- Robert Fisk’s Newspapers
In a famous article first published by The Independent in 1998, the British journalist Robert Fisk recounted that when he met with Osama bin Laden for the second and last time — in Afghanistan at the end of the previous year — the first thing that the Saudi billionaire did upon seeing him was to grab the newspapers that were sticking out of his interviewer’s briefcase. Bin Laden then proceeded to read through them for more than a half-hour — though they were a week old — bringing himself up to date about Pakistan, Palestine, and his home country, Saudi Arabia. At some point, he stumbled upon a piece of news that startled him: Iranian and Saudi officials were about to hold talks. Is it true, bin Laden asked Robert Fisk, is Tehran really trying to establish contact with Riyadh?
In his article — which he wrote after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam — what Fisk found noteworthy about this anecdote was the contrast between a man that the Clinton administration and the Western media had just presented as the most dangerous terrorist on the planet and the under-informed bin Laden he had seen in Afghanistan, less than a year earlier. In the wake of what happened on September 11th, however, bin Laden’s isolation no longer is the crucial part of the story. Much more than the fact that he did not know about the imminent encounter between Iranian and Saudi diplomats, what matters now are the long-term consequences he drew from learning about it. To put it dramatically, one could claim that the rationale behind the recent attacks on New York and Washington originated in what Osama bin Laden read that day in Robert Fisk’s newspapers.
A fruitful partnership: 1979–1989
To substantiate such a claim, it is necessary to go back to 1979 and recall four major events that took place during that year: in February, the Shah Mohammad Reza was ousted and the Islamic Republic of Iran instituted, under the supreme guidance of Ayatollah Khomeini; in July, Ahmed Assan Al-Bakr resigned from the presidency of Iraq’s Revolution Command Council and was replaced by the vice chairman, Saddam Hussein; in November, American diplomats and employees were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran; in December, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. While U.S. officials probably did not pay too much attention to the change of guard in Baghdad, they were immediately convinced that the combined impact of the Iranian revolution — with its stridently anti-American beginnings — and the occupation of Afghanistan by their cold war rival called for a reassessment of their global strategy. Their first response to the new situation consisted in establishing a close partnership with Saudi Arabia. Riyadh, of course, was already a very important ally of Washington: since 1945, the two capitals had been bound by an economic and military alliance based on Saudi oil and the impeccable anti-communist credentials of the royal family. Yet, starting in 1979, and for the decade that followed, this time-honored partnership took a new and fateful dimension: with wholehearted American support, the Saudi regime would fulfill the triple mission of spreading Wahhabi fundamentalism throughout the Muslim world — purportedly as a homeopathic antidote to Tehran’s brand of Islamist militancy — of supporting Saddam Hussein’s war effort against Iran, and of bankrolling the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation.
For U.S. officials, containing Iran soon became almost as important as undermining communism. The first reason behind this new priority was the trauma caused by the hostage crisis — which lasted until January 1981. Yet Washington’s determination to avenge the humiliation inflicted by Khomeini’s regime was not the only motive for paying so much attention to Iran. Buoyed by their victory over the Shah and his American ally, the Ayatollah and his government did not conceal that they sought to inspire and support the same kind of Islamic insurgencies as the one that brought them to power, including in countries where the majority of the population was Sunnite rather than Shiite. Because they took Tehran’s intention...