January 18, 2016
On January 2, 2016, the Sunni government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) executed the leading imam of the Shia community in KSA. The Shiite government of Iran denounced this execution, as did governments throughout the world, and avowed there would be consequences. Since that time, the rhetoric has continued to escalate, and the world politicians and media have talked of a possible direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Almost everyone tends to pose this tension as one that is based on the religious cleavage between Sunni and Shia that is said to have very long roots into the past, and defines the present situation based on the religious cleavage between Sunni and Shia.
While both sides seem to pull back before a direct military confrontation, there is warfare in Syria and Yemen that is carried out by groups said to be proxies for the Saudis and the Iranians. Those fighting on the scene in Syria and Yemen do not seem to be encouraging anyone to act as quasi-neutral mediators. The groups in both Syria and Yemen are so deeply distrustful of each other that they seem to regard mediation as unviable. This makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to give priority to any strategy that combats effectively the still widespread strength of the Islamic State, which the United States (and others) have proclaimed as priority number one.
Our memories tend to be so short-lived that we have forgotten entirely that Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran were once close geopolitical collaborators. It was not so long ago.
We need not go back to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 when Iran gave the new state crucial diplomatic recognition, leading to Saudi Arabia's widespread acceptance in the community of sovereign states. The more interesting period is that of the 1960's. When the world's oil distributors suddenly and unilaterally reduced the prices they were ready to pay for crude oil, the government of (pre-Chavez) Venezuela suggested to the government of (pre-Ayatollah) Iran that they meet together, inviting also Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, to see if there weren't some steps to counter this attack on their national income. They were very angry and blamed both the major banks and oil distributors (the so-called Seven Sisters) and the U.S. government, which they saw as supporting the banks, if not actually instigating their decisions.
A meeting did take place in Vienna from September 10-14, 1960. The five states founded the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). They invited other states to join OPEC. Over time, others did: Algeria, Angola, Ecuador, Indonesia, Libya, Nigeria, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Gabon (which later withdrew).
At first, OPEC was merely a locus for discussion and exchange of information. When, however, Israel defeated a number of Arab states in the so-called Yom Kippur War in 1973, with the crucial and overt support of the United States, OPEC declared a global oil boycott. It was proposed by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The idea of militant action by OPEC had been proposed previously by more "radical" OPEC members. But until 1973, it did not have support either from Saudi Arabia or from Iran. These two states had been considered the states closest at the time to the United States. Their joint shift in position marked a major turning-point in the history of OPEC.
But notice the central geopolitical fact. Saudi Arabia and Iran were collaborating directly. There was no talk of millennial Sunni-Shiite rivalry. Instead, they were collaborating. And it worked. There followed a major rise in the world oil price, which benefited both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In 1974, the meeting of the OPEC oil ministers in Vienna was invaded by supporters of Palestinian movements led by "Carlos the Jackal." He threatened to shoot many, especially the Iranian Oil Minister. The story of how the hostages were finally released and for what price has never been really clear. There is however one crucial detail. Somebody paid ransom for the Iranian Oil Minister. Analysts have come to believe that the Saudi government did it on behalf of their Iranian colleague. Strange behavior if one believes that the two governments were motivated only by religious discord.
One final curious moment. In March 2007, there was a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The KSA government explicitly invited Iran to send someone to attend. The then President Ahmadinejad of Iran, considered at the time the Iranian leader most vocally and unconditionally opposed to any links with the Western world, accepted the invitation. He was met at the airport by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a great gesture. Abdullah hailed the arrival of "brotherly nations." The meeting came to naught, but once again indicated that geopolitical relations were not governed exclusively by religious criteria.
Why was OPEC able to achieve the boycott and the world oil price rise in 1973 and then again in 1979? What was different then from today in the Middle East? Two things mainly. The United States was still in 1973 what it is no longer in 2016, the decisive and geopolitically deciding nation. In the end everyone had to accommodate to the wishes of the United States, more or less.
On the other hand, U.S. geopolitical power brought with it pressures. When it gave its imprimatur to the Israelis in the Yom Kippur War, it needed immediately to balance this with some gesture in the other direction to appease at least Saudi Arabia, a crucial ally. There are many who think that the United States actually gave the go-ahead to Saudi Arabia and Iran to launch the boycott. Aside from appeasing them, it had the economic advantage to the United States of strengthening its hand in the trilateral competition among the United States, western Europe, and Japan.
Where are we then today? Saudi Arabia and Iran have collaborated closely in the past. It is not at all inconceivable that they may do so again in a relatively near future. The geopolitical turmoil is very great, and no analyst should eliminate any possible shift. Geopolitics may again trump religious differences. This is especially true because of the serious relative decline of U.S. clout in the region.