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Did Iran really 'declare war' on Saudi Arabia in 2005?

ImageA review of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East by Kim Ghattas (Wildfire, 2020; 400pp; £10.99)

I do find it shocking that Kim Ghattas uses the word ‘black’ in such a negative way in the title of her new book about the Middle East.

Ghattas, a former BBC journalist, describes the upsurge of fundamentalism in the region since 1979 as a Black Wave. She takes this phrase from Egyptian film-maker, Youssef Chahine.

For me, the title seems to reinforce the idea of blackness as evil and anti-human – which is how Ghattas, a mainstream Western liberal, sees Islamic fundamentalism.

Ghattas has a chapter on Egypt in the early 1990s which is also called ‘Black Wave’.

In this chapter, Ghattas writes: ‘The most dramatic visual of the black wave crashing over Egypt was the veiling of dozens of its beloved, beautiful actresses, who had delighted generations of Egyptians and Arabs’.

Perhaps Ghattas and Chahine would say that the expression ‘black wave’ refers to this change that they saw in women’s clothing.

However, I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of the hijabs (headscarves) worn by newly-veiled Egyptian actresses were colours other than black. (A minority of actresses taking the veil wore the full-face niqab, which was most likely black.)

The subtitle of Ghattas’s book, Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled the Middle East, links the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (including the veil) to conflicts between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the past 40 years.

I wasn’t completely convinced by the lengths that Ghattas went to on this.

Yes, in the examples that Ghattas gives in her whirlwind history of the Greater Middle East from Egypt to Pakistan, you can usually see Saudi or Iranian influence contributing to the rise of religious fundamentalism.

But, as Ghattas herself admits at one point, the rise to power of the Islamic Right (my phrase, not hers) has many causes: ‘It was sometimes bolstered by weak leaders who used the Islamists to shore up their own legitimacy, like Sadat in Egypt, or even secular, socialist Bhutto [in Pakistan], who first introduced the ban on alcohol and instituted Friday as the weekly holiday instead of Sunday.’

Even when there are signs of Saudi or Iranian interference, it’s not often clear that this is caused by fear of, or rivalry with, the other country.

So, in Egypt in the 1990s, Ghattas suspects that wealthy people from Saudi Arabia (and other Gulf states) offered financial incentives to actresses to take up the veil – but she cannot find any hard evidence.

Ghattas does not give even the beginnings of an argument that this bribery had anything to do with Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran.

For the general reader, there is a lot of useful information on, and plenty of engaging human interest stories from, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and several other countries in the region – Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Syria.

I was surprised that Turkey and Palestine were left out, as there have been fascinating examples in both countries of Islamic fundamentalists taking power.

Ignoring the electoral success of Hamas in Palestine is particularly puzzling, given that claims to leadership in relation to Israel-Palestine are a big part of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

I’m all for South-South histories that put the experiences of people of colour at the centre of events, and look at the world from the point of view of the Global South.

That is definitely Ghattas’s aim here. The actors on her vast stage are local authoritarians of various stripes and those who have tried to resist them – Iranians like journalist Masih Alinejad (who threw off the hijab in exile), Pakistanis like television news anchor Mehtab Rashdi (who resigned rather than wear the dupatta scarf over her head), and many others. (I should say that Ghattas reports on a lot of men in the region who have resisted fundamentalism in different ways, and she highlights many issues apart from the veil.)

The trouble is that Ghattas doesn’t just prioritise the experiences and actions of the people of these countries. Ghattas pretty much covers up the many Western and Israeli crimes in the region during these years, mostly by barely mentioning them.

To take one painful example, there are, by my count, just 11 words in Black Wave describing the human impact of the comprehensive economic sanctions imposed on Iraq from 1991 to 2003, in the middle of Ghattas’s period.

Here are those 11 words: ‘Food shortages, decaying infrastructure, growing infant mortality, thousands leaving for exile – the 1990s had hollowed out the country.’

It would not have taken many words to mention that three top UN humanitarian workers in Iraq resigned their positions because of the increased death rates among children under five, and the scale of children’s chronic malnutrition (leading to lifelong mental and physical stunting) – all in a previously-rich country.

To take just one example, Denis Halliday resigned in 1998 from his position as the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq (after 34 years at the United Nations). Halliday wrote later: ‘I was driven to resignation because I refused to continue to take Security Council orders, the same Security Council that had imposed and sustained genocidal sanctions on the innocent of Iraq.’

In the late 1990s, the UN sanctions on Iraq (imposed largely by the US and UK) were a matter of outrage throughout the Greater Middle East that Ghattas is studying, and the suffering in Iraq caused by sanctions promoted ‘radicalisation’ of the exact kind that Ghattas focuses on.

At the end of her book, Ghattas writes: ‘In focusing mostly on the actions of Iran and Saudi Arabia and the multitude of local players, I did not intend to absolve America for the many mistakes it has made and the deadly policies it has so often pursued.’ (emphases added)

The plain fact is that Ghattas cannot break out of the straitjacket of the Western propaganda system. She cannot name Western crimes as crimes.

She can’t identify the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003 as a criminal act, or even let readers know that many in the region saw it that way.

The strongest words Ghattas uses in relation to the 2003 invasion?

She writes of ‘Washington’s misguided reasons for going to war’ with Iraq. (emphasis added)

‘Misguided reasons’, ‘mistakes’ and ‘deadly policies’. That’s as harsh as the criticism gets.

Let’s get to the heart of the book, the treatment of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Ghattas makes a number of important criticisms of both the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. She is hostile to the fundamentalism and authoritarianism of both systems.

However, she is not evenhanded in her treatment of the two countries. She is definitely biased against Iran.

This comes out in a number of ways, but the most obvious example is an incident in Lebanon, where Ghattas was born and raised. 

Iran ‘declares war’?

On 14 February 2005, a leading Lebanese politician, Rafiq Hariri, was assassinated by a massive car bomb in Beirut.

Beirut, Lebanon: scene of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005

Ghattas describes this killing in very dramatic terms: ‘Lebanon was changed forever. Few assassinations have provoked such a dramatic shift in the trajectory of events across an entire region. But that day, the Middle East shifted on its axis.’

She goes on: ‘The détente was over. Iran had declared war on Saudi Arabia.’ (emphasis added)

Hariri had made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, and was closely linked to the Saudi royal family. He was a very important figure in Lebanon – his assassination came less than four months after the end of his second term as the country’s prime minister.

One major problem with her ‘war declared’ claim is that Ghattas undermines it herself almost immediately.

She writes, just three sentences after her dramatic ‘changed forever/declared war’ claims: ‘The assassination [of Hariri] had been sanctioned by Damascus, and probably Iran’. (emphasis added)

How can Ghattas state as a fact that Iran definitely ‘declared war’ by assassinating Hariri, if she also says that it is only ‘probable’ that Tehran authorised the killing?

"Because Ghattas cannot break from a Western propaganda version of events, this is a deeply biased book.

She doesn’t just make the 'war' claim once.

Ghattas repeats the ‘declaration of war’ language two more times in the same chapter, including in this sentence: ‘With the killing of Hariri, Iran had unofficially declared war on Saudi Arabia....’

Reading the whole chapter carefully, we find no suggestion that Hariri had acted against Iran’s interests in the period leading up to his assassination, or that Iran had been angry with him, or that the Iranian supreme leader had threatened Hariri recently, or that Lebanese critics blamed Iran for Hariri’s death in the immediate aftermath of the car bombing.

However, according to Ghattas, all these things were true of Syria.

Ghattas rightly points out that an international investigation found that Hariri was killed by a member of Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party and paramilitary force partially funded by Iran.

However, according to Ghattas’s own account, Syria was the dominant power in Lebanon in February 2005, with large numbers of troops in the country (unlike Iran) and considerable control over Hezbollah.

According to Ghattas, Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad ‘made sure Iran understood that while Hezbollah could operate in Lebanon, he was the boss of the country.’ (emphasis in original)

She goes on: ‘Hezbollah had become a useful tool for Assad’ who ‘used Hezbollah to poke the Israelis on the border between Lebanon and Israel.’

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Ghattas writes: ‘While Iran worked to overpower Iraq, Assad and Hezbollah needed to make sure Lebanon remained theirs, and Hariri was getting in the way. He had to go.’

The phrasing of these two sentences suggests that Hariri’s death was very much in Syria’s interests, but not particularly urgent for Iran – and that Hezbollah had similar problems with Hariri.

In 2004, according to Ghattas, Hariri ‘was beginning to resent’ Syrian dominance of Lebanon: he ‘tried to undercut Syria’s stranglehold over the country by secretly helping to draft a UN resolution calling for a Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon.’ ‘The Syrians were furious,’ Ghattas writes.

Then Hariri tried to block an extended term for the Lebanese president, who Ghattas describes as ‘a stalwart ally of Damascus’.

Ghattas records a direct threat from the leader of Syria: ‘Bashar al-Assad warned that he would “break Lebanon over [Hariri’s] head”.’ (This was reported by Hariri himself to a number of people in Lebanon after he met Assad in Damascus in August 2004, circumstances that Ghattas does not mention.)

Ghattas points out that immediately after the assassination, ‘The accusing fingers [in Lebanon] immediately pointed at Syria’, and anti-Syrian demonstrators flooded the streets.

Whatever you make of Ghattas’s version of history (the leadership of Hezbollah was exonerated by the international tribunal, by the way), her own account undermines her initial dramatic claim that the Hariri assassination was ordered by the Iranian leadership – and amounted to a declaration of war by them against Saudi Arabia.

As Ghattas points out, there had been something of a truce between the Saudi kingdom and the Islamic republic for several years before February 2005.

To repeat, Ghattas says of Hariri’s death: ‘The détente was over. Iran had declared war on Saudi Arabia.’

However, Ghattas records that, even after the assassination, the new Saudi king, Abdallah, ‘tried to uphold the détente with Iran’, hosting the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Saudi Arabia ‘a few times’.

Ahmadinejad’s first official visit to Saudi Arabia was actually in March 2007, two years after the Hariri assassination – and just months after Iran had gained enormous prestige in the region for its support of Hezbollah as the Lebanese fighters forced Israel back out of Lebanon.

This 2007 visit is pretty strong evidence that the Saudi-Iranian détente did not end in 2005.

In fact, around this time, Iran was, among other things, trying to gain Saudi co-operation in managing post-Saddam Iraq – if the Saudis would form a common front demanding US withdrawal from the country.

This kind of diplomacy is not common when you’re fighting a war with someone.

A semi-official study in the US concluded in 2009 that: ‘Iran has [in recent years] tended to down play sectarianism in the bilateral relationship, criticizing anti-Shi’a rhetoric from Saudi Arabia, but often distinguishing between Saudi clerical voices and the regime itself.’

Again, this doesn’t sound like a full-on war.

Why should this review take such trouble over this incident? Partly because Ghattas herself makes so much of the Hariri assassination and its significance for the region.

Also, Ghattas’s writing about Hariri’s death shines a light on important aspects of her book. Ghattas sometimes twists the evidence to suit her argument. She is much more hostile to Iran than she is to Saudi Arabia. And she has a journalistic tendency to exaggerate. (For example: ‘The war in Syria would break the Middle East. It would break the world.’)

This is a readable, informative, even gripping, collection of stories from the Greater Middle East since 1979. Unfortunately, it is also unreliable as history. Because Ghattas cannot break from a Western propaganda version of events, this is a deeply biased book.

Milan Rai co-authored Drawing Paradise on the 'Axis of Evil'

Topics: Iran