Segments in this Video

Iran Today (05:09)


Martin Smith reports from Tehran on the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Since Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution, international relations have been strained. Khomeini rejected British and American domination; IRGC founder Mohsen Rafighdoost recalls his return from exile.

Western Supported Monarchy (03:48)

Iranians believed Khomeini's revolution would free them from repression. Learn about American and British oil resource exploitation, the CIA-backed coup of Mohammed Mossadegh's democratically elected government in 1953, and the Shah's police state. Mass demonstrations erupted in 1978.

Iranian Revolution (04:23)

Khomeini's anti-American message elicited broad support across the Middle East, among both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Smith interviews Tehran citizens celebrating the revolution's anniversary; they distinguish the American people from its leadership.

American Hostage Crisis (03:10)

Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar recalls fears among students that the CIA would reinstate the Shah's regime. They stormed the U.S. embassy after Carter provided the Shah with medical treatment. Khomeini used the events to legitimize and cement the regime.

Embracing Shia Islam (05:27)

Shia, a minority sect, split from Sunni Islam after Muhammad's death in 632. Khomeini established Sharia and formed a "guardianship of the jurist" system of imam political leadership. Saudi Arabia saw this as a challenge to its Sunni leadership.

Saudi Reaction to Iranian Revolution (01:56)

A Western-backed absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia maintained relations with the Shah until 1979. Khomeini undermined the Saudi royal family's authority.

Saudi Leadership (03:53)

In 2005, Smith interviews Crown Prince Aziz about the House of Saud's legitimacy. Fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics share political power with the royal family and view Shi'ism as heretical.

Deteriorating Relations with Iran (04:36)

During the 1970s, the royal family tried to modernize while maintaining an alliance with Wahhabi clerics. In 1979, a Wahhabi group led a terrorist attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Shia communities protested in east Saudi Arabia and were repressed.

Increasingly Conservative Saudi Government (04:13)

Saudi and French commandos stormed the Great Mosque, capturing Wahhabi rebels. However, Wahhabi clerics succeeded in reversing liberal social trends, banning Western influences, and enforcing stricter religious practices. The royal family also increased Wahhabism funding to fight Iranian Shi'ism.

Wahhabism in Pakistan (02:24)

Islamabad's King Faisal Mosque symbolizes Saudi influence. Since the 1960s, the Saudis have funded madrassas and mosques worldwide. Pakistan has become increasingly sectarian since 1979.

Pakistan's Military Islamic Regime (03:35)

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan provided Saudi Arabia with an opportunity to spread Wahhabism and gain regional influence. Learn about President Zia ul-Haq's leadership, funded by the Saudis and the U.S. under the Carter Doctrine.

Supporting Sunni Jihadists (02:49)

In a covert operation, the U.S. and Saudis funded the Mujahedeen. Pakistan selected radical groups for the ISI, anticipating post-Soviet alliances in Afghanistan. Radical Saudis joined the effort, including Osama Bin Laden.

Wahhabi Origins of Al-Qaeda (02:18)

After the Soviet-Afghan War, the U.S. relinquished Afghan policies to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; they in turn brought extremists to power. Saudi foreign minister Abdel Al-Jubeir says Sunni reactions to Iranian provocation led to the global jihad movement.

Iran and Lebanon (05:17)

In Nabatieh, a Shia minority supports Khomeini. In 1982, Israel occupied southern Lebanon to drive out the PLO. Khomeini sent IRGC members to recruit and train Shia troops in Beirut; they formed Hezbollah independently.

Hezbollah's Growing Power (06:42)

After an Israeli convoy opened fire during a Shia festival, suicide bombers began attacking U.S. and French peacekeepers. Israel eventually withdrew; Hezbollah celebrates the occasion annually. Party official Hashem Safieddine says it is supported by Iran, but maintains independence.

Iran-Iraq War (02:52)

The U.S. policy of preventing Iran's armament began during the 1980s. Learn about the eight year conflict, during which Saddam Hussein sought to topple Khomeini's regime. Iran was forced to mobilize ground troops.

Human Wave Attacks (03:17)

Khomeini sent boys and young men to the front, telling them they would become Shia martyrs. Former Associated Press reporter Mohammad Salam witnessed them run through Iraqi mine fields.

Iranian Counter-Offensive (02:33)

In 1982, Iran pushed back Iraqi troops across the border. Khomeini decided to continue fighting and advanced on Karbala, where Imam Hussein became a Shia martyr in the 7th century.

International Support for Iraq (02:27)

When Iran advanced into Iraq, Sunni Gulf states and the West began providing military aid to Hussein. Saudi Arabia feared Iran would export the revolution. Even Iraq's Shia community opposed Khomeini's invasion.

Chemical Weapons (02:44)

Emboldened by Arab and Western allies, Hussein used nerve agents against Iranian troops—considered a crime against humanity by Iran. The CIA was aware of his actions, but did not anticipate an international outcry.

Iran-Iraq War Legacy (03:44)

Khomeini agreed to a cease-fire in 1988; Iranians saw the revolution's survival as a victory in its own right. Six years earlier, he had refused to capitulate unless Iraq took responsibility for the war. He resented Saudi Arabia for supporting Hussein.

Saddam Hussein's Regime (04:01)

Smith first came to Iraq in 2003 with exiled activist Kanan Makiya after the U.S. invasion. Makiya had witnessed Hussein's Sunni government use brutality to suppress the majority Shia population. After a 1991 uprising, Hussein killed 100,000 Shi’ites.

Saddam Hussein's Fall (03:00)

After 9/11, Saudi Arabia opposed military action against Iraq, concerned that the state would collapse and Iran would take over. U.S.-Saudi relations were tense and American troops invaded Baghdad. However, the U.S. failed to understand Sunni-Shia antagonism.

Iraqi Sectarianism Origins (03:05)

Hussein's fall exposed the Shia majority; imams exiled in Iran returned to Baghdad. Iranian leaders saw the U.S. as doing them a favor by removing Hussein. Saudi leaders were dumbfounded by the action.

Sunni Resistance (04:01)

U.S. envoy Paul Bremer ordered 40,000 Ba'athists removed from office and dissolved the Iraqi Army. Sunnis protested; radical suicide bombers led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi targeted the Jordanian embassy and U.N. headquarters. Former Ba'athist military officers joined the movement.

Increasing Sectarian Violence (04:18)

Smith visits the al Askari mosque, a Shia pilgrimage site in Samarra. In 2006, Al-Qaeda bombs destroyed its golden dome, triggering Shia reprisals against Sunni minorities. Police lost control; atrocities occurred on both sides.

Saudi-Iranian Proxy War (06:51)

After Hussein's removal, the IRGC trained Shia militias in Iraq. Qais al Khazali discusses targeting Al-Qaeda after the Samarra bombing. Saudi-funded Sunni networks mobilized insurgents to destabilize Iraq.

An Unexpected Martyr (06:57)

While Saudi Arabia supported Sunni resistance, Iran held greater influence over the Shia majority. See how the government's management of Hussein's execution fanned sectarian flames and rallied Sunnis worldwide in support of the former dictator.

Credits: Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia (Part 1) (01:03)

Credits: Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia (Part 1)

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Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia (Part 1)

Part of the Series : Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia
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FRONTLINE traces how a 40-year rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has fueled sectarian extremism across the Middle East for political gain. Correspondent Martin Smith travels to seven countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Yemen to examine how the power struggle has rippled across the region.

Length: 114 minutes

Item#: BVL191940

Copyright date: ©2018

Closed Captioned

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