Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

King Fahd and the tanker war | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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On 5 June, 1984, two Iranian fighter jets violated Saudi airspace. This was not the first time that the Islamic regime in Iran had sought to threaten Saudi Arabia by illegally infiltrating its airspace. Saudi Arabia later sent personal messages to Imam Khomeini and then President Ali Khamenei via Syrian mediators, informing them that Saudi Arabia would not remain silent in the face of these provocations.

At that time, the Gulf was witnessing what came to be known as the “Tanker War”, with Iraq and Iran attacking each other’s oil tankers, with Saudi and Kuwaiti oil tankers also being affected by this. As a result, King Fahd – God rest his soul – issued an order to confront Iranian fighter jets [infiltrating Saudi airspace]. Saudi Arabia was able to shoot down one Iranian fighter jet, although another account reports that two planes were actually shot down. Tehran was enraged and dispatched more than a squadron of fighter jets to illegally enter Saudi airspace. Saudi Arabia responded by deploying two aircraft squadrons [to defend Saudi airspace] and thanks to the capabilities of Saudi Arabia’s air force – being equipped with Airborne Early Warning and Control system [AWACS] – Saudi Arabia was able to force Tehran to retreat. Furthermore, for a period of time Iranian aircraft was unable, for some time, to even cross outside of Iranian airspace.

In his book entitled “The Syrian-Iranian Alliance and the Region” (2010), former Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam reveals the details of two interviews he conducted in this regard; one with then Iranian President Ali Khamenei; and the second with the Saudi side, within the framework of his unsuccessful attempt to mediate between the two countries.

Khamenei said: “Saudi Arabia carried out this act, that is to say attacking Iranian aircraft, more than ten times. Only once was it successful and able to shoot down one of our planes. Saudi Arabia is not a superpower, and we are saying that it is not even a power.”

Henner Fertig (2002) and others who wrote about this period say that the policy of “mutual deterrence” that Saudi Arabia was pursuing with regards to Iranian harassment had a huge impact on Iran backing down and changing its previous behaviour. Saudi Arabia’s decisive reaction to Iran’s acts of sabotage during the 1987 hajj pilgrimage represented an effective deterrence to Iran’s transgressions, because the Iranians realized that the strong Saudi reaction would not be a justification in the eyes of Iranian public opinion if Tehran failed to respond, as it would reveal the weakness of the Iranian regime.

In his memoirs “Mission to Tehran” (1981), William H. Sullivan, US Ambassador to Iran during the Iranian Revolution, criticized the Carter administration, revealing that the White House had mismanaged the crisis and failed to understand the ideological dimensions of the revolution. The White House had placed too much stock in the Shapour Bakhtiar government and had failed to take advantage of the first attempt to seize the US embassy in Tehran to correct Carter’s policy, which believed in the possibility of making peace with the new mullahs in Tehran.

In the same context, late King Fahd told a US envoy in October 1979, “Look what happened to Iran. They have killed the cream of their society….the best minds in the army, in professional careers and in the civil service have been killed or forced to go into exile”.

After the revolution, Saudi Arabia tried to make peace with the Islamic regime in Iran, but was forced to support Iraq because the revolutionary regime in Tehran had openly threatened to export the revolution and change regimes. Saudi Arabia adopted the policy of “mutual deterrence” toward Iran between 1984 and 1991. Even after the passing of Khomeini, the Saudi containment towards Iran remained cautious. An important statement from King Fahd summarizes the nature of the post-revolution Saudi-Iranian relations: “We cannot change the geographic location of Iran and she, in return, can’t change ours. For our part, all that we ask of Iran is mutual respect and to be a good neighbour. These are the same demands which the Iranians – allegedly – claim.”

The rapprochement attempt in 1997 led by King Abdullah and former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani was the most significant attempt made by both parties to steer the Saudi-Iranian relations into the arena reconciliation and co-existence. Back then Rafsanjani confided to King Abdullah that his steps might not please the hardliners in Iran. However, joint Saudi-Iranian efforts were needed to overcome the stumbling block of hostility which has deep religious and national ideological roots.

During the tenure of President Khatami, the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement proceeded with support from the reformist movement, but the invasion of Iraq in 2003 caused the relations to deteriorate. Hardliners in alliance with the Revolutionary Guard Corps managed to eliminate the reformist movement, restore the revolutionary discourse, and even revive the terrorist past of Islamic radicalism in Iran. This resulted in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the destructive alliance with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

The attempt to assassinate Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, was a decisive point in the relations between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For the first time Tehran ventured to plot a terrorist operation on American soil. Some argue it is not the first time for extremists inside Iran to plan terrorist operations against the US or Saudi Arabia, without being countered with a decisive response. Hence, they downplay the possible consequences of this incident. That is true, but this incident in particular is different. Here we should focus on two things: Firstly, the US and Saudi Arabia previously harboured reservations about direct responses, in order not to grant the Iranian extremists the opportunity to transform the region into a battlefield where everyone would lose. Despite that, there were cases where the reaction was strong and that had a substantial impact on Iran. It is true Iran was never punished in a military fashion amounting to the overthrow of the regime, and that is because self-restraint had always kept matters from escalating into an open military showdown.

Moreover, history reminds us that the ruling regime in Iran has tended to take a step back whenever it sensed it was the object of direct targeting. The most prominent example of this happened in 2003 when Iran felt it might be next on the US list following Iraq’s invasion. At that time Iran backed off with regards to its nuclear program and agreed to the additional protocol, which includes random inspections. The situation did not change until the second half of 2004 when the Iranians realized how difficult it would be for the US to wage another war in the region. Thus we witnessed how the Iranians and the Syrians activated and backed terrorist operations in Iraq. This was followed by Hariri’s assassination in 2005, and the Iranian infiltration of the governing Islamic Shiite groups in Iraq.

Some contend that Iran does not believe any foreign power is capable of invading it. Hence, it is reassured that the worst others could do is impose extra sanctions to exhaust the domestic budget rather than try and change the regime. In spite of all this, the anti-regime protests staged in 2009 in the wake of the Iranian Presidential elections revealed the fragility of the Iranian regime from within.

Those who are skeptical about the account of the attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador must realize that Iran could be – as some writers have indicated – feeling a real threat to its interests, especially if its Syrian ally collapses. Iran’s latest attempt might reflect the fact that it is running out of options and strategic cards, the last of which was its tampering with the issue of Shiite minorities in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Iran’s threats have reached the extent whereby an Iranian MP, Kareem Abadi, stated that Iran has the power to occupy Saudi Arabia. Yet this is nowhere near the actual military capabilities of Iran.

We must recall that the state of confidence which the Iranian regime portrays and wants others to feel is nothing but a smokescreen to hide a disappointing economic and military reality. A Gulf official once said to me: “We have tried engaging in dialogue with the ruling regime in Iran several times and directly conveyed our threats to them. Unfortunately, they only understand the language of force.” A former Iranian official told me that Supreme Guide of Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had once said in a private meeting with Iranian officials: “The Bedouin Sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf are nothing but “Nomads” – as the Holy Quran says – who understand nothing except the language of force.”

Indeed, a misunderstanding exists between both sides. But the unalterable truth for any scholar of the revolutionary regime in Iran is that it is a regime concerned with staying in power first and foremost; a regime that steps back whenever it feels seriously threatened. In his article titled “Who Wants to Assassinate Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador” Ata’ollah Mohajerani is correct when he says: “If we acknowledge for the sake of argument that a group affiliated to the Revolutionary Guard Corps aims to start a new war in our region, it is them who should be held accountable and pay the price, not the people of the region.”