When, at the end of 2010, crowds took to the streets of Tunisian towns and villages, calling for “freedom, dignity and jobs”, the European Union was more interested in finding a political definition for the outcry, instead of trying to understand the phenomenon that was occurring. Politicians, pundits, analysts and journalists immediately searched for a historical precedent in the form of analogous events in the western world. The main newspapers and periodicals immediately titled “The Arab 1989”, recalling the events that had taken place in Eastern Europe after the dismantling of the befestigte Staatsgrenze, or the antifaschisticher Schutzwall, the Berlin Wall. Some papers even made reference to earlier West European events: the “Spring of Nations” or the “Springtime of the Peoples” as Merriman defined the 1848 European revolutions in his A History of Modern Europe. But “Arab spring” and “Islamic revolutions” were the definitions used and quoted most frequently at that time. Though in Western countries both of them seemed to be the best definitions, in actual fact they were not an accurate reflection of the political basis for what had been happening in the Islamic world from 2010 onwards. As mentioned above, “spring” was a term used in reference to the revolutions that had taken place in Italy, Germany and Hungary in 1848, describing territories struggling to win liberation from multinational empires, or territories that shared languages, history and traditions, but that were divided into small kingdoms and states. And this was not the case for the 2010 events, as they took place in independent nation states. To express this in a different way, 1989 was the year in which states that were formally independent but under Soviet rule and influence regained full sovereignty, and no-one involved in the revolts was asking for political independence from external rule. The adjective “Arab”, preceding the term “spring” is also an incorrect word, because Sudan, Lebanon, Mauritania and part of Bahrain, and the inhabitants of those regions claiming or calling for reform, are not exclusively ethnic Arab peoples. And this is also true in the case of Iran. In fact, a few years earlier, in 2009, young Iranians had experienced the first attempt to awaken their country from the structural immobilism that had developed during the long post-revolutionary era.
If we had to coin a definition for the massive 2009 Iranian Green Wave protests, and more in general the 2010-2012 revolts, whether for journalistic brevity or in an attempt to categorise or to summarise their significance in a phrase, I would propose the term “awakening” as a translation of the original meaning of the Arabic term al-Nahda. This term is derived from the Arabic root n-h-d, meaning “to rise” or “to stand up”, “to be ready for”. An active connotation that accurately describes people asking for reforms, more democracy, the regime’s greater acceptance of plurality, and more than anything else, jobs and dignity. An awakening from what? An awakening from an old regime that in most cases was formed, supported and strengthened by Western powers. A rebirth, but in this case not of Arabic literature and thought under Western influence, as happened during the second half of the 19th century, but a repossession of political activism by the people, of their own dignity as human beings. People began to call for a new political era, and many of them showed that they were prepared to fight for the right to become “active citizens”. That meant being part of the Leviathan, no longer lost in the shapeless mass of a bureaucratic regime ruled by a small élite or by a single person embodying (virtually) absolute power.
This was the real meaning of the awakening that swept the Arab and Islamic world from the Atlantic coasts to the Persian Gulf, in which the principal role was played by young people, and for which the Islamic Republic of Iran was the first important example, with notable impact both on the home and international fronts. Those events had effects that are still clearly perceptible on the international scene. Iran’s political awakening began internally with the 2009 revolts, with further developments implemented with the events of November 2019. On an international plane, it was made possible by the signature of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (JCPOA), which would lead to a sort of Cold War in the Persian Gulf, between the Islamic Republic and the Saudi monarchy. This indirect confrontation shared many of the characteristics seen during the fifty-year bipolar situation.
The Iranian awakening: the country of revolutions
Persia, exactly like today’s Iran, has always been a profoundly dichotomic country. Trapped in a political slumber under the Qajar dynasty, it was caught up in the British and Tsarist expansionist ambitions for the whole of the 19th century. Never militarily conquered, it was subjected to an indirect domination, facilitated by economic underdevelopment principally due to the weakness of the dynasty in power, but also to the bureaucratic and administrative structure, whose marked decentralisation did not enable the Shah to wield adequate control over the various regions of the country. The ethnic dimension was of course a significant factor that was hard to control, above all in a country without a state bureaucracy, or stable and truly “national” armed forces,1 and it was a fundamental cause of the considerable fragmentation extant in society. This structural under-development was not mirrored by cultural stagnation. On the contrary. Intellectual activity, above all political thought, and the dynamic energy of literature and poetry, represented one of the characteristics of Iranian society, constituting a metahistorical continuum that links the country’s various historic phases. Nationalistic fervour was always very powerful amongst the Persians, and the influence wielded by Moscow and London not only on the government, but indirectly also on society, helped nurture a distinctively revolutionary streak in the Iranian people. The 1905-1911 revolution, which prepared the ground for writing the Constitution, was also a revolt against Great Britain and Tsarist Russia, in the quest for a new Iranian autonomy. Once the Qajar dynasty had been overthrown (1925), the new Pahlavi Shahs tried to propel the country towards modernity, sometimes using force. However, the burden of foreign influence would remain one of the most important factors affecting Iranian politics, and all ambitions of attaining real independence in the internal decision-making process, particularly as regards the economy, would be strongly opposed by Great Britain, and later by the United States. A good example is the coup d’état that they contrived against the Prime Minister Mossadeq (1953)2 in order to contravene his policy of nationalising oil resources. On the opposing front, from the 1960s Ruhollah Khomeini launched paradigmatic condemnations of the country’s excessive submission to Western habits and of the oppressive influence exerted by the United States. This anti-Western critique was accompanied by the mantra of increasing secularisation, which had begun right from the start of the Pahlavi’s rise to power, something that was criticised by Khomeini himself in the book Kashf al-Āsrār (Unveiling of Secrets; 1943), his first important work.3 The volume also includes a strong attack on Wahhabism, which highlights the powerful ideological and doctrinal divide between Shia Iran and Saudi Arabia: the latter’s juridical and theological version of Islam is in fact based precisely on the teachings of Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb.
The promotion of a Constitution and therefore the concept of a modern state based on justice, in addition to the reformist, innovative ideas by some of the country’s most prominent thinkers, such as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838 or 1839-1897) and Ali Shariati, amongst many others, provided a notable contribution to Iranian cultural and political dynamics, which would stimulate both thought and revolutions. In 1979 the combination of thought and revolution would culminate in the implementation of an entirely new politological concept, velāyat-e faqih, guardianship of the Islamic jurist, a juridical innovation developed by Ruhollah Khomeini himself during the year 1962, and which could be applied by means of an “Islamic republic” – only apparently an oxymoron. This was a political and institutional model that had never previously been seen, neither in the Islamic world nor on the global constitutional panorama.
Still today, in contemporary Iranian society, notwithstanding the rigid control imposed by the regime, a vitality of thought, and likewise cultural vigour, survive, fuelled by mass media and social networks which, notwithstanding the paradoxical governmental restrictions, are fairly widespread not just amongst the population, but also amongst institutional figures, who are well aware of how they can be successfully used. Nationalist fervour, which has never died out, remains an important tool for the government, which uses it at moments of internal political crisis. Society, which in Iran consists of prevalently young people,4 has legitimate aspirations for freedom, and personal and intellectual independence. It observes Western models with ambition, but also with a deep-rooted sense of criticism, feeling that these models should not be imposed by external factors or players, but should be the result of free personal choice. Amongst young Iranians there is a desire for effective freedom of choice, unaffected by any form of external imposition, nor by any internal limitations.
It was against this backdrop that a new attempt at reforming the country took root. In the light of the deliberate immobility of part of the élite – the true centre of power comprising the Rahbar, the Supreme Leader, his Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Sepah-e Pasdaran and the Basij, and its ancillary institutions (the Expediency Discernment Council; the Assembly of Experts of the Leadership and the Guardian Council of the Constitution) – a movement took shape as from the 2009 presidential electoral campaign, with the objective of changing Iran’s political identity. Despite operating within constitutional structures, the Jonbesh-e sabz (Green Movement) effectively proposed to go beyond the revolutionary approach of the 1970s. From its origins as a non-violent movement, with non-utopian ideals, and inspired by a desire for justice, it became a new model for the revolution, utilising the power of internet to spread its ideas and to mobilise the population. After all, nihil novi sub Sole. Paradoxically – and here we see a return of the dichotomy characteristic of the country and its revolutionary strength – Khomeini, during his exile in Najaf (1965-1978) and Paris (1978), did the same thing, using the contemporary technological weapons, broadcasting his sermons by means of cassettes that were smuggled into Iran, duplicated in hundreds of copies and distributed in the mosques and amongst the young people of the day. Decades later, the “Green Wave” was a movement that demanded not only new elections as a result of the presumed illegal interference in the vote,5 but also the abolition of the right of veto with regard to the a priori choice of candidates, in order to guarantee everyone access to active politics. In addition, it requested the release of political prisoners, freedom of expression, and an end to censorship. The demands, summarised in a manifesto, had been prepared in response to internal requirements, but some of them could be construed as having an international validity, becoming a model applicable to all countries in the area governed by autocratic regimes. The revolt in Iran was brutally repressed. Many activists were imprisoned, including the movement’s political leaders, such as Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the Hujjat al-Islam Mehdī Karrūbī, confined to house arrest. By means of the use of the web, the images of violence spread beyond the cloak of censorship, and caused considerable outcry in public opinion worldwide. However, the Iranian situation was viewed as an isolated event, and it was not considered as the spearhead of a more extensive movement, without an overall coordination, but rather as a symptom of trans-generational distress, common to many countries of the MENA Region, amplified by a lack of freedom of expression, employment, and therefore of dignity. The fact that Iran was considered as a rogue state, even by the public at large, impeded the recognition of the “Green Wave” activists as the players interpreting this distress and the precursors of a movement that, starting from December 2011, would spread to the entire northern segment of Africa as part of a remarkable and unpredictable domino effect, also crashing onto the eastern Mediterranean coasts like a gigantic wave, with consequences that were also felt by the Gulf monarchies when it returned to the area from which it had originated two years earlier, from a non-Arabic Islamic republic towards the Sunni monarchies.
The 2011 Arab revolts effectively marked the end not just of a social world, but above all of a political system that, in Europe, had begun to crumble much earlier, in 1989, with the consequent restoration of the effective independence of states beyond the Iron Curtain. In 1991 another sizeable section of the world broke away from bipolar politics, in a process that was not immune to dramatic and traumatic events. The implosion of the USSR freed the Baltic states, Central Asia and trans-Caucasian countries from Soviet domination. In the United States’ vision, the world was moving towards a new order, but the Near and Middle East still remained anchored to the doctrines of an old order. All this went on until 2011, when the Arabic world in revolt utilised many of the methods already experimented by the young Iranians to communicate their protests and to involve, at least in terms of ideals, Western public opinion, so that the breach of civil and individual liberties would come into the public view. The wave of change swept across many of the regions with a Muslim majority, except for Iran, the country where everything had started, but that was trapped in the decades-long embargo proclaimed by the United States in 1979, and had been banished to the margins of the international community, a situation that was reconfirmed by George Bush’s speech in 2002 which included the country as part of the so-called Axis of Evil (29 January 2002), along with Iraq and North Korea. The responsibility for this isolation also included some internal political decisions, such as the devastating Ahmadinejad Administration (2005-2013) that alienated the remaining international support possessed by the country, such as European advocates, due to Holocaust denial and the resumption of the national nuclear programme. While on one hand, this latter development had alarmed the United States and its closest allies in the area, Israel and Saudi Arabia, essential pillars of Washington’s national interests, on the other hand it provided a motivation to increase the intensity of the embargo against Iran and isolate it even further. While the world had moved beyond perfect bipolarity, the methods adopted by the United States’ international policies with regard to Tehran still reflected Cold War logic, contributing to the definition of its characteristics: economic and financial embargo, and a containment policy implemented by means of a cordon sanitaire wielded by military force and by allies that were compliant with, or who simply shared, Washington’s interests.
The economic weapon was widely used by the United States in the years after the Second World War, to the point that the technique itself was described as the Economic Cold War:6 In addition to sanctions against the Soviet Union and its satellite countries right from 1948, which became harsher after the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, to those against North Korea and China (1950), or North Vietnam (1964), the Economic Cold War was paradoxically used against the United States’ allies, Great Britain, France and Israel, for example during the 1956 Suez crisis. Embargo became the principal method to economically strangle Iran as well, in an attempt to instigate the population’s frustration and discontent to a point such as to induce it to overthrow its own government. But this did not happen. A longer-term analysis has historically demonstrated the political futility of this tool. A second Cold War tenet was the doctrine of containment, formulated by George Kennan. In the same way that the Soviet Union was encircled by a series of military alliances in order to limit its military and ideological expansion, in part by means of economic aid – the most famous example was the European Recovery Program (ERP) – offered to countries emerging from the war, Iran, after 1991, found itself surrounded by American troops stationed at bases in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates and Oman; just as in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Tehran began to suffer from the “encirclement syndrome”, and when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – one of the two pillars of American policy in the Middle East that was by no coincidence named “Dual containment”7 – had fallen, the Ayatollahs began to feel themselves as Washington’s next target, and they rapidly began to make amends. The Khatami presidency adopted a timid mitigation in the tension with the United States. In an interview with Christiane Amanpour, in January 1998 the Iranian president launched what could be defined as “cultural diplomacy”: by means of exchanges amongst writers, scholars, artists and intellectuals, he said that there was a possibility of creating “a crack in the wall of mistrust”: “I believe all doors should now be open for such dialogue and understanding and the possibility for contact between Iranian and American citizens”.8 This opening would reach maturation only a decade later, after the crisis between Tehran and the international community had reached its highest point with the implementation of sanctions by the European Union as well, exacerbated by additional pressure from the United States, after which there was a progressive phase of relaxation, which was entirely brought into effect by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed in Vienna on 14 July 2015.9 However, while the signature of the JCPOA partially ended the economic sanctions and endorsed the Islamic Republic’s return to the international political arena, in actual fact it did not trigger the process of détente desired by many. In fact, in the short term, a renewed Cold War began, not with the United States – whose crisis would become acute only under the Trump Administration – but with its principal ally in the Gulf: the Āl-Saʿūd monarchy, creating a regional Cold War.
A new Cold War in the Gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia
There seem to be many similarities between the 1947-1991 period, the conventional dating of the Cold War, and what happened, becoming more acute, at least from a political and international point of view, in the Persian Gulf region, even after the signature of the Vienna agreements. The fact that up until that time, Iran was burdened by international economic sanctions, and surrounded by hostile powers, including the strong American military presence in the area, relegated the country to the margins of the international community and prevented it from achieving its aspirations for regional leadership. The country that benefited from the instability in the area was Saudi Arabia, which, during the entire phase of conflict between the United States and Iraq (1991-2003) had absorbed Baghdad’s quota of petroleum sales, and which, with Iran out of the running, had the possibility of emerging as the sole regional Gulf power, both in economic-political and in ideological-religious terms. However, many observers did not understand that the safety system built around Iran over the last two decades had progressively crumbled, not as a result of Iranian power, but ironically due to American foreign policy. In fact, from 2001, the United States had eliminated two of Tehran’s principal adversaries, which had helped in the containment of Iran, even though indirectly: the Taleban of Afghanistan, overthrown in 2001, and Saddam Hussein’s regime, which fell in 2003. Once these two natural barriers on the eastern and western flanks had fallen, Iran’s expansionist policies found an opening, particularly towards the west, by exerting leverage on the many Shia communities, in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, even in Lebanon, through Syria. This effectively created a large “Shia crescent”, as defined by King Abdullah of Jordan,10 who warned against the danger: it effectively enabled Iran to project its power from the Gulf, the Shia epicentre, right across to the Mediterranean coasts.11 The “Shia crescent” should not be considered exclusively in terms of authority or expansion: in part it can be seen as an attempt to assuage the deep trauma of isolation suffered by Iran during the eight years of war with Iraq, when most Western countries and the Gulf monarchies supported Saddam Hussein’s regime in different ways, from the supply of weapons to providing massive finance so that the conflict could continue, and Tehran found itself surrounded and alone in the face of the enemy.
Iran’s reappearance thus triggered a power struggle that activated the latent conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, so that all the typical Cold War characteristics, modified in function of contemporary conditions, reappeared on the regional arena. These characteristics included the presence of two regional powers in mutual opposition, with a quest for power over the area, the fundamental role of ideology, the impossibility of a direct clash which led to the decision to use “war by proxy” in the attempt to damage the opponent’s power, and an armaments race. In addition, this new Cold War also used types of conflict and methods that had developed during the post-bipolar period, in addition to traditional methods that had been widely adopted by the major powers, which were thus able to substantiate their efficacy and validity.
In a way analogous to the Soviet Union and the United States on a global level, Iran and Saudi Arabia tried to expand their authority in a regional dimension, using not just the instruments typical of “hard power”, but also adopting “soft power”. The ideological component was fundamental during the Cold War, with the contrast between liberal democracy versus Marxism-Leninism, and collectivism versus individualism, but in this scenario the dichotomy was expressed in sectarian terms, with two opposing and differing visions of Islam, belonging to two minority currents within the complex Muslim religious doctrine: Shia Islam versus Wahhabism. The stakes in play in this area are very high, because if one side should become dominant with respect to the other, this would confirm the legitimacy not just of certain religious interpretations, but it would also legitimise governments (as in the examples of Syria and Iraq in the case of Shia prevalence), or it could provoke revolts and uprisings against opposing regimes or governments (as in the case of Bahrein, in which the Shia majority of the population is dominated by the Sunni al-Khalīfa minority). In the case of an overall Sunni predominance, this segment of the population, which represents the majority in Syria, could legitimately claim the right to govern the nation, a role that is currently held by the al-Assad Alawite-Shia minority. On the other hand, Shia supremacy could encourage activism on the part of minority groups, which, capitalising from the sectarian cause, would be induced to rebel against legitimate governments: the Zaydi in Yemen or the Shias in Saudi Arabia, above all in the eastern regions of Qatif and Al Ahsa.12
In addition to the significant confessional dichotomy, which would empower mobilisation and possibly influence the uprising of enormous numbers of believers, the opposing spheres are also institutionally polarised. On one hand there is an absolute, hereditary monarchy whose power is based on the clan-tribal links of the Āl-Saʿūd, the dynasty that has ruled in Saudi Arabia from when the kingdom was founded in 1932, following on from the Emirate of Diriyah, the first true Saudi state. On the opposite shores of the Persian Gulf is Iran, Islamic republic, whose institutions are politologically organised to guarantee free representation and a degree of balance between the state powers, even though there are still many rules that at times reduce actual personal freedom.
There is also an important overlying structural difference within the cultural dimension, a pivotal component of Iranian society and an element that genuinely hallmarks all its component classes. Iran can boast centuries of poetic and narrative tradition, comprising the great and celebrated poets of classical Neo-Persian literature, such as Ferdowsī Tūsī (940-1020), an exponent of Persian epic poetry, and the mystics Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273) and Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī (1315-1390),13 and as a result Iran has always claimed a (supposed) cultural superiority over the Arab populations, considered as backward, because they prevalently comprise nomadic and Bedouin peoples (in the disparaging sense of the terms) whose society, with prevalently oral culture and traditions, was generally illiterate and with an identity entirely based on orality.14 The Prophet Muhammad himself was illiterate. In practical terms, Persia has always stood out for its wealth of cultural tradition in comparison to Arab countries, and in many different areas it has always had notable influence on the cultural heritage of its invaders, starting from the Greeks, and later the Arabs, and then the Turks. This is how the sense of superiority perceived by the population is forged. Unlike the Arabic society on the other side of the Gulf, Persia was distinctive for its settled society, whose power was expressed by the large Sasanian empire, with a solid bureaucratic and administrative structure, written culture, and a love for poetry. As regards beliefs, the empire had a monotheistic religion, Zoroastrianism, ten centuries before the advent of Islam. In fact, many people believed that the Islamisation of Persia was a true culture shock, exacerbated by the collapse of the Sasanian civilisation itself. It should be remembered that while Iran was certainly Islamised, it was never Arabised, retaining its ancestral pride and traditions, including religious aspects. There are many beliefs of Zoroastrian origin that survive within the Islamic Republic still today.
By way of contrast, the Sunni world, and in particular Saudi Arabia, has a dual approach to the Shia/Iranian world. On one hand, it genuinely suffers from a cultural inferiority complex with respect to Persia, while from the political – and therefore religious – viewpoint, the Sunni world, and in particular Saudi Arabia, cherishes an analogous superiority complex. In its simplest terms, the new religion was born and grew in the peninsula. From here, the caliphates’ armies set out to conquer the world, taking control of vast areas which extended – at different times of history – from the Spain of al-Andalus right across to the Indus valley. Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holy cities, are today in Saudi territory, and, amongst his many titles, the Saudi monarch is also styled as Khadim al-as-Ḥaramayn Šarīfayn, Custodian of the Holy Mosques. Apart from the important historic and religious component that places this territory at the foundations of the birth of Islam, Saudi Arabia’s perception of its own superiority is also substantiated by an objective economic and military superiority. Thanks to American assistance in the defence sector and its large military investments, seven times higher than those of Iran,15 Riyadh can now rely on a modern army, even though it is numerically inferior to that of Tehran.16 However it benefits from a solid alliance with Washington, which has continued since 1945 following the so-called “Quincy Pact” and that has made the Āl-Saʿūd regime one of the pilasters of United States politics and hegemony in the area right from the Cold War years. This was an alliance that was given its definitive form on the basis of an agreement that could be summarised as “oil for arms” or, more accurately, “oil for protection”, and that managed to survive through many historical phases and crises, including some dramatic episodes, such as the 1973 OPEC embargo, which caused a global energy crisis, right through to the devastating 9-11 terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi citizens.17 Its armed forces are the best equipped in the region, and represent a valuable tool for the country’s assertive foreign policy. Over the last few years, Riyadh has always been near the top of the global rankings in terms of military expenses and arms imports.
Another way in which the Cold War has taken contemporary form in the Gulf can be seen in the use of “war by proxy”. During the most acute phases of the 20th century’s bipolar confrontation, the two superpowers adopted a strategy that political scientist Karl Deutsch defined in 1964 as “an international conflict between two foreign powers, fought out on the soil of a third country; disguised as a conflict over an internal issue of that country; and using some of that country’s manpower, resources and territory as a means for achieving preponderantly foreign goals and foreign strategies”.18 It is interesting that the definition of proxy war formulated by Deutsch, a political scientist of Czech origin, does not limit the use of this practice to the superpowers, but refers more in general to two foreign powers, therefore expanding the definition’s field of relevance, giving plausibility to the use of proxy war even by regional players. In fact, this method is widely adopted by Iran and Saudi Arabia in order to inflict mutual damage, while avoiding a direct conflict. The occasion that provided the opportunity for initiating this indirect clash was offered to the two opponents by the 2011 events. Both Tehran and Riyadh attempted to benefit from the situation created by the protests that began to sweep across the Arab world, using them within the realm of proxy war.
From the Iranian viewpoint, the local protests could provide an opportunity to widen the fault line of sectarian crisis within Saudi Arabia, utilising the Shia groups living in the eastern parts of the country to destabilise it from inside. On the other hand, Riyadh, whose prerogative was to maintain the status quo, leapt at the occasion to silence one of the most critical and dangerous voices expressing Shia positions: that of Nimr Bāqir al-Nimr. In fact, the opposing strategies revolved around this personality, a Saudi Shia Sheikh. Paladin of minority Shia rights in Saudi Arabia, al-Nimr had launched a staunch opposition to what he defined as “the authoritarianism of the reactionary al-Saud regime”. His religious centre, in the town of Al-‘Awāmiyah, had become a hot spot for anti-governmental activities, and from 2011, taking advantage of the news of tumults that were spreading through the Arab world like wildfire, al-Nimr prominently demanded greater independence for Shia majority regions, the liberation of Hezbollah al-Hijaz militants who had been imprisoned because they were held responsible for the terrorist attack on Khobar Towers (2006), and the withdrawal of Saudi troops in Bahrein, where they had been stationed in support of the Sunni Al-Khalīfa monarchy that governs a Shia-majority country. In a meeting with some American political officers, whose proceedings were published by WikiLeaks, as well as sharing “the conciliatory ideas such as fair political decision-making over identity-based politics, the positive impact of elections, and strong ‘American ideals’ such as liberty and justice”, al-Nimr supported “the right of the Saudi Shia community to seek external assistance if it were to become embroiled in a conflict”.19 This was an obvious and unconcealed reference to Iran, which had provoked growing concern amongst the Saudis, already intensely alarmed about Iranian influence on their neighbour Iraq.20 Tehran thus tried to use the Sheikh’s power to damage the Saudi monarchy from within, using religion as a weapon that could have potentially had a notable economic impact. In fact, in the Shia-majority eastern regions of Saudi Arabia, there are large oil production plants in which the labour is Shiite, and where a strike amongst the workers could have caused a partial block in the activity of the oil wells. The worst scenario, that of secession, requested on many occasions by al-Nimr, would have been a catastrophe for the monarchy in power.21 In the hands of Tehran, al-Nimr would have represented a pivotal destabilising factor, which could be activated when opportune, alongside or as an alternative to the Shiite militants already active in the peninsula, such as the members of Hezbollah al-Hijaz,22 also known as Ansar Khat al-Imam (The companions/followers of the Imam, referring to Khomeini), a true fifth column with significant contacts with Lebanon’s “Party of God”.
In this outlook, Riyadh reacted with great severity. After months of revolts and violence in the Shia provinces, in July 2012 al-Nimr and many of his followers were arrested. Tension grew with Iran, which, as announced by Ali Khamenei himself, threatened serious consequences if the Sheikh was not released. But on 2 January 2016, al-Nimr was executed along with 46 other people, the highest number of executions in a single day since 1980.23 The execution, in addition to provoking international consternation and outcry, prompting requests for Saudi Arabia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations – of which, with a macabre twist of irony characterising the mechanisms of international politics, it was a member – gave rise to a wave of protests above all in Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei invoked “a divine revenge”; the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was torched, and the Consulate in Mashhad was raided. Even though the Supreme Leader Khamenei himself quickly condemned the attacks on the diplomatic offices, Saudi Arabia retaliated politically by breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran.24
Alongside the scenario in which the territory of conflict was Saudi Arabia itself, there were another two areas, far more significant in terms of the intensity of combat, on which the armed forces and militants of the two powers in the region were indirectly opposed: Syria and Yemen. In Syria, proxy war transformed an internal conflict into a “local world war”, a politological oxymoron that nonetheless provides a good description for the clash, in a relatively small country, between the interests of global powers, namely the United States and Russia; and regional powers, which saw the appearance of Erdoğan’s ambivalent Turkey in addition to Iran and Saudi Arabia. All these powers supported the various fundamentalist groups and militias that gave rise to a jihadist galaxy, prolonging the conflict for almost a decade.25 Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the Sepah-e Pasdaran, with the “Holy Brigade” (Nīrū–ye Qods or Sepāh-e Qods – Quds Force), rushed to the aid of their Alavid Shia ally. In the attempt to make the operation “globally” Shia, showing that all Shia brethren were coming to the help of the Alavids, they also turned to militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, Liwa Zainebiyoun (لواء الفاطميون; Followers of Zainab Brigade), consisting prevalently of Pakistanis from the Hazara ethnic group that had sought refuge in Iran in order to escape from the growing persecutions performed by Deobandi and Salafi groups operating in Pakistan.26 It was in fact the increase in sectarian groups that made it easier for Iran to recruit militia fighters, who were then united in the brigade placed under direct IRGC control. Alongside the Liwa Zainebiyoun, the Iranian proxy forces also included a brigade of Afghan fighters, the Liwa Fatemiyoun (Fatemiyoun Brigade), also known as Hezbollah Afghanistan. In this case once again, the members of the brigade were from the Hazara ethnic group living in Afghanistan or recruited amongst the Afghan refugees in Iran. According to an enquiry by the Wall Street Journal, the Tehran government offered them a monthly salary of 500 dollars,27 in addition to the promise of citizenship.28 The Iranian press agency Daneshjoo, commemorating the martyrdom of young Afghans killed in Syria, provides valuable materials enabling better knowledge of the groups affiliated to Tehran and operating in Syria.29 It reveals that in addition to Afghan fighters, the Fatemiyoun apparently comprised Iraqi militants from the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), a branch of Moqtad al Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi and already operational during the dramatic period of political turmoil in Iraq since 2006, the Khaddam al-Aqeela, Liwa Zulfikar30 and the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, also part of al Sadr’s area of influence, which had been fighting in Syria from the very beginning of the war. Partially completing the Shia galaxy of combatant groups mobilised to protect the sacred Shia sites in Syria – in other words, in opposition to the rise of Wahhabism and Salafism, also propounded by Daesh that considers these locations as sacrilegious – are the groups Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba’ (Movement of the Outstanding Ones of the Party of God), Saraya al-Khorasani (Khorasani Brigade), Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ (Lord of the Martyrs Brigade), Liwa Ammar Ibn Yassir (Ammar Ibn Yassir Brigade) and Liwa al-Yum al-Mawud (Brigade of the Promised Day).31 The very number of the groups involved suggests the dimension of the efforts – both in political intermediation and in organisation – made by Tehran in its attempt to increase its presence in Syria, by involving players outside the realms of the state that could be easily manoeuvred and that were ready to defend the Islamic Republic’s national interests.
In the same way, Saudi Arabia followed the technique of proxy war, enacting a dual strategy in order to hinder Iran’s potential predominance in Syria. On one hand, it conducted political-ideological efforts encouraging the establishment of the salafiyya movement in Syria, by means of which it could expand its influence, while on the other it provided finance or the supply of weapons to groups of proven Wahhabi faith, such as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (or more simply Ahrar al-Sham; Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant) and Jaysh al-Islam, which aspire to the foundation of an Islamic State and the establishment of the Shariah. These are numerically large groups, each of which can count on a strength of approximately 15,000-20,000 men.32 The Saudi efforts utilised finance as a lever in the attempt to coalesce the militant Salafi galaxy in Syria as much as possible, inducing the groups to merge, creating “fronts” and multi-brigade units that made it easier to coordinate military activities and facilitate their direct control. The project of polarizing rebel groups also accommodated requests from the Ulama’ Association in Syria, which, in compliance with the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous project, promoted the unification of militant Islamic factions in the field and the organisation and alignment of their ranks into a single administrative and directorial structure in order to face the Assad army and to resist Iran’s “colonial plans.”33 This fusion, whose focal point was represented by the Jaysh al-Islam, should have given rise to The Army of Muhammad (Jaysh al-Muhammad), with 250,000 men. Arming a force of this size may seem problematic and costly, but it would be highly profitable in terms of political fidelity, and Saudi Arabia did not hesitate from providing assistance, by means of a complex system of foundations and multi-step transfers in the purchase of weapons. In some instances of this system, considering 2016 alone, Riyadh spent millions of dollars to purchase arms from Bulgaria (1 million in 2016 and 15 million in 2017), Serbia (11 million) and Croatia (5.8 million),34 including a lot of Soviet-manufactured ammunition, warheads and rocket launchers, certainly ill-fitted to the Saudi army that was equipped with weaponry arriving from the United States, but which nonetheless reached Syria with logistical assistance provided by the CIA,35 and that was subsequently distributed to rebel Syrian groups. The United States then made an important contribution, by means of the Timber Sycamore covert operation authorised by President Obama in 2013. According to the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, by means of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Government in Washington facilitated the transfer of weapons, ammunition and equipment for a value of a billion dollars to rebel Syrian groups in the hope of encouraging negotiations that could help end the conflict.36 It was one of the largest military aid programmes for arming and training rebels since the CIA had supported the Afghan mujaheddins in their struggle against Soviet forces during the 1980s. The history of the Cold War thus seems to repeat itself, including its negative outcomes. In fact, in the same way that some of the American weapons destined for the Afghan fighters ended up in the hands of the Taleban after the conflict, likewise in this case the weaponry systems intended for the Syrian rebels came into the possession of groups affiliated to Al-Qaeda by means of Jabhat al-Nuṣra (Front of the Supporters). Paradoxically, the weapons that should have contributed to the fall of the Syrian regime, a fundamental player for Tehran and Moscow in the area, ended up by arming, with Saudi finance,37 one of Washington’s and Riyadh’s arch-enemies: components of the terror network constructed by Osama bin Laden.38
Iran’s military efforts, and likewise Saudi and American financial and military support, helped to dramatically prolong the Syrian conflict, which has reached its tenth year. In the same way, there seems to be no solution for the scenario in Yemen, the other theatre in which the two Gulf powers are opposed, in a war that has destroyed the country’s social and economic structure, provoking famine and widespread cholera epidemics that have had terrible effects on the local population. Saudi Arabia is directly involved in this arena. It is present in the field with two armed battlegroups and 2,500 men, as part of Operation Restoring Hope, assisted by many other countries including its closest Gulf allies.
Iran has adopted a dual strategy comparable to that of Saudi Arabia, utilising “hard power” in the form of indirect military support provided for tribal coalitions (“popular committees”) or for secessionist groups such as Aḥrār an-Najrān (Free Ones of the Najran) or Harakat Ansar Allah, by means of the Guardians of the Revolution39 or through components of the Lebanese Hezbollah, fighting alongside the Shia Houthi (al-Ḥūthiyyūn), as revealed by observations in the field.40 An analysis of the weapons used in the Yemenite war theatre shows that Iran despatched drones and missile systems (know-how, operational concepts, and hardware) in order to launch attacks deep inside the territory or against Saudi aerial defences.41 In the context of proxy war, Iran’s hard power is obviously limited to the supply of weapons, training and military expertise. Nonetheless, for Iran it is still crucial to contain and strike Riyadh on its weakest front, in the south, in order to induce Saudi Arabia and its Emirate (UAE) allies to keep their military capabilities engaged in what is essentially a long-protracted conflict. This echoes Washington’s actions against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and Beijing’s and Moscow’s conduct with respect to the United States in Vietnam. Cold War strategies that continue to return.
However, in this case it is a commitment of lesser dimensions when compared to other scenarios such as those of Iraq or Syria, without any troops officially sent to Yemeni territory. In fact it would be difficult for Tehran’s government to invest greater resources or accept more tasks in the support of the Houthi movement, considering the economic crisis exacerbated by the fall in oil prices and the 2020 health emergency, in addition to its direct involvement in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which take priority in the light of Iran’s national interests. Tehran is also aware that a possible military escalation could lead to a direct conflict with Riyadh, or could provide the United States with an excuse to attack Iran, something that the Americans have been searching for at length. As a result, the ayatollahs are relying on two of the most important tools in Iran’s soft power: political Shi’ism, mass media and social media.
Yemen is perhaps the only country outside the increasingly limited Iranian and Lebanese circles in which the first wave of revolutionary Shi’ism – that which hallmarked the events in 1978-79 that led to the fall of the Shah and the foundation of the Islamic Republic – still survives. Local propaganda is steeped in Khomeini influence, as can be observed from speeches by Hussein Ḥūthī which still today represent the Shia movement’s ideological point of reference and include extensive quotes from addresses by Ayatollah Khomeini, in addition to constant references to the struggle against colonialism and Zionism, typical of the programmatic directions adopted by Sayyed Hassan Nasr Allah, Secretary General of Hezbollah.42 In fact, from the 1980s, Tehran attempted to attract the Zaydi community into its circles, giving many young Yemenis the chance of studying and training free of charge in Iran, above all in the sacred city of Qom, where they consequently came into contact with the new clerical directorship and the ideals of political revolutionary Shi’ism. Many of the past and present leaders of the Houthi movement emerged from these people. As a result of the intense activity by the Iranian Embassy in Sana‘a, Tehran was able to open a series of schools and Twelver religious institutes, magazines and cultural centres, in order to promote Jafarism (the Shia school of Legal Thought and Jurisprudence, from the name of the sixth Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, 8th century)43 directly within the Arab country. Some of the students at the Twelver schools in Yemen came into contact with officials of the Sepah-e Pasdaran and were successively sent to special training centres that instructed them in military expertise.44 Still today, Tehran finances a number of satellite channels broadcasting in Yemen, and helps to train a wide range of professionals in Iran, Lebanon and Iraq who are then employed in Yemeni media channels, as experts in satellite transmissions, directors, cameramen, radio, television and press journalists, and above all, experts in social media management. The principal subjects to be exploited, which are broadcast and amplified principally on Twitter and Facebook, are connected to the Saudi coalition’s devastation and crimes against the civil population, in particular as a result of indiscriminate air strikes. The narrative tends to highlight the enemy’s brutal and bloodthirsty behaviour. The Saudis and the members of the coalition supporting the official Yemeni government are always defined as al-ghozan (the aggressors) or al-munāfiqūn (ﻣﻨﺎﻓﻘﻮﻥ; the hypocrites). This is an important point of reference, particularly from a religious point of view, because it appears in many different parts of the Quran and identifies the adversaries of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, who, though calling themselves Muslims, adopt attitudes and behaviour in contrast with Islam.45
But many posts are also dedicated to tactical successes in the field, obtained by means of missile attacks performed by the Zaydi. The content appearing in social media managed by the Iranians is generally in English, while that by the Shia Yemenis is principally in Arabic, both in its traditional modern version (al-fuṣḥā) and in the local colloquial version (al-Ammiyah). Clearly there is a desire to give international visibility to the success of the attacks using a widely-spoken language such as English, but this is accompanied by the attempt to influence the Arabic-speaking communities, both local society and supporters of the Houthi, or, more in general, the communities and militant groups who feel hatred, or outright hostility, towards Saudi Arabia for its doctrinal concepts or its foreign policy. One of the most important reasons for the bitter opposition to the Saudi monarchy, also on the part of fundamentalist or jihadist groups, is its alliance with the United States. These Jihadist-Salafi groups represent an enemy for both fronts. In fact, in the Yemeni theatre, Al-Qaeda and branches of Islamic State exploit social vulnerability to attract new recruits and bolster the scarce numbers of their groups. The same media channels are used by the Saudis and the Yemeni government. In this case, the Houthis are disparaged, accused of war crimes against civilians and often described as inhuman.
Unfortunately the Yemeni scenario has for some time become a war of prestige, in which the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are trying to obtain a political victory, at the expense of the local population. Unlike the Syrian arena, which for a long time was under the scrutiny of the media and international public opinion partly as a result of the involvement of two major powers, the USA and Russia, both of whom were trying to reinforce their role in the area, but above all because of Daesh, a terrorist proto-state that also threatened the national security of Western countries and the stability of strategically-important regions due to their oil resources, the Yemeni conflict is to all effects and purposes a forgotten war. It is a conflict accompanied by a complete lack of interest, just as for the Iran-Iraq war in the past, for which the West and its Gulf allies considered it essential that two of the contenders for regional authority should gradually wear each other down in a long war of attrition, exactly analogous to the situation for the Western powers during the Great War. Or as in the case of the war in Afghanistan, another proxy war which, in the view of Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. National Security Adviser, was intended to ensnare the Red Army in what would become its Vietnam.46 And that is precisely what it became.
Today the Saudis cannot accept the idea that a regime supported by Tehran could take power on its southern border and that in the future it could be able to control the entire territory of the southern Arabian peninsula. Riyadh was induced to intervene forcefully and directly in Yemen because of the perceived direct threat to its sacred territory. These operations are slowly sapping its resources, including its economy. On the opposite front, Iran has already suffered a series of significant political defeats: from the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal, effectively marking the end of the moderate government embodied by the Rohani Administration, to the killing of the key figure in Shia expansionism throughout the entire Middle East, namely Qassem Soleymani, celebrated in life as the living martyr, and now as the symbol of a disproportionate and ignoble struggle. As a result, both are in the search of internal revival, and it is this that usually transforms wars into protracted conflicts.
Unlike the traditional Cold War, the Gulf conflict is a multi-dimensional war, with greater probabilities of becoming more intense, because it is not founded on the pilasters of “Mutual Assured Destruction”, and above all, it is less predictable. While the beginning of the end of the bipolar conflict was marked by the collapse of the antifaschisticher Schutzwall, built to mark and counterpose different political axioms, and which became a symbolic location of the Cold War, in the Near-Middle-East context and that of the Persian Gulf there is no symbolic location to be demolished. The walls of this theatre seem to be far more durable than the Iron Curtain identified by Churchill at Fulton in distant 1947, because they are solidly built on a political basis, but with foundations that are religious, sectarian, and linked to identity.
University of Bergamo
Michele Brunelli is professor of History and Institutions of Muslim and Asian societies and of African History and Institutions, and Director of the 2nd Level Master in Preventing and combating radicalisation and terrorism, and fostering integration and international security (MaRTe) at the University of Bergamo. He is also professor of History of Civilisations and political cultures at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Brescia. Since 2018 he has been manager of the international project PRaNet – Prevention Radicalisation Network, financed by MIUR (Ministry of Universities and Research), in cooperation with Algeria and Azerbaijan, which comprises, in addition to research activities, the planning and implementation of professional courses for actors in security and local civil society. He works on themes involving the history, international relations and geopolitics of the Near and Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the Caucasus, with specific reference to security, regional stability, transnational criminality, terrorism and their resulting impact on European and Italian security. He works with various international magazines, including Jane’s Intelligence Review and Storia Urbana (Urban History).
1 For a detailed study, see: Colin Meredith; “Early Qajar Administration: An Analysis of Its Development and Functions”; Iranian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2/3, Administrative Developments in Qajar Iran (Spring-Summer, 1971), pp. 59-84; Hooshang Amirahmadi; The Political Economy of Iran Under the Qajars. Society, Politics, Economics and Foreign Relations 1796-1926; I.B. Tauris; London – New York; 2012.
2 In 2013, in accordance with the CIA Freedom of Information Act release, many documents of the United States Administration were declassified, and these confirm the role that the Central Intelligence Agency played in the 1953 coup d’état. See National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 435. And more specifically, the reports by Donald N. Wilber, Overthrow of Premier Mossadeq of Iran: November 1952 – August 1953, CIA, Clandestine Services History, March 1954, and in particular appendix A – Initial Operational Plan for TPAJAX, 1 June 1953, Appendix D – Report on Military Planning Aspect of TPAJAX. See also: The National Archives of the United Kingdom (TNA): Public Record Office (PRO) FCO 8/3216, File No. P 333/2, Folder, “Iran: Release of Confidential Records,” 1 Jan – 31 Dec 1978. See also: Darioush Bayandor; Iran and the CIA: The Fall of Mosaddeq Revisited; Palgrave Macmillan; Hampshire; 2010.
3 Vanessa Martin; “Religion and State in Khumainī’s Kashf al-asrār”; in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 56, n. 1 (1993), pp. 34-45.
4 The average age of the Iranian population, comprising over 83 million people, is 32 (2020). Source: https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/iran-population/
5 Ali Ansari, Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran’s 2009 Presidential Election; Chatham House, London, 21 June 2009; https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/Research/Middle%20East/iranelection0609.pdf
6 Ian Jackson; The Economic Cold War America, Britain and East–West Trade, 1948-63; Palgrave Macmillan, London-New York; 2001; Shu Guang Zhang; Economic Cold War: America’s Embargo Against China and the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1949-1963; Stanford University Press; Stanford; 2002.
7 On this subject, the extensive literature includes: F. Gregory Gause; “The Illogic of Dual Containment”, Foreign Affairs Vol. 73, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1994), pp. 56-66; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Murphy; “Differentiated Containment”; Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 3 (May – Jun., 1997), pp. 20-30; Alex Edwards, Dual Containment Policy in the Persian Gulf: The USA, Iran, and Iraq, 1991-2000; Palgrave Macmillan, London-New York; 2014.
8 CNN, Transcript of interview with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami; 7 January 1998; http://edition.cnn.com/WORLD/9801/07/iran/interview.html
9 For the text of the agreement, see: Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; https://www.europarl.europa.eu/cmsdata/122460/full-text-of-the-iran-nuclear-deal.pdf
10 Robin Wright and Peter Baker, ‘Iraq, Jordan See Threat To Election From Iran’, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2004/12/08/iraq-jordan-see-threat-to-election-from-iran/7e0cc1bc-aeb3-447a-bc9e-cfa5499699bc/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.6b3adea90f29
11 The first tangible demonstration of this expansion of power was seen in 2011, when for the first time, two ships belonging to the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy transited the Suez Canal and reached the Mediterranean for a training mission and to visit the port of Latakia in Syria. The Iranian mission provoked widespread alarm in Israel. See: Joshua C. Himes; The Iranian Navy’s Historic Mediterranean Deployment: Timing Is Everything; Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), 21 March 2011; https://www.csis.org/analysis/iranian-navy%E2%80%99s-historic-mediterranean-deployment-timing-everything; Anthony Chibarirwe; “Iranian Presence in Mediterranean Sea Alarms Israel”, in The Trumpet Brief; 8 February 2018; https://www.thetrumpet.com/16875-iranian-presence-in-mediterranean-sea-alarms-israel.
12 Consider that in Saudi Arabia, the Shia represent about 10/15-25% of the population. The delta between the two percentages is due to the lack of precise information, in other words a census which could reveal the actual size of the respective community, because this could highlight the group’s effective power and enhance secessionist movements. For this reason, the Saudi-Arabian statistics office does not supply any data, and specifies just that the state religion is Islam. (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/12/5-facts-about-religion-in-saudi-arabia/; https://gulf2000.columbia.edu/images/maps/GulfReligionGeneral_lg.png )
13 Even during the Arab golden age, that of the Abbasid Caliphate, with the school of Damascus and the school of Baghdad (750-1258), the major poets and writers were Persian. Examples include Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), Al-Tabari (839-923), al-Rāzi, and Ferdowsi himself, even though there are a good number of outstanding Arab poets and authors.
14 For a detailed study on Iran’s reluctance with respect to Arabic culture, see: Farnaz Seifi; “Why isn’t Arab literature popular in Iran?”, Middle East Institute; 12 May 2020; https://www.mei.edu/publications/why-isnt-arab-literature-popular-iran.
15 In 2019, Saudi Arabia spent 62.5 billion dollars on defence, as compared to the 9.6 billion spent by Iran. See: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/Data%20for%20all%20countries%20from%201988%E2%80%932019%20in%20constant%20%282018%29%20USD.pdf
16 Iran can count on 610,000 men in the armed forces (24% of the region’s total), with an additional 350,000 reserve soldiers; this can be compared to the 227,000 men in the Saudi forces (9% of those in the region). The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), The Military Balance 2020; Vol. 120, Routledge, London, 2020.
17 For a detailed study of the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia, the vast literature on this theme includes: Parker T. Hart; Saudi Arabia and the United States: Birth of a Security Partnership; Indiana University Press, Bloomington; 1998; David E. Long; The United States and Saudi Arabia: Ambivalent Allies; Routledge, London; 2019.
18 See: Karl W. Deutsch, ‘External Involvement in Internal War’, in Harry Eckstein (ed.), Internal War, Problems and Approaches (New York, NY: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964). Another useful reference is Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, “The strategy of war by proxy”, in Cooperation and Conflict, XIX (1984), pp. 263-273.
19 Meeting with controversial Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, (C-CT7-00989); 23 August 2008; 08RIYADH1283_a; https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08RIYADH1283_a.html#
20 “Saudi King Abdullah and senior princes on Saudi policy towards Iraq”, 28 April 2008 https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08RIYADH649_a.html
21 “Watching Bahrain, Saudi Shi’ites demand reforms”, in World News, 22 February 2011, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-saudi-shiites/watching-bahrain-saudi-shiites-demand-reforms-idUSTRE71L33820110222. Even earlier than 2011, al-Nimr had referred to the possibility of secession if the Sunni majority persisted in discriminating against and persecuting the Shiites. See: “Bomb-for-peace”, Al Haram, 7 – 13 May 2009; Issue No. 946; https://www.webcitation.org/65eZJ23ud?url=http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/946/re7.htm.
22 For more details on the group, see: Toby Matthiesen; “Hizbullah al-Hijaz: A History of The Most Radical Saudi Shi’a Opposition Group”; in The Middle East Journal, Vol. 64, n. 2, Spring 2010; Matthew Levitt, “Iranian and Hezbollah Threats to Saudi Arabia: Past Precedents”, in PolicyWatch n. 2426, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 19 May 2015.
23 “Saudi Arabia: Mass Execution Largest Since 1980; Human Rights Watch; 4 January 2016; https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/04/saudi-arabia-mass-execution-largest-1980
24 Matthiesen, “A Saudi Spring?” pp. 628–659; Saudi Arabia cut all ties with Iran, Tabnak, 3 January 2016, https://www.tabnak.ir/fa/news/558403/عربستان-تمامی-روابط-با-ایران-را-به-طور-کامل-قطع-کرد-ویدیو
25 For Western sources, see: Elizabeth O’Bagy; “Jihad in Syria”, Middle East Security Report, Institute of War; Washington; September 2012; for Russian institutional information, see: Anti-government extremist organizations in Syria; The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) – Российский совет по международным делам; 15/11/2006; https://russiancouncil.ru/en/syria-extremism;
26 Eamon Murphy; Islam and Sectarian Violence in Pakistan: The Terror Within; Routledge, New York, 2019.
27 Farnaz Fassihi; “Iran Pays Afghans to Fight for Assad: Offers Them $500 Stipend, Residency Benefits”, in The Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2014.
28 According to the Turkish press agency Anadolu: “Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has ordered that Afghan fighters fighting in Syria as part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG)’s Fatimiyyoun Brigade be granted Iranian citizenship, according to an Iranian official”. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/iran-to-grant-citizenship-to-afghans-fighting-in-syria/770377
29 “ويضيف التقرير أن لواء “فاطميون” يتكون من مقاتلين أفغان وعراقيين من ألوية “كتائب أهل الحق” و”خدام العقيلة” و”ذو الفقار” و”أبو الفضل العباس”، ويشارك في المعارك منذ انطلاقها بسوريا إلى جانب قوات النظام تحت مسمى “الدفاع عن الأضرحة الشيعية” من قبيل مقامي السيدة زينب بنت علي بن أبي طالب ورقية بنت الحسين، على حد تعبير الوكالة.” https://www.alarabiya.net/ar/iran/2014/05/15/مقتل-4-إيرانيين–وأفغانيين–تابعين–لميليشات–الأسد
30 Phillip Smyth, Liwa’a Zulfiqar, Jihadology, 3 February 2014.
31 Nicholas A. Heras; “Iraq’s Fifth Column. Iran’s Proxy network”; Policy Paper 2017-02; Middle East Institute, Counterterrorism Series; October 2017; https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/publications/PP2_Heras_IraqCT_0.pdf
33 بعد سحب الاعتراف بـ”الائتلاف”… زمان الوصل” تكشف عن تأسيس “جيش محمد” السني (Zaman al-Wasl reveals the establishment of the Sunni Army of Muhammad); https://www.zamanalwsl.net/news/article/41361
34 For the value of arms imports, see the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database “TIV of arms exports to Saudi Arabia, 2012-2019”. For a more detailed analysis, see also: Pieter D. Wezeman; “Saudi Arabia, armaments and conflict in the Middle East”; 14 December 2018 SIPRI; https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2018/saudi-arabia-armaments-and-conflict-middle-east
35 Lawrence Marzouk, Ivan Angelovski and Jelena Svircic; “Croatian Arms Sales to Saudi Arabia Fuel Syrian War” Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP); 21 February 2017; https://www.occrp.org/en/makingakilling/croatia-sells-record-number-of-arms-to-saudi-arabia-in-2016/
36 Shannon Dick, “The Arms Trade and Syria”; in Georgetown Journal of International Affairs; 2 September 2019; https://www.georgetownjournalofinternationalaffairs.org/online-edition/2019/9/2/the-arms-trade-and-syria. See also “Behind the Sudden Death of a $1 Billion Secret C.I.A. War in Syria”; The New York Times, 2 August 2017; https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/world/middleeast/cia-syria-rebel-arm-train-trump.html.
37 “U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels”; 23 January 2016 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/world/middleeast/us-relies-heavily-on-saudi-money-to-support-syrian-rebels.html
38 “Trump Eyes Tax-Code Overhaul, With Emphasis on Middle-Class Break”; The Wall Street Journal; 25 July 2017; https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-eyes-tax-code-overhaul-with-emphasis-on-middle-class-break-1501027057
39 “Elite Iranian guards training Yemen’s Houthis: U.S. officials”, Reuters¸ 27 March 2015; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-houthis-iran/elite-iranian-guards-training-yemens-houthis-u-s-officials-idUSKBN0MN2MI20150327
40 “Hezbollah leaders died in Yemen, says minister”; Middle East Monitor, 6 February 2020; https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200206-hezbollah-leaders-died-in-yemen-says-minister/
41 On the use of UAVs, see the Conflict Armament Research reports: “Iranian Technology transfers to Yemen, ‘Kamikaze’ drones used by Houthi forces to attack Coalition missile defence systems”; March 2017; https://www.conflictarm.com/perspectives/iranian-technology-transfers-to-yemen/; “Evolution of UAVs employed by Houthi forces in Yemen”; February 2020; https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/46283842630243379f0504ece90a821f . Regarding weapon systems and Iranian technology utilised in Yemen, again see Conflict Armament Research and more specifically آخر المساهمات التكنولوجية الإيرانية في الحرب اليمنية (The latest Iranian technological contributions to the Yemenite war A/N) March 2018; https://www.conflictarm.com/perspectives/العبوات–الناسفة–المتحكم–فيها–لاسلكيا
42 Mehran Riazaty; Khomeini’s Warriors: Foundation of Iran’s Regime, Its Guardians, Allies Around the World, War Analysis, and Strategies; Xlibris Corporation, Bloomington; 2016.
43 On the doctrine of the sixth Imam, see: Robert Gleave, “Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq ii. Teachings,” Encyclopaedia Iranica, XIV/4, pp. 351-356.
44 إبراهيم منشاوي; النفوذ الناعم: البعد الديني في السياسة الخارجية الإيرانية والحركة الحوثية في اليمن (Ibrahim Menshawi: “The Soft Influence: The Religious Dimension of Iranian Foreign Policy and the Houthi Movement in Yemen”); Arab Center for Research and Studies, 31 January 2016; http://www.acrseg.org/39871
45 In the Quran there are many references to munāfiqūn, in addition to an entire sura, LXIII, which deals with the phenomenon of hypocrisy. It criticizes hypocrisy and condemns the hypocrites. It also exhorts the Believers to be sincere in their faith and perform acts of charity. The munāfiqūn are identified using various epithets in a number of other surat and they are considered as insincere or non-believers (II:8-16); those who refute the jihad (IV:77-80; They said, “Our Lord, why have You decreed upon us fighting? If only You had postponed [it for] us for a short time.”); base and untruthful, because they say that they do not know how to fight (III:166-167); “misleading” (IV:113), “disbelievers” (IV:144); spies and traitors (V:41 “And when there comes to them information about [public] security or fear, they spread it around); they do not have faith in God, and they are willing to ally with the enemies of Islam (V:52); “perjurers” (IX:62, 74) and “mocking” (IX:65).
46 National Security Archives: Memorandum for The President from Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Reflections on Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan,” 26 December 1979; Washington DC. See also: Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001; Penguin, London 2004, p. 581.