James B. Smith served as United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009-2013. Smith first spent time in Saudi Arabia in 1990 as an Air Force fighter pilot flying missions from Dhahran during Operation Desert Storm. Following his retirement from the Air Force in 2002, he worked as a defense contractor, first for Lockheed Martin, and later for Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, which has supplied arms to Saudi Arabia since 1966. During his time as ambassador, Smith observed both Saudi Arabia’s deep suspicion of Iran, and its troubled relationship with its Shia Muslim minority.

Smith spoke to IranWire about Saudi Arabia’s controversial execution of Shia cleric Nimr Al-Nimr on terrorism charges, the ensuing Iranian attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and the diplomatic split that followed.      


How do you see the record of Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr? Was he a peaceful activist, as his supporters say, or a terrorist, as the Saudis say?

There is actually a Wikileaks cable out there that says our consulate in Dhahran went out and visited him in 2008, and really saw him as a low level, marginal guy. The strain, particularly in the Ahmadinejad time (2005-2013), between Saudi Arabia and Iran, really gave Nimr a prestige that he had not had in the past. We were never able to completely understand how much of what was going in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province was motivated by Iranian involvement.

In the context of the way the Saudis look at this problem, the word “terrorism” in Arabic really translates into “hooliganism.” We would, in the West, default to looking at Nimr's activities through the prism of an individual voicing dissent against the government, which is legitimate. In the context of how the Saudis see internal security, there is very little difference between what Al-Nimr was doing and what Al-Qaeda was doing in terms of trying to undermine the state and attack physical targets in Saudi Arabia.

Al-Nimr's activity motivated several uprisings that were responsible for killing multiple security people from the Ministry of Interior. There is a direct connection between what he was doing, and violent attacks against the Ministry of Interior. And that is what he was tried for. It wasn't for criticizing the Saudi state. What he was tried for was creating unrest, which led to the death of people in the security forces in Qatif. 

If you look at the people who were executed on January 2, 43 of the 47 were Sunni Al-Qaeda people. Four of them were Shia. The Saudi decision was based on internal security. I'm not in any way going to win support for their judicial system, because it's just not as transparent as one would hope, but Al-Nimr was tried. They instituted a judicial review process, so his conviction was appealed. I read a piece that said he actually had the review of 11 different judges. So in the context of their system, this was not a spur of the moment decision. The Saudis, right or wrong, did not look at this through the context of a Sunni-Shia divide.

How closely were you able to monitor Al-Nimr's statements and judge them in terms whether he was seeking violent resistance that we would consider terrorism, or whether he was really a civil rights activist?

He would see himself as a civil rights activist. When you look at the Shia population in the Eastern Province, by and large they mostly see themselves as Saudis. They see themselves as honorable citizens, and what they mostly want is to do away with the perceived disrespect that they get in that culture. 

Having said that, the Shia population really forms the backbone of Aramco, the Saudi Arabian Oil Company. In terms of economic opportunity, the Shia population actually does much better. The unemployment rate for young Shia in the Eastern Province is much lower than it is for the rest of young people across Saudi Arabia. So it's misleading to say that the Shia population in the Eastern Province is in full revolt against Saudi Arabia. That's not true. What they do want is economic development, because they see that the government has spent a lot of money in other cities across the country, but has not focused on economic development and infrastructure development in Qatif and Al Awamiyah. That has started to change, or it was changing when I left. 

Saudi Arabia often seems to see nearby Shia populations, whether in Yemen or Bahrain, or inside Saudi Arabia itself, as naturally sympathetic to Iran. Is that the case?

Friends that are my age grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s, and they will tell you that there was no sectarian strife. Abdul Latif al Zayani, who is secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, is quick to point out that he grew up in Bahrain, and his next door neighbor was a Shia, and he called her "Mom," just like he called his own mother "Mom." 

But in 1979, Iran undertook a strategy to destabilize the region. And they used sectarian strife to do that. From a political viewpoint, there is some method behind their madness. The idea is to destabilize its neighbors in order to ensure stability at home. In the Arab states around Iran, the Iranians have made a major investment in advancing sectarian strife.

Lebanon is the first example. It's unknown how much Iranian influence there is in Bahrain, but clearly there is some. And the Saudis insist that they are not going to allow Yemen to become a Lebanon on their southern border. 

Did you feel that the Saudis had an accurate view of the relationship those Shia populations had to Iran, or did you sometimes feel they were exaggerating?

I sometimes felt the Saudi paranoia with Iran was almost like McCarthyism, where there was an Iranian under every rock. Having said that, in the case of Yemen, the Saudis have been proven to be more accurate. I don't know if the Iranians are as good at this as the Saudis give them credit for, but there is certainly evidence of Iranian visibility in all of these places. How much of the unrest is directly attributable to the Iranian presence and footprint, that is an open question. 

The problem here is that while Iran has focused on instability as a strategy, Saudi Arabia has focused on stability as a strategy, and the export of its Salafist agenda to support stability. On one hand in Saudi Arabia you see this openness to Muslims that allows them to come to Mecca and Medina to satisfy their religious obligations. On the other hand you see an insistence on the Salafist agenda, which shows great disrespect to other interpretations of Islam. 

There are so many things that the Saudis, I felt, could have done over the years to undermine an Iranian influence. The Saudis could drive a wedge between Iran and the entire region overnight just by waking up one morning and saying, “In our role as the custodian of the two holy mosques, we embrace all interpretations of Islam and welcome all Muslims to Saudi Arabia as equals.” Now, it's impossible for them to do that because of the influence of the Salafists, or Wahabbis as we would call them, who insist that their brand of Islam is the true Islam, and Shiism and other interpretations are not. 

Do you believe the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was spontaneous, as the Iranians claim, or was it in some sense state-sponsored?

[Laughs] There are people in Tehran that are claiming the Saudis burned their own embassy! There is another report out saying the protesters did it. There is another report out saying that it was security people who were dressed as protesters. I don't know exactly who did it yet, but there was clearly some complicity associated with what was going on. 

This is clearly a breach of international protocol, and the Vienna Convention, which is a reciprocity agreement between nations that you will protect embassies, consulates, diplomats and their families on a reciprocal basis. Iran has shown over the years a willingness to disregard that responsibility. You go back to the US embassy in 1979, and the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011. The Iranians killed a Saudi diplomat in Pakistan while I was there. The Iranians appear to have shown a penchant for targeting diplomats and diplomatic missions when they are disgruntled, which is an aberration from what you see in most international diplomatic feuds.

Which country has the most to lose from the diplomatic split?

The region has the most to lose, more than either country. 

Clearly the Saudis lose because it makes it much more difficult for them to satisfy their obligation to other Muslims. They are going to have to have some kind of work-around to provide hajj and umrah visas for the several hundred thousand Iranians that come every year. If this continues to fester, the Saudis will have to take more resources into security, and with oil prices being what they are, they can ill afford to do that, because they are working on a tight budget.

The Iranians lose too, because for those who were supportive of the nuclear agreement with Iran, this is a clear case of Iran showing its willingness to disregard international agreements, and the expectation is that they are going to violate the agreement. So investors are going to be much more wary, knowing that the assumption is that Iran is not going to follow through on its commitments.

The region loses because so many of the problems of the region require the Iranians and the Saudis to come together, setting their own differences aside. ISIS, or whatever term you want to use, is a common threat to both Iran and Saudi Arabia. So to prosecute that campaign, you need these two countries talking to each other. On the broader issue of stability in the region, you look at the numbers, and 99.9 percent of all the casualties of extremism in the last decade are from Muslims killing Muslims. If you are ever going to arrive at some sort of stability, it requires Iran and Saudi Arabia at least talking.


This interview has been edited for length.


Related articles:

Does Sectarianism Explain the Iran-Saudi Split?

Iranian Government is Legally Responsible for Embassy Attack

The Story behind the State-Sponsored "Spontaneous" Torching of the Saudi Embassy

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