No, CNN, Saudi Arabia and Iran Have Not Been Fighting For “1,000 Years”

Yesterday, after the ISIS attack on Teheran, this astonishing paragraph appeared in a CNN article:


Now, it is true that Saudi Arabia and Iran “have had strained relations,” but these strained relations go back not 1,000 years, but to the Iranian Islamic Revolution, which (1) overthrew a monarchy (and Saudi Arabia is a monarchy); (2) aimed to export Islamic Revolution, which Saudi Arabia interpreted as a direct threat; and (3) attempted to claim the mantle of political Islam, which Saudi Arabia sees itself as the principal representative of in the world. From 1980-1988, Iran fought a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was backed by the Gulf Arab monarchies, especially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Now, it is not inaccurate to claim that the Saudi Arabian-Iranian rivalry is one of the most toxic in modern Muslim history, that both regimes are in different ways profoundly odious influences on the Middle East and Muslim politics, or that their involvement of America and Russia, respectively, in their clash of religious authoritarianisms, might contain the ingredients for the next World War. Certainly all of us should be paying close attention. But there’s no reason to become hyperbolic. This feud has lasted 38 years now, which is significantly less than 1,000 years.

For one thing, the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled, as its name should indicate, by the al-Saud Dynasty, was founded in 1932. Its antecedent kingdom was founded in 1744, and done away with by the Sunni Ottoman Caliphate, not Iran. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran dates to and marks its independence on April 1, 1979. Iran is, of course, an ancient civilization, but up until the 1500s, Iran was a majority-Sunni country, until the Safavid dynasty, originating in the Caucasus, forcibly converted Iran to Twelver Shi’a Islam. How this paragraph passed muster is not beyond me, though. We’ve a tendency to prefer lazy stereotyping to rigorous thinking.

We often claim Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting for “a thousand years,” or that the Middle East is “roiled by ancient hatreds,” which excuses our ignorance of the conflict, validates our disinterest in learning more, and excuses our complicity in the violence. Many of these conflicts are very modern, and have the deep imprint of American foreign policy upon them. Not for a thousand years, sure, but for a pretty long time nevertheless.