By Robert A. Vella
For those interested in learning more about the postwar Middle East, which has destabilized the entire region along sectarian lines, the latest Frontline documentary Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia is for you. PBS aired Part One last night, and will air the concluding Part Two next week.
The film is two hours long, but the storyline is quite taut and moves along seamlessly with no unnecessary deviations. The content is very compelling, and I found myself wanting to watch the second part immediately afterwards. It is also expertly produced and directed, accurate and unbiased in its portrayal of the events of that period. The story is so focused on sectarianism, however, that some important components of Middle East history over the last half century were omitted such as the role of Egypt and the 1978 Camp David Accords.
The documentary begins with the 1953 Iranian coup, orchestrated by the British and American intelligence community, which overthrew the democratically elected prime minister (Mohammad Mosaddegh) to return power back to the Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) who was amenable to western oil interests. This pivotal event instilled great anti-American sentiment in Iran and eventually triggered the 1979 Iranian revolution which – for the first time in modern history – prompted Shi’a (Shiite) Muslims to expand their spiritually centric religious practices into the political arena. This, in turn, led to a profound ongoing schism between Iran and Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia which underlies the region’s worsening instability today. The beginning of the documentary also includes a fine historical review of the differences between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims.
Another pivotal event in this story is the 1979 Grand Mosque seizure where Sunni Muslim extremists, angered over the westernization (i.e. social liberalization) of Saudi Arabia, occupied the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and called for the overthrow of the House of Saud. Although the extremists were put down, the Saudi royal family conceded many of their demands which appeased the nation’s orthodox Wahhabi clerics.
The Middle East situation gets worse from there. With opposing Islamic fundamentalists controlling Iran and exerting great influence in Saudi Arabia, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan spurs the rise of militant Sunni extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda (funded indirectly by Saudi Arabia and the U.S.). The deadly sectarian Iran-Iraq War occurs, allying the West with Saudi Arabia and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein against Iran. Saddam’s subsequent invasion of Kuwait causes great consternation with his allies, and the Bush administration’s miscalculation (i.e. the Iraq War) after the 9/11 terrorist attacks (by al-Qaeda) seals his fate. With Saddam out of the way, Iran’s influence with the Shi’a population in Iraq intensifies as does the human carnage of sectarian conflict in that country and beyond.
The Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon and the rise of Iranian-backed Hezbollah are also examined, which I suspect will be covered with greater detail in Part Two – the advent of the Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL) and the Syrian Civil War.