Welcome to the second in our series of interviews in which we look at the Middle East region and try to understand better what is going on there. The view from the West is that it is a very violent and dangerous place. There is an ongoing war in Yemen and there are several other countries that appear to be on the brink of war. There are some dreadful abuses of human rights and there are failed states. But on the other hand this region is the cradle of Western civilization: Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Arabia are places of myth and legend. Great mystics, mathematicians, translators and storytellers have come from there. Major religions have their most sacred places here. Western art music science and food have all felt the impact of this region.
In this series of interviews which we’re calling The Roots of Violence, we’re going to try to understand how the violence originated and who is responsible. We aren’t attempting to justify the physical violence, but physical violence doesn’t erupt from nowhere. Physical violence is the explosion that erupts after a long period of economic and psychological violence.
In our second interview we speak once more with Emad Kiyaei. Emad is Iranian. He’s a director of the Middle East Treaty Organization, which is a civil society campaign seeking to eradicate all weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East through innovative policy advocacy and educational programs. He is the co-author of the book Weapons of Mass Destruction: a New Approach to Non-proliferation, and he studied at Princeton and Columbia universities in the United States.
The entire series of interviews can be found on our YouTube channel here.
Transcript* under the video:
Welcome back to the Roots of Violence. Our series of interviews, in which we’re attempting to look at the current situation in the Middle East and trying to understand where the physical violence has come from. We’re trying to understand what has led to the wars and violence, which is apparently so endemic across the region.
Pressenza readers know that physical violence is the last resort of the hopeless, who have been on the receiving end of all manner of economic and psychological violence beforehand. Therefore, if we can see what the causes of the physical violence are, maybe there’s a chance to treat them in their roots and find a non-violent solution.
We’re back again with Emad Kiyaei, Director of the Middle East Treaty Organization, and before I start throwing more questions at him, I’m going to give a short summary of what we’ve heard in the last interview.
So in 1952, Iran elects a government, which tries to implement a plan to nationalize the oil industry, so that the oil profits can go to benefit ordinary Iranian people and not the oil companies. The CIA from the United States, and Britain’s MI6, collaborate to overthrow this government and install their puppet king: the Shah of Iran. The Shah remains in power for 25 years, during which time he violently crushes all opposition, leaving the people hopeless.
Nevertheless the opposition doesn’t disappear. Marxists, Islamists, academics, students, and the oppressed of all kinds wait for their moment. By 1978 the situation is getting dire, and protesters take to the streets, and in Tehran on the 8th of September 1978, a day that goes down in history as ‘Black Friday’, the military opened fire on a protesting crowd killing over 100 people. This sets off a chain of events that leads very quickly to the Shah getting on a plane in January 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returns home, and the Islamic Republic is born. When students break into the US embassy in Tehran and discover papers indicating that the USA is planning another coup, things get nasty and there is a standoff, in which 52 US diplomats and nationals are held hostage for 444 days.
Relations between Tehran and Washington never recover from these events, and Iraq is encouraged, and financed to start a war against its neighbour which lasts for eight years, and results in the deaths and injuring of hundreds of thousands of people. In that war, Iraq uses chemical weapons on its neighbour, and its own internal opposition. And then in another unexpected turn in history, Saddam Hussein decides to invade Kuwait, its former province. The West’s favourite bogeyman passes from Iran to Iraq, and the first Gulf War starts to unfold. Iran tries to take advantage of the situation, to breathe and rebuild as a nation.
So, Emad, I hope I’ve given a more or less acceptable summary there. In the late 1990s, we start to hear more and more about a non-state actor called Al-Qaeda. So before we go back to Iran, can you tell us a little bit about the situation in the region that leads up to September the 11th, 2001?
Thank you, Tony, for that summary, it was spot on and there is nothing else for me to add. But here we are, moving now to as you said to non-state actors and specifically Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s roots originate actually in the fight against Communism, and the invasion of the Soviet Union of Afghanistan, which again, borders Iran. In that conflict between Afghanistan and opposition against the invasion of the Soviet Union, and, again ironically the group that then became al-Qaeda was financed, trained, and propped up by the United States as they saw the fight against the Communist Soviet Union, as part of their grander Cold War animosity between the two countries.
So, actually if we again go back to the leader of Al-Qaeda, Bin Laden and his involvement—who’s a Saudi national—in terms of its opposition against what was originally known as the Mujahedeen, against the Soviet Union, we see again the finger of the United States government in this conflict. And how the turn of events happen in the late 1990s, and we start to hear about Al Qaeda, is first through the bombings of US embassies in East Africa, and so we first of all came out from that event. And then, the tide of change where Bin Laden becomes opposed to US involvement in the Middle East, and specifically, going back to the First Gulf War of 1991, and the subsequent involvement of the US, ever more in the region.
For the first time you have US troops, on what Bin Laden would call the ‘Holy Lands’ of Islam: Saudi Arabia. This is the first time that the US expands enormously, its military foothold across the region, in building up its military bases. So the Al Qaeda phenomena that then becomes the perpetrators of 9/11, have their roots and justification for that use of violence against the United States based on three key reasons.
One, the US’ hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East, in supporting dictatorships and despotic regimes, that was becoming increasingly pitted as, you know, Islam against the West. This sort of war, between the civilizations in a sense, the ‘clash of civilizations’. And number two, it’s the fact that the US’ involvement in the Middle East expands to include thousands, upon thousands of military forces, who are now stationed on Islamic land, on Muslim countries’ lands, specifically in Saudi Arabia. And number three, it was also as a result of the carnage and the support that the United States provided in the killing, and the advancement or prolonging of wars that were happening in the region, by backing one part to another, to shed more blood- that at the end, was seen as the blood of the Muslims.
So the Al-Qaeda rise was on the back of anti-Americanism, and this notion that the United States is actually conducting a crusade in the region, against the Islamic world. To point out here again, that Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was a Saudi national. When Al Qaeda had its safe haven in Afghanistan, under the umbrella and protection of the Taliban, which was the Afghan rulers then, who were quite far right in the spectrum of Islamic beliefs and ruled with iron clad over Afghanistan- they were only supported and recognized by three countries.
I’m saying this because Al-Qaeda did not operate in a vacuum. It operated in a country and under an authority that allowed it to flourish, and that being the Taliban regime of Afghanistan. And that Taliban regime was recognized by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and I’m forgetting one more country… Pakistan. These are the three countries that recognized the Taliban, and by extension these three countries, also supported, directly and indirectly, the Al-Qaeda’s rise, and its ability to have these operations materialize that ultimately leads to the attacks on US soil.
Okay, so tell me a little bit more about Al-Qaeda, because it seems that in one moment, this group is fighting against the Communists, and then again, and then the Americans start to develop a big presence there and then they start fighting against the Americans. We have three countries that are supporting them: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan.
What’s the role that Saudi Arabia is playing in all of this?
Okay so, any non-state actor is able to propagate, proliferate, its ideas and its ideologies principally by five major factors. I’m saying this, and I’ll come back to Saudi Arabia in a minute.
Number one: there needs to be an ideological underpinning. What is the thinking of this group? So what is the ideological underpinning? In many cases those ideologies are more cemented through their religious affiliations or religious beliefs. And we’ll touch on this in a second. Number two it’s a financial requirement, am I right? It needs funding, it needs money, it needs to be able to pay people, to recruit people. That goes to our third component, which is human resources. It actually needs people to believe in this ideology and to be able to hear the message, and then follow the cause, whatever the cause may be. Number four: it needs to have a leadership, or a structure that dictates the direction of this organization or this entity of being a non-state actor, or otherwise where is it going? Who is its leader?
And number five it needs key backers. It needs nation states, or very influential entities to provide it with the backing it needs to be able to carry on, and when it comes under strain from opposition or from their enemy, it can withstand this pressure.
So let’s take these five pillars. Let’s say, for a non-state actor to operate, and let’s put the example of Al-Qaeda here and say okay, where is the ideological underpinning for Al-Qaeda?
Well in this case, it’s Saudi Arabia’s ruling government’s ideology, based on a narrow interpretation of Islam, that is the far right fringes of Islam, which is known as the followers of al-Wahhab. I’m not going to go into the history of al-Wahhab, it’s suffice to say that they are in the literal interpretation of Islam. They take it word by word, and they believe that this is the most pure form of Islam that they are living by. But of course, it is very narrow, it’s very extreme, to the point that the followers of the Wahhabism, or Salafism, are a minority within the Islamic world. But, amongst them, there are key wealthy Persian Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, which are its main supporters.
So, Al-Qaeda’s ideological underpinning is based on a narrow perspective in interpretation of Islam known as the followers of al-Wahhab. Number two: financing. How do they get the financing to be able to do what they do here? They get their financing overwhelmingly, again, from wealthy Persian Gulf, Arab countries, specifically again Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and to some extent the Qataris that came later on. But this is where they got their money. Number three: their human resources. Because they were able to propagate this fight between Islam and the West, they recruited Islamists or those who were seeing in front of their eyes, the continuous wars that have been waged in the Middle East, and the increasing presence of the United States. When I say the increasing presence, the First Gulf War of 1991 had up to 550,000 US troops at one point, stationed in Saudi Arabia, the holiest land for Islam. So you can see easily, then, that by having these images plastered all over the news, you can recruit those who believe that this is a war against Islam. So Al-Qaeda recruited across the world in its cause against the United States.
Can I just ask a question, Emad?
Because if a lot of support is coming from Saudi Arabia, but it is the government of Saudi Arabia that has invited the United States in, to set up all their bases, how do those two pieces of information fit together?
So, this is a little bit more complicated. It’s not that the Saudi government, you know, brought a direct transfer of money to Al-Qaeda’s coffers. No. It had a labyrinth of other mechanisms to be able to support Al-Qaeda and its operations, and when I say Saudi Arabia was one of the only countries to recognize the Taliban regime of Afghanistan that was its one pathway to support Al-Qaeda’s operations.
Because Saudi Arabia, in one place, the government at the time was making sure that Saddam is not victorious in Kuwait, because don’t forget, Kuwait borders Saudi Arabia. So for Saudi Arabia’s national security, they saw the invasion by Saddam Hussein of Kuwait as a direct threat to their own national security, and here they brought the US to protect its resources. But on the other hand, this ideological war that has been fought, which we’re now talking about that Al-Qaeda has been propagating, falls within the domain of the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That is now, we’re here talking about a little bit more, about the sectarian nature of these regional wars that are happening, where you have one group of Islamic thought; the Shia versus the Sunni, the theological division in Islam and here Al-Qaeda is seen as one arm of the Saudi expansion of its ideology, which is based on Wahhabism and on Salafi theology.
So I have another question here…
But I was going to say that it’s not mutually exclusive. A government like Saudi Arabia can invite the US to protect it, and at the same time for its other purposes, for its other endeavours, support Al-Qaeda and other non-state actors including the Taliban, in pushing its own agenda on a regional level.
So very often, we hear that conflict is caused by religious differences and frequently when you actually dig a little bit deeper into that story, you discover that actually it’s not about that at all, it’s about the control of resources. Are we talking about this Wahhabist strain of the Islamic religion? Are we really saying that this is a branch of religion which is openly promoting war and violence? Because that’s normally not what religions are about. So, is religion here just being used as a front, or as a pretext for conflict, or is it just the age-old source of war and violence, which is just control of resources?
Tony, I’m not a theologian, so I’m not going to claim that I fully understand all of the perspectives and the notions within any religion. What I do know is that religion is a powerful underpinning that can be used to advance the political, social and economic aims of whoever is using religion as the backdrop. And in this case, it is, let’s say, quite plausible that in the calculations of Saudi Arabia, and those who want to promote a specific strand of Islam, that they see themselves as by promoting this, as then putting the fault lines on a different dimension, whereas not economic, social and regional domination or advantages, but rather how do we take the Islamic world, and turn them against my adversary. In this case al-Qaeda used it against the Americans but also Al-Qaeda used it against the Shah of Iran, and so here I wanted to make that a point, that, when we go back again to the Iranian Revolution of 79, that created this earthquake in the region, one of the reasons why Saudi Arabia, since the early 80s, started to promote this strand of Islam, Wahhabism and Salafism, across the world. It was in direct response to the revolution in Iran, because they saw a political Islam taking hold in Iran, which had been able to become popular, as a direct threat to their authority over the Islamic world. So they see religion as quite important, and they see the role of religion as one that can be the lowest hanging fruit, to get to the hearts and minds of Muslims across the world, and it does work. It has worked across the ages, may that be in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, whatever you want to bring it on, religion has always had that impact of hitting deep within the consciousness of any human being, may that be for good or may that be for alternative reasons. In this case unfortunately, for promoting violence against the other.
Sure. So you’ve gone through these five points- the ideology, the funding, the human resources, leadership-
…and then the tracking. And here so with leadership we know. In this case Al-Qaeda’s leadership was Bin Laden. You know, his sermons, his speeches fired up a lot of people, who saw unfortunately rightly, that the US is meddling in the affairs of the Islamic world, and is at the forefront of all the wars. This is 1991, the US has already been involved in the Middle East, for a long time, and it seems that every time the US is involved it is playing its own chess game of domination, extraction, exploitation, and by extension, the ignition and sustenance of wars. So, I don’t want to justify what Al-Qaeda is doing, but I’m starting to understand why Al-Qaeda was able to recruit, able to do what it did. It’s rooted in the fact that there’s a lot of violence that was being perpetrated at the hands of the world powers, may that be the Soviets in Afghanistan, or the US across the region, and from an ordinary Muslim sitting let’s say in Indonesia, or in Iraq, or in the rest of the world, they’re like, “This Al-Qaeda guy has a point. We gotta fight back.” This is the jihad, this is the holy war against the imposition, of what they would say, is the unbelievers in the Middle East. The fight against the Soviet Union, was primarily underpinned by the fact that the Mujahedeen or the origins of Al-Qaeda were fighting a godless empire, the Soviet Union.
So religion plays a part. The belief, in this type of endeavours, it’s powerful.
So, I have another question here. I mean back, let’s say from the 80s and the 90s, what are the living conditions for people who live in the Middle East, because it’s clear that the region has got a lot of wealth. There’s a lot of oil, oil prices are generally creating a lot of wealth in those countries that have oil, but on the other hand, people who are well off, people who have access to health care, and education, and social security, these are not people who are generally rushing to the army to sign up so they can participate in wars. So what are the social conditions for people in the region, which allow them to consider that going to war is a hopeful thing?
Tony. The wealth, the petrodollars, that have poured into the Middle East, and specifically these oil rich countries, have been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in terms, that there are resources; human resources, natural resources, the capital to be able to have a region that is flourishing in every domain of human development. Unfortunately, there is a bigger game at play here. And one that began a long time ago. Again, unfortunately when we talk about the Middle East, it is difficult to escape its history. But the role of powers, colonial powers may that be the French, the British, to some extent even the Italians, to the role of the post Second World War sole superpower, the United States, in securing the black gold, the oil, that the global economy ran on, and was being pumped out of the Middle East, came at a cost. It came at a cost that the United States and these world powers had traditionally and historically been able to control the societies where this oil is being pumped out, through client states. So, by a grand bargain let’s say, an easy way to put it. “I’m the United States, I will provide you security, I will provide you with backing, I will make sure you can continue governing over your people, but just sign over here”. And that signature allows us to exploit your resources and we won’t ask questions about your human rights record. We won’t ask you what’s happening internally, we will even support you. We will even train your police force, your intelligence services, on how to suppress and oppress these openings of political thought in your countries. This is, unfortunately, the bargain that has been signed by the leaders of the Middle Eastern countries that, if you want to maintain your power over your population, make a deal with a much greater power in the world. In this case, the alliances that were formed in the Middle East, from the end of the Second World War, until 1991, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, carved up the Middle East. Into those who were allied with the Communist Soviet Union, and those who were allied with the United States.
And then you have this anomaly called Iran, that in the 1979 Revolution, decided we don’t want to go either East, we don’t want to go West. We want to be an independent state. An independent state in an oil rich region, in the crossroads of civilization, and continent. Independence in this region is a direct threat to the national security of global powers. That is why, for millennia every power, may that be the Romans, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Indians, the Persians, the Arabs and everybody in between, that has come through this region, is to dominate the Middle East, you dominate world politics. And so that notion and understanding remains true today and so it’s going to be very difficult for any government in the region to say, “You know what? We’re just going to say to the Americans, ‘Thank you so much for coming, please pack up your bags and go’.” This is what Iran has done, and this is what I want to keep coming back to. That this act of revolution that Iran conducted in 79, had repercussions within the country, within the region, and the geopolitics of the Middle East, in terms of regional powers. But it also went beyond its borders all across the world, because you cannot allow a mid-sized economy like Iran to gain independence, in the fear that others may follow through. And that is why it became such a fearful concept for the monarchies, and for the despots who ruled across the Middle East. Because if this revolution of Iran spread to their shores, it would be the end of their rule.
Very good, ok. So, all of this, this chaos is happening with 9/11. We all know the story, and we know that the United States takes the opportunity to launch its War on Terror, which focuses initially on Afghanistan and then turns its attention to Iraq. And so Iran is in the middle of all of this, and presumably feeling very worried. What is happening in Iran in this period of history? What’s going on, what’s the political leadership thinking, and the United States talks about this ‘Axis of Evil’ in which it links up, I think it was Iraq and Iran and Syria or North Korea or something like that.
What’s going on in Iran, because you’ve just survived an eight-year war? It must be feeling very nervous about everything that’s happening in the world?
All right, we’re going to go through this really fast. Because 9/11 happens, the First Gulf War, the Americans come, they liberate Kuwait, they destroy the infrastructure of Saddam Hussein but they keep Hussein in power, for another decade as you said, until 2003. The Second Gulf War, that finished off Saddam Hussein for good in that war, and that came after the 9/11 attacks. Now at the time of 9/11, Iran was led by a reformist administration of Dr Khatami, who talked actually in his first speech at the UN, for the dialogue among civilisations. That we need to break this wall that is being erected in between our grand civilizations, and we need to have a dialogue, we need to talk, we need to use diplomacy to resolve our issues. Khatami’s government was really forward thinking, and when 9/11 happened, it was one of the first countries, Iran, that sent a message to the US, of condolences for what had happened with 9/11. And in that letter, it said that Iran understand the impact of terrorism on its population, it understands the mourning of when these attacks are done on civilians. Because Iran was at the receiving end of many terrorist attacks, since 1979, for multiple reasons, which I don’t need to get into right now. But when we are now zooming into 2001, Iran gives an olive branch to the US, and says we can even assist you in bringing to prosecution those who are responsible. Because, mind you, Al-Qaeda and Taliban were the sworn enemies of who? Of Iran. Because they saw Iran as a Shia country that is ‘the infidels’. It was the Al-Qaeda and Taliban that massacred Iranian diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan, just a year or two before the 9/11 attacks, that almost brought Iran and Afghanistan to war. So Iran had its own interests in seeing the fall of the Taliban and the fall of Al-Qaeda, because it believed that this type of ideology will only breed more division, it will bring an ex-sectarian conflict of magnitudes that are not necessary to get to. So Iran actually gave an olive branch, and in 2001 in October when the United States decided to invade Afghanistan, as a revenge of 9/11, and went into Afghanistan, it realised very quickly that it needs intelligence and coordination on the ground. And who was the opposition to Al-Qaeda and Taliban? Iranian allies in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, they recall, the Northern Alliance was an Iranian ally that, under Iranian leadership, was given the permission to cooperate at all levels with the Americans, so that they can bring an end to the Taliban’s rule, and by extension, the safe haven they have been providing to Al-Qaeda. So in a sense, the success of the US in Afghanistan, could not have been paved, without the cooperation of Iran with the US over its intervention in Afghanistan. These are the things that history somehow wants to make us forget. But Afghanistan, the victory of the US in Afghanistan, initially, was with its alliance with Iran. Now, as we speak today, the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan—its longest war it has fought—and is packing their bags and they’re leaving Afghanistan to its own devices. And they haven’t been able to secure that country, not today nor after when they got in, and that again can be traced back to how they then developed or repaid Iran for its cooperation in Afghanistan. Do you know how they repaid Iran for their cooperation?
President Bush goes and labels Iran, as the ‘Axis of Evil’. After Iran has provided logistical, personnel, its allies in Afghanistan, to help the US oust the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. President Bush gets on the front of the UN and puts Iran in this box. Do you know what that did to Khatami and his reformist political Iran? It closed his hands. They said, “Look! You help the Americans, and look at how they answer you. They put you in the axis of evil’. Two years later, the US entered into Iraq under the pretext of getting rid of weapons of mass destruction that we today know was on a false premise. There again, who do you think helped the United States get rid of Saddam Hussein, quicker than anybody else in terms of real support to the American invasion? It was the opposition of Saddam Hussein who were exiled, and lived where? In Iran. So again you have the United States, entering Afghanistan, entering Iraq, getting rid of the two most immediate enemies neighbouring Iran, and replacing them with the allies of Iran. And that by the end of 2003, created havoc in Tel Aviv, in Riyadh, in other capitals of the Middle East. They had been pumping billions to make sure Iran remains weak, and you have the Americans coming and flipping these two countries, and handing them over on a silver platter to the Iranians. So I have to thank the Americans for that.
Okay, let’s stop there, because we’ve been talking for a good period of time, and let’s pick it up next time, post Second Gulf War, and the development of the Iranian Nuclear Programme, which is today the subject of such contention in global politics. So, thank you very much Emad.
Thank you, and thank you to everyone who’s watched this video, and thus far got to the end of this second episode, and next week we’ll come up with a further instalment, to find out what are the Roots of Violence in the Middle East. Thank you very much.
*Transcript edited by Anahita Parsa, from METO.