For the purpose of this book, I suggest that we consider four nations in particular as political powerhouses in the Muslim World. Three of these – Iran, Turkey, and Egypt – all have ancient histories and imperialist pasts, perhaps in part due to their strategic locations on the hub of three continents. From the Egyptian pyramids and the Persian Empire to the prolific Ottoman Empire, their stories have shaped the Middle East. After the birth of Islam in the seventh century, however, religion would also exert a significant influence on this region (and much further afield). In fact, historian Tariq Ali speaks of how “Judaism, Christianity and Islam all began as versions of what we would today describe as political movements”, seeking to “resist imperial oppression” and “unite a disparate people”. And this is precisely the function that Islam would have in each of the three countries mentioned above.
Some Background on Islam
In around 610AD, a forty-year-old Prophet Muhammad experienced a vision (of the archangel Gabriel) near his birthplace, Mecca (in modern-day Saudi Arabia), and then set about convincing locals that there was “one true God”. In 622, he was thrown out of Mecca, having worried “the rich and powerful merchants” of the town, who believed Muhammad’s “religious revolution… might be disastrous for business”. Along with his followers, the prophet found shelter at an oasis, which would later be named ‘Medina’, or “the city [of the Prophet]”. In 629, having “negotiated a truce with the Meccans”, he finally returned to his hometown. After one of his followers was murdered, however, he ordered an invasion of the settlement. Having won “three important military victories”, Muhammad and his followers soon saw many locals convert to Islam, having been “impressed by the muscularity of the new religion”.
In 632, Muhammad died of a fever, but Islam’s subsequent triumphs, Ali says, would be “a vindication of his action programme”. Some sections of the Koran, he argues, had “the vigour of a political manifesto”, showing that “Muhammad’s spiritual drive was fuelled by socio-economic ambitions” (such as strengthening “the commercial standing of the Arabs” and introducing “a set of common rules” to reduce conflict in society). Islam, Ali insists, “was the cement [Muhammad] used to unite the Arab tribes” and, “within twenty years of Muhammad’s death…, his followers had laid the foundations of the first Islamic empire in the Fertile Crescent”. Impressed by these successes, whole tribes embraced the new religion. With the Persian and Byzantine Empires having been embroiled in conflict “for almost a hundred years” (which “had enfeebled both sides, alienated their populations and created an opening for… new conquerors”), Islam soon “replaced [these] two great empires”. Eventually, there would be “three Muslim empires”, dominating “large parts of the globe”, with the Ottomans governing from Istanbul, the Safavids from Persia, and the Mughal dynasty from India.
The fourth successor (or caliph) to Muhammad would be his cousin Ali, who had been at his side from the very beginning of his conquest, and had even married his daughter Fatimah. Under his rule (between 656 to 661), division grew within Islam, and he “was eventually killed by a member of the Kharijite sect”. Those who followed his successors (claiming that Fatimah and her sons Hasan and Hussein were the only ones who ought to be classed as Muhammad’s family) would become Shia Muslims, while those who followed the Umayyad family (a prominent clan from which the third caliph had come) would become Sunni Muslims. Essentially, this was a “struggle for political power”, which the powerful Umayyad leader Muawiyah I and his successors would appear to win, establishing a new caliphate that would last from 661 to 750.
As a result of Muawiyah’s victory, “a de facto separation of religious and political power” would begin, with caliphs holding “religious authority” but monarchs (known as sultans or emirs) essentially wielding political power. The religious sphere of activity and power would soon be “subordinated to the political one”. The Sunni dynasties of the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) and the Ottoman Empire (1299–1923) would then follow on from the Umayyads, though other Islamic empires would exist at several points over the centuries. Between the ninth to the thirteenth century, says Deepa Kumar at the International Socialist Review, “Turkic warrior-rulers… held political power” with the consent of the religious elites, whose legitimacy and authority were guaranteed by these military regimes.
In order to “develop a set of laws that could be applied uniformly to all Muslim subjects”, a “class of religious scholars” (or ‘ulama’) set about developing “Sharia—a set of rules codified into law” [which will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter Five]. There was generally “a consensus” among the ulama, Kumar asserts, “that as long as a ruler could defend the territories of Islam (dar al-Islam) and did not prevent his Muslim subjects from practicing their religion”, there should be no rebellion against them. While Muhammad had effectively been “both a political and religious leader”, the empires that followed him essentially undertook a ‘division of labour’ in their upper echelons. In the fourth powerhouse I will examine in this section of the chapter, this separation began to blur to a certain extent, but essentially remained.
Saudi Arabia, which had a history much less fertile than the other three countries mentioned at the beginning of this section, was bolstered both by its extremely violent, corrupted form of Islam (Wahhabism/Salafism), and by the West’s desire for oil in the twentieth century. Although it is a newcomer compared to the other powerhouses mentioned, ignoring its role in the Muslim World over the last few decades would be a fatal error.
Turkey, Ethnic Nationalism, and Military Rule
In 1908, after years of decline in the Ottoman Empire, the Young Turks (a group of liberal and nationalist reformists), led a revolt in Macedonia. They took power of the empire and forced the sultan to restore the constitutional monarchy, initiating a series of transformations in Ottoman society. However, a divide developed within their party, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), and liberal reformists soon split off to form their own party. In 1913, the conservative nationalists still in the CUP took power for themselves in a coup.
When World War One broke out, the coup regime saw the Armenian population as a “pro-Russian” threat and, in April 1915, they “arrested about 50 Armenian intellectuals and community leaders”, who would later be executed. Other Armenians, meanwhile, were moved en masse from Anatolia (the largely Turkic areas of modern-day Turkey) to Syria. Around a million Armenians died or were murdered on this journey, which is today considered to have been part of an anti-Armenian genocide. The European Parliament, for example, has “formally recognised genocide against the Armenians”, though the traditional right-wing axis of “the UK, US and Israel” choose to use “different terminology to describe the events”.
After the war, “several senior Ottoman officials were put on trial in Turkey… in connection with the atrocities”, while the “Three Pashas” (who had led the unsuccessful war effort) fled into exile and “were sentenced to death in absentia”. Some historians have since questioned “the degree to which the Turkish authorities may have wished to appease the victorious Allies” with such rulings in this post-war period. Former Young Turk and army hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, for example, was particularly interested in dealing diplomatically with the European colonial powers, hoping to rescue Anatolia from their self-interested division of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1922, Atatürk proclaimed the creation of the Turkish Republic, and was backed by Europe’s colonial powers. The following year, he became president and abolished the Islamic Caliphate, renouncing Turkish claims to former Ottoman territories in the Treaty of Lausanne, and beginning a process of modernisation and secularisation in the young nation. Meanwhile, his leadership had managed to convince many Kurds (the largest ethnic minority group in the area sought after by Atatürk) to forget about the idea of creating a Kurdish state in territories with majority Kurdish populations. [The effects of this decision will be explored in greater depth in Chapter Four and in Part Three of this book.]
In 1938, Atatürk died, and his successors remained neutral in the escalating conflict in Europe. They retained a working relationship with Nazi Germany until 1944, and only joined the Allies in 1945, when their invitation to the inaugural meeting of the United Nations was dependent on their full involvement in the Second World War. The country declared war on the Axis powers, but Turkish troops never saw any combat. After this point, it became a firm anti-Communist ally of the West, supporting the UN in the Korean War and then joining NATO in 1952. It did, however, allow open elections (which were won by the opposition Democratic Party) in 1950.
In 1960, the Democratic Party was overthrown by the Turkish army, which approved a new constitution in 1961 giving it “special authority and privileges”, according to Professor Serap Yazıcı. Yazıcı says that “the military and the political elite” implemented these changes in order to “limit the actions of a pluralistic democracy”, insisting that the constitution “featured extremely authoritarian mechanisms within the illusion of democracy”. Professor Ergun Özbudun, meanwhile, asserts that it was “the foundation” of a system of “military tutorship”.
In 1971, there was another coup and, in 1974, Turkey invaded northern Cyprus. It “occupied just over a third of the island”, claiming to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority (less than 20% of the island’s population) from future unification with Greece. Around 140,000 Greek Cypriot refugees fled to the south, while 50,000 Turkish Cypriots fled to the north. The USA subsequently implemented a trade embargo on Turkey until 1978. In 1980, yet another coup occurred, with the army imposing martial law and approving a new constitution in 1982.
In 1984, the violent repression of the country’s Kurdish population reached a tipping point, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK) began a “bloody war for Stalinist/Maoist revolution” against the state. Six years later, Turkey allowed the USA to use Turkish airbases for strikes on Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq after they had invaded Kuwait. Two years later, meanwhile, twenty thousand Turkish troops entered Kurdish safe havens in northern Iraq in an anti-PKK operation. In 1995, another offensive was launched on Iraqi Kurdistan, but this time with 35,000 troops. In 1996, Islamists in Turkey finally gained enough popular support to win elections, though the Islamist Welfare Party was forced to resign after a military campaign against it in 1997. The following year, the party was banned.
In 1999, the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, was captured and sentenced to death. In 2002, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a landslide election, though it promised to stick to the secular principles of the Turkish constitution (which was almost immediately edited to allow people with criminal convictions, like the party’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to run for political office). Erdoğan won a seat in parliament in 2003 and was elevated to the post of Prime Minister within a matter of days. He reformed laws on freedom of speech and Kurdish language rights, and sought to reduce the role of the military in Turkish society. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Turkey allowed the USA to fly in Turkish airspace, but prevented it from using Turkish bases to attack Iraq. Apart from the invasion of Cyprus, this would be one of the most serious acts of Turkish defiance to the USA since the country had entered into NATO.
In 2004, just as the PKK claimed there were ‘annihilation operations’ targeting it, the government banned the death penalty completely, letting Öcalan off the hook. Other advances, meanwhile, sought to reduce tensions in Kurdish communities, with the first Kurdish-language programme being allowed to broadcast on state TV. Four Kurdish activists were also freed from jail, though thousands remained. Two years later, however, the situation deteriorated, with over a dozen people being killed as security forces repressed Kurdish protesters. At the same time, a new anti-terror law was said to ‘invite’ torture. Thanks to the advances made regarding Kurdish rights, however, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire.
In 2007, tens of thousands of people protested in favour of secularism in Ankara, asking Erdoğan not to run for president because of his Islamist past. Another AKP candidate ended up becoming president instead. Meanwhile, Turkey launched yet more air strikes against the PKK in Iraq. A year later, a petition to have the AKP banned for undermining the country’s secular constitution failed. In 2009, ten years after Öcalan’s arrest, Turkish police repressed Kurdish protesters while Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk defied the country’s anti-Kurdish laws by giving a speech to parliament in Kurdish. Erdoğan soon met with Turk and sought to increase Kurdish language rights and reduce military presence in the Kurdish southeast. In part, these attempts were aimed at improving Kurdish attitudes towards Erdoğan and his party, and not at allowing Kurds greater political freedom. In fact, Turk’s political party would be banned at the end of the year.
In 2010, army officers were arrested over an alleged 2003 plot to overthrow the AKP government. Nine Turks, meanwhile, were killed by Israeli commandos on a flotilla travelling to Gaza, which worsened what had traditionally been good relations between Turkey and Israel. At the same time, the PKK affirmed that it was willing to disarm in return for more rights for Turkish Kurds, though the government ignored the offer.
In 2011, Erdoğan became Prime Minister again, and the civilian government was put in charge of choosing military leaders for the first time in Turkish history. As Erdoğan began to back anti-government rebels in Syria, meanwhile, thousands of Syrian refugees fled to Turkey. The following year, armed forces struck PKK rebel bases in Iraq, showing no real sign of wanting to resolve the conflict with the Kurdish movement. After Syrian mortar fire on a Turkish border town killed five civilians, meanwhile, Turkey’s parliament authorised military action inside Syria. The armed forces subsequently responded with artillery fire into Syria. (Note here that Turkey has not fired at Islamist targets in Syria when their shells have fallen on Turkish territory during the war.)
In 2013, the PKK, which had shifted towards a libertarian socialist ideology over the last decade or so, announced it would withdraw from Turkey after Öcalan called for a ceasefire. As a result of a new peace process, the PKK officially refrained from participating in the mass anti-government protests sparked by an urban development plan for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park. Popular mobilisations had been sparked by a number of factors, including: Erdoğan’s perceived authoritarianism; the lack of public consultation; media censorship and disinformation; Turkish involvement in the Syrian Civil War; the excessive force used by police; government corruption; and internet censorship. Twenty-two people were killed in the subsequent government crackdown, and many thousands were injured or arrested.
In 2014, police chiefs in 15 different provinces were sacked, and it was suspected that the AKP had ordered this action in response to corruption investigations connected to its members. Trade unions, meanwhile, led a strike over a mine disaster which caused 282 deaths (and was attributed to government-backed privatisation). Erdoğan would soon be elected president, and violent protests would break out once again. This time, the discontent was driven primarily by Turkey’s blockade of the largely Kurdish city of Kobanî in Syria, which ISIS terrorists were attacking with perceived Turkish support or complicity. These events, and others related to Erdoğan and the PKK, will be explored in greater detail in Part Three of this book.
Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and Authoritarianism
Between 1922 and 1924, Egypt was given independence from the UK under a king, but security issues remained in the hands of the British government. The nationalist Wafd Party was founded in the hope of ensuring Britain’s definitive exit from the country, and it won the elections of 1924. The women’s rights movement, meanwhile, began to gain steam, as did the country’s secularisation process. In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was created, attracting thousands of anti-imperialist Islamists. When formal independence from Britain finally came in 1936, a new king was installed, though Britain still had significant political influence in the country. When violent anti-British demonstrations began in 1952, the Wafd government abolished the 1936 treaty with Britain, and the Free Officers Movement (led by the young Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muhammad Naguib) overthrew the monarchy. The Wafd Party was soon dissolved.
Naguib was granted a 3-year term as dictator of Egypt, but Nasser seized power in 1954, redistributing land to peasants whilst suspending the constitution and banning political parties. He reached an agreement with the British saying they would withdraw from the Suez Canal by 1956. As a result of Muslim Brotherhood protests, hundreds of its members were imprisoned and tortured, with thousands fleeing to other countries. In 1956, Nasser was elected President of Egypt and, after the USA refused to help fund the Aswan High Dam, he nationalised the Suez Canal (giving compensation to those who previously owned it). However, Britain, France and Israel decided to invade the country. Their invasion failed, and the USSR eventually helped to fund the dam, though Israel held onto the land it had taken in the Sinai Peninsula. The following year, Israel returned Sinai to Egypt, and women, having received the vote under Nasser, elected their first female MP.
In 1958, the dream of Arab unity moved forward a step, with Egypt and Syria joining together to become the United Arab Republic (UAR) after a popular referendum. Nasser became its president, but it would be dissolved in 1961 due to internal disagreements. In 1967, Israeli border clashes with Syria led Nasser to prepare support for his ally. Even though there was no evidence that Egyptian forces were planning to attack Israel, the Zionist State launched the Six-Day War, in which Egypt’s air force was destroyed in a surprise attack and Israel occupied Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Egyptian troops would either be killed or captured in the conflict.
In 1970, Nasser died, leaving Anwar El-Sadat to take charge just as the Aswan Dam was approaching completion. The following year, in what was called the ‘May Reform Movement’, Sadat cracked down on his opposition, imprisoning and exiling most former Free Officers. Opposing the continued Israeli occupation of their land, Egypt and Syria launched joint airstrikes on Israel in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. On the back foot, Israel asked for help from President Nixon, who ordered a massive airlift of military equipment to his Zionist allies. Israel soon gained the upper hand as a consequence, and the UN called for a ceasefire. The Arab nations subsequently imposed an oil embargo on the USA and Europe for having supported Israel in the conflict, causing oil prices to increase and Western economies to suffer as a result.
In 1974, Egypt and Israel signed a non-aggression treaty (which Syria opposed), and Sadat visited Israel in 1977, leading to him being shunned by the Arab League but welcomed in as a treasured American ally. Between 1978 and 1979, the Camp David Accords were signed, and Sinai was returned to Egypt. Full diplomatic relations were established between Egypt and Israel, and Sadat’s regime began to receive economic and military aid from the USA. In 1981, he was assassinated by Islamists, who were angry about his liberalisation of the Egyptian economy, his truce with Israel, and his imprisonment of intellectuals, dissidents, and religious figures. Vice-president Hosni Mubarak soon took control, proclaiming martial law and executing those linked to the assassination plot. In 1989, Egypt re-joined the Arab League.
In 1992, an Islamist insurgency began, which would eventually leave a thousand Egyptians and foreigners dead. Perhaps as a result, the non-violent Muslim Brotherhood was once again allowed to participate in elections in 2000, though anti-government demonstrations were necessary in 2005 before a referendum over allowing numerous candidates to stand in presidential elections could take place. In 2006, a report suggested that Egypt was developing nuclear programs though, as it was a US ally, it was not sanctioned like Iran or other nations were.
In 2008, a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood saw 800 people arrested in just one month. The government, meanwhile, set out to privatise state firms. The following year, activists were stopped from taking aid to Gaza – which was being blockaded by both Israel and Egypt. In 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood surprisingly won no seats in elections and there were allegations of vote rigging. In 2011, protesters called for reform, and eventually forced Mubarak to step down, though only after at least 846 civilians had died (with over six hundred of these having been “killed by gunfire”). Protests continued, however, with the Muslim Brotherhood in particular increasing its presence, and the army eventually dispersed protesters from Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi won the elections of 2012, but issued a decree stripping the judiciary of the right to challenge his decisions. After popular protests, he rescinded the decree, but the constituent assembly soon approved a draft constitution which boosted the role of Islam in the country and restricted freedom of speech and assembly.
In 2013, mass demonstrations and violent street protests broke out, and army chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi led a coup against President Morsi. Later in the year, “more than 600 people” would be killed as security forces stormed Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo. A state of emergency was declared and curfews were imposed, while around 40 Coptic churches were destroyed and the Muslim Brotherhood was definitively banned. Its assets were confiscated, and a new law was passed to restrict public protests. The Brotherhood was declared a terrorist group, and Egyptians ‘voted’ in 2014 to approve a new constitution which would ban parties based on religion. Al-Sisi subsequently won the country’s presidential election. [More details on the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere will be examined in Chapter Six.]
Iran, the West, and Shiite Islamism
In 1890, riots and mass protests in Persia led the country’s ruler to withdraw trade concessions previously granted to Britain. Eleven years later, however, oil was discovered, and colonial interest in the territory increased. In 1921, military commander Reza Khan seized power, and he crowned himself king – or ‘Reza Shah Pahlavi’ – five years later. In 1935, he asked the international community to refer to his country as Iran. International diplomacy was affected, though, by the Shah’s alliance with the Axis powers in World War Two, encouraging Anglo-Russian forces to occupy Iranian territory in 1941. The king was subsequently replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
In 1950, the elected prime minister was assassinated months after taking office, and was succeeded by the progressive nationalist, Mohammad Mossadegh. A year later, Mossadegh’s parliament voted to nationalise the oil industry, which was dominated by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Britain responded by imposing an embargo on the country, which halted oil exports and hit Iran’s economy hard. The Shah and Mossadegh then became embroiled in a power struggle, which led the Shah to flee the country in 1953. Soon after, Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup engineered by the British and American intelligence services (a “joint US-British” venture known as “Operation Ajax”). General Fazlollah Zahedi was subsequently proclaimed prime minister, and the Shah returned to Iran. The CIA’s “first formal acknowledgement” of involvement in planning and executing the coup would come in August 2013.
A decade later, the Shah embarked on a campaign to modernise and westernise Iran. Part of this drive was a programme of land reform and socio-economic modernisation referred to as the ‘White Revolution’. In the late 1960s, the Shah became increasingly dependent on the SAVAK (Iran’s secret police), which helped him to oppress the opposition movements which criticised his reforms. In 1978, the alienation and repression of both civil society groups and the Shia Islamic clergy led to riots, strikes, and mass demonstrations in the country – leading the Shah to impose martial law.
In 1979, while the Shah was in the USA receiving medical treatment, he was ousted by a popular rebellion. Demanding his extradition to Iran, a handful of rebels held American hostages in the US embassy until 1981 (even though the Shah had died in 1980). Meanwhile, Iranians had voted in a referendum to make Iran an ‘Islamic Republic’, and Seyyad Abolhassan Banisadr became the first president of the country in 1980. He led a major nationalisation programme in January of that year. In September, however, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq attacked Iran, leading Islamist powers within the Iranian Revolution to cement their own power as part of the war effort. In 1981, Banisadr was impeached (and went into exile not long afterwards).
In 1985, both the USA and the USSR halted arms supplies to Iran, fearing the spread of Islamist opposition to both Western imperialism and Soviet atheism. However, the Reagan Administration sought a way to get hostages in Lebanon released, and sold arms to Iran as a way of taking advantage of the power of Iranian diplomacy. The money earned from the arms sales was subsequently funnelled to the right-wing Contra paramilitaries fighting against the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua, as part of a deal known later as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Starting in 1987, the USA launched Operation Earnest Will, which aimed to protect Kuwaiti-owned oil tankers destined for export. In 1988, the USA shot down an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 (and 66 children). In the same month, a ceasefire was agreed, and the Iran-Iraq War officially ended soon after. Over “1 million people were dead and both countries deeply scarred” at the end of the conflict. The spiritual leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, died a year later, and was replaced by Ayatollah Khamenei as the country’s ‘supreme leader’. In the same year, the “neoliberal” Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected president, and his assumption of power led the USA to release $567 million of frozen Iranian assets.
In 1995, the USA imposed oil and trade sanctions on Iran for its alleged sponsorship of ‘terrorism’ in the Middle East (even though, as will be seen in Chapter Five, the USA had helped to create the most violent form of terrorism in Afghanistan in the 1980s). It was also accused of seeking to acquire nuclear arms. Mohammad Khatami was elected president two years later by a landslide, seeking to continue the liberalising economic policies of his predecessor and bring about limited democratic reforms. A year later, Iran deployed troops to its border with Afghanistan to protect itself from the Taliban (which had risen from the ashes of the USA’s anti-communist war there in the 1980s). In 1999, pro-democracy students protested in the streets but were repressed by Iranian police. Rioting ensued, and over 1,000 people were arrested.
Over the next few years, liberals would retain control of the Iranian parliament, and Khatami would be re-elected. However, US President Bush would claim Iran was part of an ‘axis of evil’. Soon afterwards, work on a nuclear reactor – allegedly for power generation – began. In 2003, thousands of people attended student-led protests. In the same year, Iran suspended its nuclear programme and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that the country had no weapons programme. A year later, though, conservatives regained control of the country (as many reformists had been disqualified from the elections by the Council of Guardians). In 2005, uranium conversion resumed, though supposedly for ‘peaceful purposes’.
2005 also saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beat Rafsanjani in the country’s presidential elections, and the new president soon proved himself to be a lot less prepared to accept international ultimatums on Iranian use of nuclear fuel. He had backed the “post-1979 cleric-dominated capitalist political system” in the run-up to the elections, but had also promised “higher wages, more rural development funds, expanded health insurance and more social benefits for women”. He also emphasised that Iran did “not need imposed ties with the United States”. As the only candidate really standing on a “populist platform”, he succeeded in appealing to the disenfranchised poor and rural voters of Iran. A year later, the UN Security Council voted to impose sanctions on Iran’s trade in nuclear materials and technology. In 2007, Iran allowed nuclear inspectors into the country, but the USA imposed tough new sanctions nonetheless, in spite of a US intelligence report which had played down the perceived nuclear threat posed by Iran.
In 2008, Ahmadinejad visited Iraq, expressing the desire for friendship between the two countries and signing several cooperation agreements with the Shia-dominated government. Continued international sanctions on Iran, meanwhile, stirred up anti-imperialist and nationalist sentiment among Ahmadinejad’s supporters, who would criticise Western interference more and more. In a provocative move, the president approved the test-firing of a long-range missile which was supposedly ‘capable of hitting targets in Israel’. Ahmadinejad was re-elected the following year, though allegations of vote-rigging led to protests (in which at least 30 people were killed and more than 1,000 were arrested). In 2011, the Arab Spring inspired many Iranians to attend mass demonstrations once again, but they were not suppressed as violently as those of 2009. According to Dissident Voice, Ahmadinejad, far from serving the best interests of the Iranian people, oversaw “a regime dedicated to the privatization of state-controlled industries”.
After years of tightening international sanctions on Iran, the EU imposed an oil embargo on the country in 2012, pushing its currency to a new record low against the US dollar (with it already having lost about 80% of its value since 2011). In part, this situation was responsible for the Iranians’ decision to vote cleric Hassan Rouhani, a “proponent of neoliberal economics”, into power in 2013. Promising US broadcaster NBC that Iran would “never develop nuclear weapons”, he spoke of his hopes about moving forward with nuclear talks in order to end international sanctions. In 2014, he pledged to help Iraq in its battle against ISIS extremists by providing “military advisers and weapons” to the country.
Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, and Dictatorship
Between 1915 and 1916, Britain tried to convince Arabs to rebel against Ottoman rule in what later became known as the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence. During this period, Britain promised to facilitate the creation of an independent Arab State after the First World War if Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, would lead a rebellion. Few tribes supported him, though, and in 1926 Abdul Aziz ibn Saud conquered Mecca and Medina thanks to the violent, intolerant form of Islam (known as Wahhabism) followed by his supporters. Saudi Arabia was formed, and Wahhabism became its official religion. Having made the ideology more ‘stately’ to attract the support of the West, King Abdul finally died in 1953.
In 1975, King Faisal was killed by a family member because of his role in the 1973 Arab oil embargo (which came after the Yom Kippur War). With the country’s Wahhabi population growing increasingly unhappy with the monarchy’s alliance with the West, Juhayman al-Oteibi and a band of armed followers seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. After 2 weeks, police raided the mosque and publicly beheaded Juhayman and 63 of his followers. These events marked the start of an “Islamic Awakening” of Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia.
After fuelling Wahhabi presence in the Islamist opposition to communism in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s, Saudi Arabia stripped dissident Osama Bin Laden of his Saudi nationality in 1994. Nonetheless, extremism remained in the country, and 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 were Saudi nationals. A year later, the country’s criminal code was revised, with a ban on torture and suspects being given the right to legal representation. Rights campaigners, however, affirmed that violations continued. The country’s foreign minister, meanwhile, said the USA would not be allowed to use its facilities in Saudi Arabia to attack Iraq, even as part of a UN-sanctioned strike.
In 2003, the USA promised to pull out almost all of its troops from Saudi Arabia, ending a military presence that dated back to the 1991 Gulf war. Both countries, however, stressed that they would remain allies. In the same year, suicide bombers killed 35 people at housing compounds for Westerners in Riyadh, but there was no Western retaliation against Saudi Arabia. Protesters, meanwhile, called for political reforms, and hundreds were arrested as a result. Later in the year, another terrorist attack would see 17 people killed. In 2004, three gun attacks in Riyadh within a week left two Americans and a BBC cameraman dead, while a US engineer was abducted and beheaded, with his filmed death being shown in the USA. In December, five US workers were killed at the US consulate in Jeddah but, yet again, there was no Western military campaign against Saudi Arabia as a result.
In 2005, King Abdullah took the throne, and he banned the religious police from detaining suspects two years later because it had come under increasing criticism after recent deaths in its custody. In 2010, the USA confirmed a plan to sell $60 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, in what was to be the most lucrative single arms deal in US history. Nonetheless, Wikileaks cables would reveal soon afterwards the USA’s concern that Saudi Arabia was the ‘most significant’ source of funding for Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.
In 2011, King Abdullah announced an increase in welfare spending in an attempt to stop the Arab Spring from spreading to Saudi Arabia. However, he also decided to ban public protests after small demonstrations had taken place in the mostly Shia areas of the east, saying that threats to the nation’s security and stability would not be tolerated. When the regime of neighbouring Bahrain was put under pressure by protesters, Saudi troops were sent in to help with the government crackdown. In the same year, Abdullah gave women the right to vote, run in municipal elections, and be appointed to the consultative Shura Council. When a woman was sentenced to 10 lashes for driving a car, Abdullah even stepped in to overturn the sentence. This action showed the balance Abdullah was trying to seek between pleasing the West and protecting his own rule.
In 2013, 30 women were sworn in to the previously all-male Shura consultative council – allowing women to hold political office for the first time in Saudi history. However, Amnesty International accused Riyadh of failing to live up to its promises about improving its human rights record after the critical report that had been issued by the UN in 2009. In fact, Amnesty criticised Saudi Arabia for ‘ratcheting up’ its repression. Accused of supporting Wahhabi extremists in Syria, meanwhile, Abdullah implemented a new anti-terrorism law in 2014, though social activists claimed the act was aimed at further stifling dissent.