Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s triumphant return to Tehran in February 1979, the last act in the dramatic overthrow of the Shah of Iran, presented Washington with a major policy quandary. Until the 1960s, the United States had relied on British imperial forces to safeguard the West’s crucial oil interests in the region. Its own Gulf flotilla–based at a modest facility in Bahrain–did little more than show the flag. As long as the cold war lasted, the superpowers, wary of provoking each other, had by tacit agreement stayed clear of each other. But the Shah was the chief US client and military surrogate, and when Khomeini took his place, he neutralized America’s defensive capacity in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia was the logical fallback. US involvement with the Saudis dated back to World War II, when President Roosevelt declared the kingdom strategically important, thus eligible for lend-lease. In 1945 Roosevelt held a celebrated shipboard meeting with the Saudi king, Abdul Aziz, which came to symbolize the bond between the countries. Oil was Roosevelt’s chief interest, of course, but military strategy also played a role. Late in the war, the United States built an airfield at Dhahran in eastern Saudi Arabia, which emerged in subsequent years as a base that permitted US planes to reach deep into Soviet Asia.
After World War II, President Truman went a step further by certifying the kingdom’s eligibility for military training and equipment. As petrodollars poured in, the Saudis deposited tens of billions, through purchases and investments, into the coffers of American industry. In the 1950s, when Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser was cozying up to Moscow and was sweeping through the region, the Saudi government stood as a bulwark at America’s side. The Sauds’ hostility to Nasser was in part a product of inter-Arab rivalry. No less important, it derived from the royal family’s religious beliefs, impregnated with a deep aversion to the atheism at the core of Soviet Communism.
But like their social system, the Saudis’ religion–the puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam–made America uncomfortable. Unaccountable to their subjects, the Sauds, tribal despots, spent lavish sums not just on themselves but on mosques and madrassahs across the Muslim world, promoting the anti-Westernism that was inherent in their faith. Their missionary efforts did not save them from widespread criticism from their own subjects for ties with the Western heathens. But the United States, obsessed with communism’s threat, chose to overlook the possibility that Wahhabism might itself be dangerous. Even after Iran exploded, introducing America to the perils of Islamic extremism, the United States professed to see little in common between Khomeini’s anti-Western values and the Saudis’.
The lesson intruded brutally in November 1979, during Islam’s annual hajj, when some 250 heavily armed Islamic warriors seized the Great Mosque in Mecca and took thousands of pilgrims hostage. The attackers were Sunni fanatics with no obvious link to Shiite Iran, but they were clearly inspired by Khomeini. They denounced the royal family’s lack of Islamic rigor, its ties to America, its extravagance. After weeks of combat, producing heavy carnage, the Sauds emerged victorious, ending the struggle with a flourish by beheading sixty-three rebels. The United States, which had long expected democratic reform in Saudi Arabia, was shocked at a popular uprising based on anti-Western jihad. But the monarchy’s reaction to the challenge was to push back all promise of democratic reform and to embrace an even more conspicuous Islamic piety.