly a civil uprising that was motivated by the rest of the Arab uprising—the need for political participation, asking for freedom, reining in the security services of the Syrian regime, creating job opportunities. And it was led by a fairly nonviolent civil movement of students, laborers, villagers, technocrats.

Then I think what happened is then a decision made by the Assad regime. In fact, I would go back and say this is a decision that was made in the first two months of the revolution, that the only way to defeat the uprising is not going to be by Assad, because Assad looked at what happened in the previous uprisings, meaning Egypt and Tunisia, and he said, “I’m not going to follow that model; I’m not going to give up.”

So Assad makes a decision. What’s that decision?

He makes a decision: We’re going to do the Hammer model. And that’s what his people around him, especially in the security services and the military, understand.

“We’re going to hit ’em hard.”

He made a speech in April/May I think of that year saying, “I want reforms, promising reforms.” Even at the time, the Saudi king bought into it, and at some point, financial assistance was provided by the Saudis to Assad during the first few months of the uprising to enable him to enact these reforms. He promised the same thing to [Turkey’s Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, that we are going to do these reforms.

But what he really did was hit hard?

Sent weapons, sent weapons. I mean, the first reaction that you saw is torturing these kids in [Dara’a]. That was him sending a message: “We are going to be ruthless. We are not going to stop at anything. We are going to torture even kids.”

So what does that do to Iran? You know, what signal is being received in Iran and in Riyadh?

I think the signal initially was to Iran by al-Assad regime that we are going to hit hard and we are not going to negotiate. Iran was not yet in line with Assad on that. In fact, [then-President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was still the president at the time.

One of his speeches, he said, “We have to listen to the wishes of the Syrian people,” which was really interesting. I think there was at the time negotiation going on between Assad, between Hezbollah and Iran. That was August, maybe September 2011. And this is when Assad and his military people convince the Iranians and Hezbollah that the only option is a military option, and this is when Iran then shifted its support wholly to Assad and—

Because they needed Assad, because—

Because they needed Assad.

—they needed Assad because they needed access—

Because for them, Syria is the gateway to the Arab world, and without Assad, this gateway, they would be denied. And because they have come to the realization that this uprising, if it’s going to lead to a democratic order, demographically it’s going to be a Sunni order and it’s going to be a Sunni anti-Shia, anti-Iran order.

So any change in the regime, done whether through military intervention or through regular transition of power, if it is a democratic transition of power leading to elections that are fair and free, they are going to lead to the immersions of a Sunni-majority regime in Syria, which in their mind is going to be anti-Shia and anti-Iran.

And that’s what Saudi Arabia would have liked to have seen.

Exactly, exactly.

And Saudi Arabia wanted that to happen because why?

Because they have been waiting for this critical opportunity to kick Iran out of their Arab neighborhood, and they understood exactly what Iran did in 1982, or what Hafez Assad did in 1982, when he opened the doors of Damascus to Iran.

What he did is open the door of the Arab region to Iran, and they saw in the Syrian revolution a historical opportunity to correct historical mistakes, and this historical mistake is to provide Iran a gateway, a government, state gateway to the Arab region.

Hezbollah is not the kind of gateway that legitimizes Iran’s role in the region. Hezbollah is a small proxy force in a small country, whereas Damascus, this is one of the three major Arab capitals for a long time in the region. It opening its doors and establishing an alliance with Iran, that’s serious legitimization of an Iranian role in the Arab region.

So what do the Saudis do?

The Saudis basically said, “Put everything they’ve got into Syria, the Saudis and the Qataris.” That was way, way before, you know, the entry of Daesh [ISIS] and Al Qaeda. Initially it was militarized Syrians who were fighting against Assad.

So you mean, like, civilian militias?

Civilian militias because—

They were anti-Assad?

Yes.

And they get support from Saudi Arabia?

Yes.

And those morph over time?

Those morph over time, but also what happened is — remember in the U.S. war in Iraq in 2003, Assad felt threatened that he was going to be the second target after Iraq, and so what he did, he made Syria the passageway for anybody, any jihadi, any Salafi, who wanted to fight the Americans. Those who were coming from Afghanistan found a new theater to fight the Americans. Iraq was it, and Assad said, “Welcome.”

So he enabled them to come through his territory. He knew those networks extremely well, and he had many of them in jail. And at the beginning of that [uprising] in Syria, he released them, because he knew from the beginning that his best chance to win this war with the international community is if this war becomes cast as one between terrorists, Al Qaeda type and between his regime, and that if the international community is faced with this choice, it’s not going to side with the terrorists; it’s eventually going to side with the regime.

So it’s quite a gambit?

Yes. And he was also betting on the Iranians throwing full support behind him. And his bet is correct. Because unlike in Iraq, Iran has always had many horses in that race. If [Nouri al-]Maliki was removed in 2011, there are many other Shia leaders that Iraq could live with.

You said something very interesting, because a lot of people describe this as important to the Iranians, because it’s a gateway to Hezbollah, which is a gateway to the border with Israel, which is very important for them to hold that line and hold a threat over Tel Aviv. But now you’re saying also that Damascus in and of itself is an important prize.

Damascus in and of itself, one of the major Arab capitals, is an important prize. And today Iran has the best scenario in Damascus. It has a puppet regime that is beholden to it and whose survival is 100 percent dependent on its support.

I’m sitting at home, and I’m scratching my head, and I’m saying, “I’m following all this, but are Alawites Shia?”

Well, Alawites, they are not Shias, but they are somehow affiliated indirectly. There was a fatwa issued by the late [Musa Sadr] in the ’70s declaring that Alawite is a Shiite sect, and that’s how they are viewed by many, as Shias.

I think what’s not easy for people to understand [about Lebanon] is a state in which a militia has so much power and control.

And that’s a problem is that this is the model we’re going to live with for the foreseeable future in the region.

Hezbollah is more powerful than the state?

Yeah.

How does that happen?

Well, because the state to start with was always weak. Hezbollah is a peculiar phenomenon, partly because of the context and the milieu in which [it] established itself. Lebanon has always been based on a consensus among different minority groups, and this political consensus has always been achieved to the detriment of a strong state. Basically, it’s a country that’s run by five to six men. Each one of them has his own group and his own followers, constituency. And it’s the interests of these five, six men to keep the state weak in order to keep their powers and their control over their respective clans and their respective tribes to be strong. And so, there has never been a national consensus on developing strong state institutions.

And [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah has said that 100 percent of all of his support, money comes from Tehran?

Correct, correct. But the same also 100 percent of support in the past to some of the groups in the Sunni community came from Saudi Arabia. Part of this cold war that has existed in the ’50s and ’60s in the Arab world and is existing today is that these two protagonists in this cold war, being Saudi Arabia and Iran, are not like the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Soviet time. Never clashed militarily. But what they did is try to use these proxy groups and to use client states, where you have weak state institutions and where they can wage this competition and they wage this war.

And to use sectarianism?

And sectarianism becomes an instrument to be able to rally their supporters. It’s a glue — it can be used as a glue to cement the relationship between the patron and the clients, be it the Saudis as a patron and Sunni groups in Lebanon or  be it Iran as a patron and Hezbollah and Lebanon.

Sectarian identity is a glue, but it’s not what drives this competition. What drives this competition is politics. What drives this competition is balance of power. But sectarianism is an instrument, is a tool that is used in the waging of this competition.

But there are significant differences between Sunnis and Shia?

Theologically not that many differences.

No?

No, no, no.

They practice very differently.

No, I mean, ritualistically, yes, but in terms of—

—those ritual differences appear large.

I mean, they appear large, but in the scheme of religious ideology and in the scheme of the religion of Islam, in the scheme of theology, it’s not that much difference.

But over time, again, politics has pushed this phenomenon of sectarianizing relationship. But it is about politics and about balance of power rather than it is about true sectarian differences that divide people.

Shia and Sunnis have lived for generations together. There have been conflicts between them, but they have lived for generations together; in Iraq, intermarriages, civil harmony between communities. I mean, most of the Iraqi communities I know are mixed of Shia and Sunnis.

In Lebanon, the same thing. Before the civil war, you have this kind of harmony between the sects. But again, when politics intervene and use sectarianism as a tool to wage a political conflict and to militarize a political conflict, then sectarianism proves itself to be adept at providing an ideology that can rally the masses.

If historically there’s been harmony between the sects, how is it that you can convince a Sunni to kill a Shia or a Shia to kill a Sunni? How is it that they have been at each other’s throats now for several decades?

But it’s not only about Sunni versus Shia. You have had Sunnis kill Sunnis.

You say that sectarianism becomes a tool.

Yes.

It’s quite an effective tool.

It is an effective tool.

And you’re able, if you’re in Riyadh or you’re in Tehran, to get your followers to kill the other.

Correct.

How is it that they can accomplish that so easily, given the historical harmony between Sunnis and Shias?

Partly because these identities, primarily sectarian identities, are primordial identities. They go to the core of the sense of security that people have. And in a time and in a milieu where you don’t have other identities that can provide this glue among people, that transcend this primordial affiliation, be it a national identity, be it another ideological identity, I think people resort to this primordial sectarian identity.

One player you’ve left out of this is the United States. The United States’ program after the invasion of Iraq to de-Baathify and lay off everybody in the army, marginalized Sunnis, [which] led to the sectarian wars of ’06, ’07 in Iraq, tore the country apart. I mean, that seemed to be a major escalation of sectarian warfare in the region.

Look, the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003 created this perfect opportunity for Iran to establish leverage over an important Arab capital, Baghdad, and that forced the Saudis to try to counteract that and to confront Iran. And eventually the uprising created other opportunities for the Iranians in Syria.

Is [Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi’s group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, is that and was that a tool of the Saudis?

I don’t know, to be very honest. I think—

Really?

I didn’t know. I don’t know, because I think—

But who else was doing their work then? You say the Saudis countered what they saw going on after the invasion and the influx of more and more Iranian influence. So what did the Saudis do?

I think at the time the Saudis were supporting Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq, but whether Zarqawi is one of them, I don’t know.

Other groups doing what? The insurgency?

Yes, yes. Sunni insurgency.

But that insurgency was killing Americans.

Ah, yes, yes.

Which is their major ally?

Yes, yes, yes.

But—

It’s a complicated relationship when it comes to the Arab world.

So you’re saying the Saudis supported the insurgency?

I mean, the Saudis, as well as other groups, maybe other countries also, maybe Qatar, supported part of the Sunni insurgency, yes.

Because they had no choice? In order to stem Iranian influence?

Correct.

And even though this was a messy alliance for them with lots of risk, they supported the insurgency?

Yes, yes.

To counter Iran?

Yes, yes. But also, interestingly, Assad was an ally of the Saudis in this support of the insurgency at the time.

Right.

Against a regime that was being supported by the Iranians.

This goes badly for the Saudis.

It goes badly for the Saudis, yes.

What happened?

Now they are counting on the Americans again. They are counting on the Trump administration to do the push and the confrontation that they don’t want to do. I mean, the groups they have supported turned out to be bad and turned out eventually to be a domestic threat to them.

Daesh?

Daesh.

ISIS.

Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden before that, yes. So their bet now is the Trump administration’s anti-Iran policies and the Americans to do the heavy lifting against the Iranians that they are not willing to do.

 

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