Book review: ‘Cold War in the Islamic World: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Struggle for Supremacy’ by Dilip Hiro

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New Delhi | January 06, 2019 3:09 AM

A detailed overview of the struggle for supremacy between Iran & Saudi Arabia

iran, saudi arabia, Cold War, Dilip Hiro, Islamic World, Mike Pompeo, Muhammad bin Salman, RiyadhUS President Donald Trump speaks while Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, listens during a meeting in the White House in Washington

Dilip Hiro is a prolific author who is modestly described as “a seasoned historian, journalist and commentator”, with a casual addition that the man has authored more than 30 non-fiction books—the first one (The Indian Family in Britain) dating back to 1969. Add five fiction titles and hundreds of articles, commentaries and more in the most-respected international media outlets over the past five decades and you begin to wonder if this guy ever sleeps? And for the record, his cyber profile reveals his age as 118 years!

Hiro has carved a niche as an author who has written extensively on the Indian subcontinent, West Asia (aka Middle East), central Asia, the wars of the Levant, race relations in the UK and Islamic terrorism. Across this spectrum, Iran is a subject that he has explored since the late 1980s in a number of books. The current volume pulls together many of the strands that have been meticulously pursued by Hiro over the years, and examines the Sunni-Shia theological divide in the southern Asian region—what he describes as the ‘Cold War in the Islamic World’. The author outlines the purpose of the book as seeking “to examine the ongoing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the leading nations in the Gulf region, to trace its roots and analyse its evolution.”

Being the accomplished journalist that the author is, the book has a racy pace and is rich in reportage—hence the prologue dwells on the ‘most dramatic’ royal decree in Saudi Arabian history that was passed on July 21, 2017, when the Saudi King elevated his 31-year-old son Muhammad bin Salman as Crown Prince and heir-apparent. The epilogue covers the most recent regional events of 2018, including the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh and the complex dynamic of Washington’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Israel under President Donald Trump.

In the intervening 15 chapters, the book provides a detailed overview of the trajectories of Iran and Saudi Arabia and the Shia and Sunni nodes of the cold war in the Islamic world. Positing that the ‘common factor’ between these two countries is “their claim to exceptionalism”, the book details the contrast wherein Iran has an identity that has a “recorded chronicle dating back six millennia” , well before the advent of Islam, whereas the beginning of the first Saudi state is traced to 1744, which is about three centuries ago.

The introductory chapter is lucid in identifying the basic theological nature of the two countries and the divergences in the interpretation and practice of the Islamic faith by the Sunni and Shia denominations. It is instructive to note, as Hiro points out, that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the only modern state to owe its existence to jihad”.

Thanks to the vast oil reserves that Saudi Arabia and Iran possessed, post-World War II, the USA “acquired pre-eminent influence” in both countries and the joint Anglo-American supported coup against Iranian prime minister Mussadiq in August 1953 enabled the return of the Pahlavi monarchy represented by the Shah to Tehran. For the next 25 years, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were in the US camp as Washington engaged in the larger global Cold War against the
former USSR.

The 1970s turned out to be a turbulent and defining decade for the region. On 25 March, 1975, Saudi King Faisal was assassinated by his own nephew—Faisal bin Musaid, and King Khalid assumed the throne. Even as Riyadh was preoccupied with domestic affairs, the US and UK “decided to transform the Shah into the policeman of the Persian Gulf”. And, as Hiro points out, the bilateral was so close that “every Saturday morning the Shah had a two-hour briefing session with the CIA station chief in Tehran”.

The year 1979 was critical for the Islamic world and the southern Asian region. Three tectonic events convulsed the geopolitics of the Islamic world and the larger global canvas. The first was the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by the Iranian clergy; the second was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; and finally, the Islamist militant attack on the Holy Mosque in Mecca.

Regional and global geopolitics were never the same after these three events and in the following decades, two cold wars unspooled—one between the USA and the former USSR in which Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were aligned with Washington; and the other between Iran and Saudi Arabia for establishing politico-religious primacy in the Islamic world.

Hiro marshals an enormous amount of fact and anecdote as he recounts the manner in which regional and global events unfold — the long-drawn-out Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the nuclear quest of Pakistan and Iran, and the war for Kuwait (January 1991), followed by the unexpected end of the global Cold War and the implosion of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The ill-advised US led an attack on Iraq in 2003 and the emergence of Iran and a Shia dominated Iraq — what Hiro describes as “a serious, strategic blunder made by the US President”—add to the rich tapestry. But at the end of the book, it is not as evident as to how the regional cold war is going to play out in the near future.
The concluding section is, indeed, very current and reviews the domestic changes being brought about in Saudi Arabia, but for a book that has almost 900 end notes over 43 pages — the macro-analysis remains blurred. Yes, the world is aware of the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran — the proxy wars and the ‘toxic rivalry’ that prevails. US President Donald Trump has further roiled the waters with his regional policies. What is the contour of the likely evolution of this bilateral? Will it be determined by sectarian theology alone, or will geopolitics be the dominant determinant? The inherent complexity of the Saudi-Irani relationship, their internal vulnerabilities and the shadow of the external interlocutor add to the tangled and blood-splattered nature of the Cold War in the Islamic World. Hiro is to
be commended for illuminating this opacity.

The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

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