The rise of Islamic State (IS) and its seizure of large parts of Iraq and Syria have caused alarm in the West and across the Middle East. Harrowing images of mass killings and beheadings of soldiers and journalists have sparked calls for renewed U.S. intervention in the region. Alarming as it is, Islamic State has not risen in a vacuum. In fact IS can be seen as an outcome of thirty five years of continual warfare across the Middle East. This post, the first of three, looks at those thirty five years of conflict and the seven steps that have led to the emergence of ISIS.
Step 1 – 1979
The year 1979 saw three events that radically changed the Middle East. These were the Iranian Revolution, the seizure of the Mosque in Mecca by Saudi extremists, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 overthrew the Iranian monarchy and replaced it with a fundamentalist Shia theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini’s rise to power directly threatened a number of Iran’s neighbours. Under Khomeini, Shia Iran became a direct threat to the Al Saud monarchy in Sunni majority Saudi Arabia. Khomeini condemned the ruling Al Saud royal family of Saudi Arabia as a corrupt, illegitimate dictatorship, subservient to American interests, and incited Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority to rise up against the Saudi government.
Months later, the Saudi monarchy faced another threat to its rule, this time from within its own borders. In November 1979, Sunni insurgents took over the shrine at Mecca during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. The rebels called for the overthrow of the House of Saud which they claimed was exploiting religion for its own gain, paying allegiance to Christian America, and bringing evil and corruption upon Muslims. The insurgents also slated the Saudi government for making reforms which they considered un-Islamic – such as allowing women to drive, allowing music, TV, and dancing, permitting international football tournaments, and allowing girls and women to take part in sports.
In a battle that lasted more than two weeks, Saudi forces attacked the Grand Mosque and a protracted gun battle raged within. In the final days of the battle, as the rebels retreated underground, the Saudi forces flooded the maze of underground prayer rooms first with water and finally with canisters of CS gas to flush out the remaining rebels. When the siege ended, over sixty fundamentalist insurgents were publicly executed in towns across Saudi Arabia.
Finally, in the dying days of what had already been an historic year, a third event shook the Middle East when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In Christmas 1979, Russian paratroopers landed in Kabul to prop up the communist government of Hazifullah Amin. Afghanistan was already in the grip of a civil war which pitted Amin against rebels opposed to his efforts to erase Muslim tradition, a move that had outraged the majority of Afghans. The invasion marked the beginning of Soviet occupation that would last for more than a decade.
Step 2. Saudi Arabia assert’s its primacy as Defender of Islam
The historic events of 1979 meant that Saudi Arabia’s rulers were being attacked by powerful Shia outsiders in Iran as well as by home grown violent Sunni insurgents. The common charge from both Iran and the Saudi fundamentalists was that the Al Saud rulers were not religious enough.
Saudi King Fahd’s response was twofold. Looking at the fate of the Shah of Iran, Fahd concluded that the Shah had been toppled because he had become estranged from his religious power base. Fahd moved to placate his fundamentalist critics. The solution to the threat of religious fundamentalists, he decided, would be even more religion.
Within Saudi Arabia, the King reversed liberal reforms and handed more power to the religious establishment. King Fahd also took on a new title – custodian of the two holy places Mecca and Medina. On the international stage, Saudi Arabia embarked on a sectarian strategy, depicting the House of Saud as Sunnism’s greatest defenders, and portraying Khomeini’s Shia challenge to the House of Saud as sedition.
Using its immense oil wealth, Saudi Arabia also launched a worldwide missionary campaign to combat the Shia teachings of Khomeini’s Iran. The result was the spread of Wahhibism and Salafism – the militant forms of Sunnism predominant in Saudi Arabia – across the Muslim world. Tens of millions of Korans were distributed with commentaries approved by the Saudi ulema. The Kingdom’s embassies around the world hosted religious attaches whose job was to get new mosques built and to encourage existing mosques to teach the Saudi version of Islam. The Saudi government allocated over $27 billion to this missionary fund. 
The war in Afghanistan also presented the Saudi rulers with a unique opportunity to demonstrate their primacy as defenders of Islam. The Saudis, who had always been militant opponents of communism, now became vigorous supporters of the Islamic fighters opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan.
The Afghan war was significant in that it saw the US and Saudi Arabia collaborating in opposing a common enemy. In February 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter agreed a covert programme with the Saudis which would see both countries fund a guerrilla campaign in Afghanistan to the tune of more than $3 billion each over the following decade. (Robert Lacey p67) While the US saw the fight as one against communism, the Saudis saw it as a holy war for Islam. The U.S and Saudi Arabia’s efforts would result in the emergence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Step 3. Iran – Iraq War
The Iranian Revolution had a momentous impact on the Middle East in another way. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein saw Ayatollah Khomeini ‘s rise to power of as a direct threat to his rule. Hussein, an advocate of rapid modernisation, promoted secularism, alongside ruthless dictatorship, as the path to progress. Khomeini slated Hussein as an infidel, a brutal Sunni tyrant oppressing his country’s Shia majority, and called on Iraqi shia to topple him.
In September 1980 Saddam attacked Iran in a pre-emptive attempt to topple Khomeini before Khomeini could topple him. Hussein also hoped to take advantage of the turmoil of the Revolution to seize Iran’s oil reserves and make Iraq the region’s dominant power. When he invaded Iran, Hussein expected his ‘whirlwind war’ would be over within weeks. Instead it lasted eight brutal years.
The Iran – Iraq war featured indiscriminate ballistic-missile attacks on cities by both sides, but mostly by Iraq; the extensive use of chemical weapons, mostly by Iraq; and hundreds of attacks on third-country oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, which threatened the entire world economy.
Saudi Arabia and the United States both provided support for Saddam Hussein. The Saudis wanted to avoid Hussein’s overthrow, which was likely to lead to a Shia-led government in Iraq. The U.S. was concerned about Khomeini’s militant anti-Westernism, his calls for global Islamic revolution, and the threat to global oil supplies. The U.S. was also still suffering from the humiliation of the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis.
Support from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia allowed Iraq to acquire advanced weapons and expertise on a much larger scale than Iran. As a result the war was highly asymmetrical, with Iran sending wave after wave of poorly armed infantry to repel the better armed Iraqi invaders. Twice as many Iranian soldiers died as Iraqi soldiers during the war, used their bodies to set off mines and overrun Iraqi gun positions. Despite the heavy losses, Iran, with a population of 50 million to Iraq’s 17 million was able to mobilise seemingly endless masses of volunteers to defend the revolution and to defend Islam.
Khomeini used the cult of martyrdom to justify the rocketing death toll. The regime insisted that those who died in combat were guaranteed a place in heaven, and gave the untrained and ill equipped volunteers arriving at the front a plastic key representing the key to the gates of paradise as. This cult of martyrdom has since become ubiquitous among both Shia and Sunni extremists. 
When the war ended in August 1988 neither side had achieved its aims. Both Khomeini and Hussein remained in power. The cost in terms of lives lost was immense, with conservative estimates of one million dead.
The Iran-Iraq war was tragically to set the pattern for future Middle East conflicts – in being so long, so bloody and so futile.
1. Inside the Kingdom, Robert Lacey, Arrow Books, 2010, p95
2. The Shia Revival: How conflicts within Islam will shape the future, Vali Nasr, W.W.Norton and Company, 2006, p132
Part 2 of this series will look at the first Gulf War, the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and the events of 9/11 and its aftermath.
This is a great primer, Ian. I had forgotten about the Great Mosque Siege and its consequences. Desperate straits for the people of the Levant, especially women and minorities, but really for anyone who cherishes personal autonomy, that the alternative to “popular” fundamentalism is state fundamentalism, and vice versa. I look forward to your continuing narrative.