Iran's Rivalry with Saudi Arabia between the Gulf Wars

Resident Scholar Michael Rubin
Resident Scholar Michael Rubin

Michael Rubin reviews Henner Fürtig's Iran's Rivalry with Saudi Arabia between the Gulf Wars.

As the sovereign power over Mecca and Medina, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia claims special status as a protector Islam. But across the Persian Gulf, Shi'ite Iran competes with it for leadership of the Muslim world. Fürtig, a scholar at the Deutsche Orient-Institut in Hamburg, sets out to examine Saudi-Iranian rivalry in this 2006 reprint of a 2002 study.

A brief introduction outlines both rivalry and coordination between shah and Saudi king before the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both found common ground in opposition to revolutions that had replaced monarchies with more radical regimes in Egypt and Iraq and found themselves on the same side of the Cold War. Tehran and Riyadh cooperated to defeat communism in Oman. Still, interests divulged. Saudi Arabia and Iran did not always cooperate on oil pricing policy and latent tension existed over competing visions of Riyadh's pan-Islamism and Tehran's pan-Iranism.

The 1979 Islamic Revolution redefined the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Fürtig documents not only the Iranian government's decision to export revolution but also its specific anti-Saudi propaganda campaign. He explores Tehran's willingness to inflame Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority and incite sectarian division at the hajj, the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca. With this historical summary ends the book's utility.

Additional chapters explore Saudi support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and the subsequent Saudi-Iranian détente following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It is this--rather than Operation Iraqi Freedom--which Fürtig considers the second Gulf War. The time periods examined date sections on Saudi-Iranian regional competition in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. How can Fürtig conduct any serious examination of Saudi-Iranian competition in Central Asia when he limits himself only to the first year or two of regional independence? Despite the publication date of this second edition, there has been no attempt to update the narrative. Accordingly, there is mention of neither Iranian attempts to destabilize Bahrain in 1995-96 nor the Khobar Towers bombing. By applying conclusions forward in time, without taking into account intermediary evidence, Fürtig undercuts the utility of his work.

Other faults undercut the value of Iran's Rivalry. Fürtig bases his study largely upon secondary sources, making his analysis more a consolidation of others' works than a contribution to the field. He makes very little use of Persian or Arabic sources, other than those cited in already published works. Editing is sloppy and transliteration is inconsistent. For example, the former Iraqi dictator's name is given as both Saddam Hussein and Saddam Husain. Iranian-Saudi competition and, more broadly, Sunni-Shi'ite rivalry, is increasingly relevant. It is too bad, then, that Iran's Rivalry with Saudi Arabia between the Gulf Wars does not do the subject justice.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.

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