Former Iranian President Bani-Sadr: Saudi-Iran Clash Is About Power, Not Religion

He argues that Saudi Arabia and Iran have been locked in mutual “closed circuits of violence” since the 1979 revolution that need to be broken.

01/06/2016 05:58 pm ET | Updated Jan 06, 2016

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 revolution. He answered these questions for The WorldPost by email from Paris, where he lives in exile.

The Shia-Sunni clash that was being conducted through proxy wars from Yemen to Syria to Iraq is now out in the open. Do you believe the Saudi execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was a deliberate provocation? To what end? Was it, perhaps, an effort to provoke Iran into actions that would undermine the nuclear accord with the U.S. and other world powers?

In order to answer the question, I should first point out certain facts. The Iranian and Saudi regimes, and those of other countries of the region, are trapped in a number of closed circuits of violence: 

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Demonstrators hold posters of Nimr Baqir al-Nimr during a rally in Tehran against his execution by Saudi authorities.

 - Both countries have turned the U.S. government into the central pivot of their domestic and international policies.

- Power has become the goal of both regimes, and violence has become the means for achieving it. Both actions and reactions which take place within this domain inevitably become violent.

- Both regimes are dictatorial and thus standing on one leg, which is a combination of armed forces and oil income.

- Both regimes have exploited religion in order to legitimize and justify their actions. Religion is thus also used to serve the interests of power.

- Both countries have religious minorities (Sunnis in Iran and Shias in Saudi Arabia), and both are discriminating against them.

- Both regimes need crisis as a fish needs water, and hence see their existence only through creating crisis.

- Both regimes have terror organizations and are supporting armed organizations in the region.

- As these regimes have formed alliances with regional and international powers, when in confrontation with each other their actions force the world powers, whose protection they are under, to join the struggle on one side.

Both regimes need crisis as a fish needs water, and hence see their existence only through creating crisis.

The execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the Shia cleric, along with 46 people, was a criminal act. To focus on the case of his execution specifically, therefore, I believe it had certain goals in the political context I have described:

- It uses religion as a cover for a power struggle, and to incite the Sunni Muslims to support the Saudi regime.

- It forces the Iranian regime to react violently. The Saudi regime was certain that in such a closed circuit of violence, the Iranian regime would react in such a way.

- The U.S. and European countries see no option for themselves but to support the Saudi regime.

- Saudi Arabia opposes the Vienna nuclear agreement. This is partly because the agreement has made it possible for the Iranian regime to openly intervene in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and so on. The Saudi regime argues that the Iranian regime has no right to interfere in the affairs of Arab countries. Saudi Arabia is right about this. However, just because these countries are Arab, it does not give the Saudi regime permission to destroy and massacre the people of these countries through direct or indirect intervention.  

- Economic war is a main goal of Saudi Arabia. The people of oil-producing countries can see that it is the Saudi regime which caused the collapse of oil prices. The regime cannot justify its action, so the only way to justify it is to push back against the Iranian regime. One Saudi leader recently stated that they would do something which would turn Iranians into beggars in Saudi cities. Unfortunately, the Saudi leaders completely fail to understand that the way out of the crisis is through friendship, cooperation and development.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei predicted "divine vengeance" for Saudi's execution of al-Nimr.

Is the official Iranian response so far justified? What should it be?

The action of the Iranian regime is completely unjustifiable. The regime from the very outset should not have let the circuit of relations become closed or reduced to violent action and reaction. However, the Iranian regime is incapable of conducting such policy. The fact is that the Iranian regime discriminates against the Sunni minority in Iran. It executes Shia clergy. It imprisons some grand ayatollahs in their homes until they die. More importantly, force has become its main tool in both domestic and foreign policy. It systematically violates the human rights of Iranians.  

Were it not like this, the Saudi regime would not be certain of the Iranian regime’s violent reaction and would not risk bringing the wrath of the international community against itself by executing 47 people.

The right thing for the Iranian regime to have done was to make its case through the U.N., human rights organizations, other Islamic countries and global public opinion.

However, as the Iranian regime has the highest rate of execution in the world and is constantly condemned and criticized by human rights organizations, it is basically incapable of acting in these ways.

This is not a religious war, but a struggle over power. In truth, this is a war against religion.

The burning of the Saudi Embassy is obviously reminiscent of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in the early days of the Iranian Revolution. The seizure of U.S. hostages at the time was an effort to undermine your government and bolster hardline clerics. Are we seeing something similar now where some are using this crisis to undermine President Rouhani and the reformers in general in the lead up to elections of the Assembly of Experts?

The American hostage taking took place under the liberal Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, and forced him to resign. However, the secret agreement, which is known as the “October Surprise,” took place during my presidency. The Iranian counterparts of this agreement, primarily Khomeini, Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, the current supreme leader, prevented the release of the American hostages before America’s [1980] presidential election to ensure that Jimmy Carter would lose the election. So this was a decisive factor in the election of Ronald Reagan, and in my country, led to a coup against democracy.

Nowadays both the Saudi and Iranian regimes are trying to spread violence in Islamic countries. Without any doubt, there is a correlation between the executions of 47 people by the Saudi regime, the setting fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and the totally undemocratic “election” in Iran. On the Iranian side, Khamenei, the leader, had given permission to the Council of Guardians to reject other candidates en masse; in Saudi Arabia, the regime relies more and more on extremists.  

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei visits the graves of Iranian soldiers who were killed during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Do you see this crisis ending soon, or is this the beginning of a 30 Years’ War (to use the Western analogy from Christian history) within Islam between Shia and Sunni?

This is not a religious war, but a struggle over power. In truth, this is a war against religion. By using religion to cover up their real intention, which is power, both regimes are the most anti-religion regimes in the world. In their need for power, they have forsaken religion. The degree of international attention to these struggles also plays a role in their longevity. The more the global public pays attention to these struggles, the shorter they will be because governments will be forced to act to end them.

It also needs to be said that it was the Saudi regime which initiated an antagonistic relation with Iran. There is a need for some explanation here. According to a secret letter of Alexander Haig, who was Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state, to Reagan, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran after he received a green light from the U.S. government -- and the Saudi regime was the mediator between the U.S. government and Saddam Hussein. During the [1980–88] Iran–Iraq war, the Saudis also extensively supported Saddam Hussein both financially and by providing weapons. At the time, the Saudi regime was fearful of Iran’s [political] revolution, not of Shiism.  

Both the Saudi Arabian and Iranian regimes need to create crisis. If this circuit remains closed, the animosity will last. So the way out is to open this circuit [of power]. In order to do that, Iran needs to become a democracy and the thoroughly corrupt Saudi regime needs to use its immense oil income for the development of Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. For that to happen, there is a need for a change in the strategic orientation of the U.S., Russia and Europe.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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