Anyone who has followed recent headlines knows there has been much tension recently between the rulers of Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran—including the execution of a Shiite cleric who had criticized the kingdom’s treatment of its Shiite minority, the subsequent ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran two days later, a Saudi cutoff of diplomatic relations with Iran, and the general ramping up of tensions in the region. The secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, called these developments “deeply worrying.” The events could also have an effect on the Syrian peace talks scheduled in Geneva on January 25, in which Iran backs Syria's Assad regime.
Late in 2015, I conducted an 80-minute interview with a senior member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Turki al-Faisal at his home near Washington, DC, for an article scheduled to be published in the Bulletin’s subscription-only magazine next week. In the interview, the prince, who holds no official government position, made a number of comments about the tumultuous relationship between his home country and Iran, and on the strains between Shia and Sunni in the Middle East. Given that he was a Saudi ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom and served as head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate for more than 20 years, what the prince had to say seems especially pertinent to the current situation. What follows is a relatively short extract from my conversation with Prince Turki. The full magazine interview will be published online on January 11.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BAS: There was an interesting analysis in the New York Times which said: “As much as they fear a nuclear‑armed Iran in the long run, the Saudis are just as concerned about what Tehran might do in the short run with the billions of dollars that will be unfrozen by the lifting of sanctions and become available for financing terrorists allies, like Hezbollah, Hamas, as well as Houthi rebels in Yemen.” Is that accurate?
AL-FAISAL: Yes. When you look at King Salman’s joint statement with President Obama, they mention the issue of Iranian ambitions in the area and that they must be countered. There is awareness, not just in the kingdom but also with President Obama, of this need to look at it not just from the nuclear issue but also in terms of Iran’s conduct in the area.
And you know, we’re the ones who live there; we’re the ones who suffer from Iran’s politics and policies. If you look at the whole range of Iranian interference, you look at Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, there’s a whole host of problems for us.
With Iran being the initiator and the instigator and the inciter of instability and negative issues in the area.
BAS: Don’t you feel that Iran has sort of toned down since 1979, when the US embassy was overthrown, the revolution was in full swing, the ayatollah came in, and things were very vehement. The impression to me is that it’s gotten more tolerant.
AL-FAISAL: I wouldn’t say tolerant or less inciteful. I would say that it’s become more sophisticated in how it is projecting what Khomeini did, in a different manner. He was bombastic. Now they are more—sophisticated and underhanded, if you like, than Khomeini was.
BAS: And I do have to say that on an individual basis, some of the people I met while working as an editor at a nonprofit physics research center in Geneva were scientists from Iran. And they were charming, nice individuals.
AL-FAISAL: The Iranian people are the most delightful people you can meet. And particularly across the Gulf in the Arab world there is respect and admiration for Iranian culture and historic achievements. Before they became Muslims and after they became Muslims. If you look at Iranian accomplishments in historic terms, they were one of the first to put down rules of civilized society, such as the code of Hammurabi. And other such developments in human history and culture. And many of the scientific accomplishments of the Muslim world occurred in what is now called Iran, by Persian‑speaking Muslims: Al‑Khwarizmi, who developed algebra; Omar Khayyam, who is a famous not just poet but also astronomer and mathematician, etcetera.
People who developed medicine and engineering and so on came from that part of the Muslim world in those days. There is an alphabetic script in Arabic which originated in what is now Iran, which was beautiful, a work of art.
So all of these things we share with Iran, with the Iranian people, this intermixture of culture and religion and history and science and human achievement. That should not be denied. On the contrary, it should be exalted and talked about and vocally expressed.
BAS: But you are saying that there’s a difference between the regime that runs—
AL-FAISAL: The leadership in Iran is the one that has pushed the Iranian people into the position they are today. All the reports we’ve seen about popular sentiment in Iran indicate that the majority of Iranians are not happy with how their leaders have pushed them—such as being sanctioned by the world.
Look at the elections in 2009 when Ahmadinejad was running for his second term. There was then what could have been called the Iranian Spring. But the regime vehemently oppressed it, and many people lost their lives. Many people are sitting in jail. The movement’s leaders are still under house arrest.
And that viral video of the young Iranian woman who was shot on the street, you could see her lying there on the sidewalk and then dying.
And it wasn’t just her; thousands of Iranians who had gone into the streets were shot or imprisoned.
BAS: I guess the moment for an Iranian Spring came and went.
AL-FAISAL: Just two or three months ago, in two provinces in Iran, on the shores of the Gulf, where the population is composed mainly of people of Arab descent, there were riots during a football match for the Asian cup. The match was between a Saudi team and an Iranian team, and the venue for that match was in this area. And local spectators carried signs supporting the Saudi team.
And when they left the stadium after the Saudi team won and celebrated in the streets, the police came in. The next few weeks there was social unrest in various towns in that area of Iran; people were going in the streets carrying signs saying “We love Saudi Arabia” and “We’re Arabs.”
And in the northwest, in the Kurdish area of Iran, there was an incident where a young girl threw herself from the balcony of her apartment because she was going to be raped by a security officer, a policeman.
Her funeral caused a huge uprising in that area of Iran.
So things are not settled in Iran. There is popular anti-regime sentiment everywhere.
BAS: I have to ask: Is Saudi Arabia encouraging this unrest?
AL-FAISAL: Absolutely not. We are reporting it in our media. But we accuse Iran of interfering in Arab affairs.
AL-FAISAL: But we are not going to practice the same thing by interfering in Iranian affairs.
BAS: So you’re not doing to Iran what Iran is doing to you?
BAS: A few last questions. Has Saudi Arabia taken in any Syrian refugees?
AL-FAISAL: Since March 2011, when the uprising began in Syria, we have received 2.5 million Syrians.
Those among them who wanted to stay in Saudi Arabia were given residence permits.
BAS: Speaking of Syria, what do you think is the best way for the United States to handle the situation there?
AL-FAISAL: Increase support to the moderate opposition. By that I mean you don’t need to send troops on the ground to Syria. But you do need to help the moderate opposition—and they are there. And we operate with them, Saudi Arabia. We coordinate with the United States on who we operate with in Syria.
And you need to give them the defensive means to prevent the Syrian air force and army from blatantly and haphazardly attacking the Syrian population. So, don’t give them tanks and missiles—no, give them the means to prevent the attacks and the missiles and the aircraft from being used against them.
Especially the ones that throw these barrel bombs, you know, which kill civilians. Those weapons are non-discriminating, and they don’t bomb the fighters; they bomb the Syrians. They punish them. And that’s why more than 300,000 Syrians have been killed by the regime.
BAS: The most successful moderate group being the Kurds?
AL-FAISAL: No. I think the most successful are the Free Syrian Army, because the Free Syrian Army fights not only Bashar, but ISIS and other terrorist groups. The Kurds are just fighting ISIS.
BAS: It is barbaric seeing some of the things that ISIS has done, like what just happened in Palmyra.
AL-FAISAL: Not just Palmyra. They kill anybody who doesn’t agree with them. If you sneeze out of sorts, they’ll cut your nose off. But look at the scale of the terrorism as compared between what ISIS has done and what Bashar has done. That’s how we measure it. When you have 300,000 people killed on the side of Bashar and—what is it, 2,000? 3,000? 10,000 killed by ISIS—there is no comparison as to who is the worst terrorist.
BAS: So you’re in favor of Bashar al‑Assad staying in power?
AL-FAISAL: No. I would have him removed immediately, as I would have ISIS removed immediately. ISIS is there because of him.
BAS: You were talking earlier about Iran, about the history, about shared Muslim culture, about great achievements. This might be incredibly naive, but why this huge divide between Shia and Sunni? To an outsider it seems like there’s an awful lot of pain and death and horror over these things.
AL-FAISAL: I agree. And unfortunately it’s inspired by political ambition, not by religious faith.
It’s politicians who are using the sectarian divide for their purposes. Because look at Iran’s actions wherever they may be. In Lebanon it’s Hezbollah that receives Iranian support. Hezbollah is a Shiite group, and they have managed to acquire a political position in Lebanon where they’ve become the decider—without them, nothing will happen. So now Lebanon has no president because Hezbollah doesn’t want to have a president in Lebanon. But it’s a Shiite group supported by Iraq.
Look at Syria. It is Bashar, as I said, who is an Alawite—a sub‑Shiari sect.
And in Iraq who is Iran supporting? Only the Shia groups, whether it is the Hakim group or the Zaydiyya group or the Shiite group of the present prime minister. In Yemen they support the Houthis—an offshoot of the Shia sect. Their concentration is on Shia. And they divide societies between Shia and non‑Shia in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain.
They’re pushing this sectarian divide for political purposes, because they want to have the influence and the wherewithal to affect the politics and the policies of these countries. And that is why we are in this situation, where you have this division.
And on the other side, who is taking the opposite stance, proclaiming that they are against the Shia? It is Sunni groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda. They are the ones who are carrying the banner of fighting the Shia.
And even in Saudi Arabia some of the recent terrorist incidents that have occurred—including one last week—were inspired by ISIS against the Shia community in Saudi Arabia. Because they want to create inside a society this issue of Shia versus Sunni.
Fortunately for us, there has been resistance to this sectarianism. For example, when ISIS attacked a mosque in an eastern province of Saudi Arabia at the beginning of this year, the community of Shia and Sunni in the area simply came out voluntarily and without instigation by either side, calling for and end to this effort to divide their community. In funerals that took place after these events, Sunni and Shia were out together with banners saying: “We are against any sectarian divide.” Because both Shia and Sunni feel they have a stake together, that they make up a community defined by nationality.
So, is not the established countries, like the government of Saudi Arabia or the government of Bahrain or the government of Kuwait or the government of Oman that are pushing for the sectarian divide. It’s the terrorists on one side and the Iranian regime on the other side that are playing this political game of Shia versus Sunni.