A letter from Khamenei to Assad in 1986: Saddam will fall… and our problem with the Gulf will be solved (5)

publisher: المجلة AL Majalla

AUTHOR: ابراهيم حميدي

Publishing date: 2024-02-23

Tension continues between Iran and Saudi Arabia... and Al-Assad continues last-minute mediation to “extinguish the fires”

The “Tanker War” began amid the Iraq-Iran War, as in November 1982, Iraqi boats began targeting Iranian interests, prompting Tehran to retaliate by shelling Iraqi and Gulf interests. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad attempted to mediate between the two sides, leveraging his relationship with Iran.

The Iranian naval attacks led to intensified American military involvement in the Gulf for the first time and resulted in direct American confrontations with Iranian forces, including an operation in 1988, which was the largest surface naval operation since World War II, during which US fighters destroyed Iranian oil platforms.

In July 1988, American sailors from the warship USS Vincennes fired on an Iranian civilian aircraft, resulting in the deaths of 300 civilians. A month later, in August, Iran accepted a ceasefire in the bloody war.

Despite Assad’s efforts between Saudi Arabia and Iran, tension persisted, and mediation continued to contain it, with a flurry of messages exchanged between Riyadh and Damascus, which “The Magazine” reviewed.

On August 12, 1986, Rafic Hariri informed Minister Khaddam of the following points:

“A. Regarding the Sirri Island issue, the Kingdom has no connection whatsoever, directly or indirectly, to this matter, and the Kingdom cannot engage in any such action whatsoever, so the Iranian claims that the Kingdom aided Iraq in hitting Sirri Island are untrue, baseless, and illogical. If the Kingdom were aiding Iraq in the manner claimed by the Iranians, many things would have changed in the war.

B. As for the Iraqi oil pipeline passing through Saudi territory, this is not up for discussion. It has been in place for several years, and raising it now is mere disruption, as financial aid to Iraq has long ceased, and we always call for an end to this war that is destroying both Islamic countries.

C. As for the issue of the bags and explosives, this is clear, and they were uncovered by Saudi customs officials. The investigation is ongoing with those individuals who brought them, and we do not know who planted them. However, if Iran truly has no connection to the bags that came with Iranian pilgrims from Isfahan to Jeddah, how do we explain Iran’s targeting of Gulf ships before and after the Sirri Island operation? This is logically unacceptable. As for the Iranian claim that the bags operation is fabricated, this is also something a rational person cannot accept, and it is not the Kingdom’s practice to arrange such news, knowing that Saudi customs uncovered the bags, initially thinking they were cheese, but it turned out they were explosives.”

It also dealt with matters of Hajj, the behavior of Iranian pilgrims, and other issues, including: “Between Saudi Arabia and Iran are red lines agreed upon from the days of the Shah and Khomeini, and their maps are signed by both the Saudi and Iranian sides. However, Iran crossed the Saudi red lines and struck ships coming or going from us, using Abu Musa Island.” It is an Arabian island.

And he requested a reminder to President Assad of his efforts, as Iran “continues its actions, either in terms of attacking ships, sending explosives, or media campaigns in Iranian newspapers.” He renewed the request from Assad to “make one last effort with Iran to stop this.”

On August 20, 1986, Khaddam handed over a message from Khamenei to Assad, which stated:

“1. The Iranian President has information that Saudi Arabia has provided serious assistance that enabled Iraqi aircraft to reach Sirri Island. 2. They agreed to stop bombing ships on the basis of exerting pressure on Saddam Hussein to stop bombing Iranian or Iranian-bound ships, by halting financial and oil assistance to Iraq, including the Iraqi oil pipeline through Saudi territory.

  1. The issue of the bags was categorically denied by the Iranians, and they communicated this to the Saudi chargé d’affaires in Tehran, and they requested participation in the investigation to identify these people and those behind them. They believe that there are two possibilities:
  • Either they are Iranians hostile to the Islamic Republic and instigated to carry out this operation to harm Iranian-Saudi relations and Iranian pilgrims.
  • Or the story is fabricated, to harm Iran and to cover up the bombing of Sirri Island.”

Khamenei told Assad: “We are keen on relations with Saudi Arabia in particular and Gulf states in general.” He said there are no strategic differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but disagreements arise from time to time, and they are keen on resolving them through dialogue and political means. The Iranian president wished for Assad to continue his contacts and efforts to resolve these issues.


Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on December 16, 1998


Khaddam informed Hariri that the Iranians would not stop, and that Assad, “when it comes to Saudi Arabia, Syria is not neutral.” Khaddam pointed out in his notes that the continuation of Iranian bombing of Saudi ships was embarrassing for Assad. And that Saudi Arabia “wants to stop political communication if the current efforts of President Hafez have not yielded anything.”

Assad assessed that “the atmosphere is highly tense and complicated, and the situation may evolve into Gulf involvement in a war against Iran, and then that would constitute a serious development in the situation, and Syria would be in a very precarious and sensitive position. Standing with Iran means cutting our ties with the Arab world, and standing against Iran means a significant strategic loss. In any case, Saddam Hussein and Israel will be the winners of these developments.”

Assad asked Khaddam to go to Tehran to discuss the situation with its leadership, and he met Khamenei before heading with Assad to Libya at 11 p.m. on August 23, 1986. Khaddam said, “Based on the fraternal relations between us, and in light of what the Foreign Minister conveyed about your desire for President Hafez to continue the efforts between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The King informed your views on the topics discussed by the Foreign Minister during his recent visit to Tehran, and clear answers were provided on the raised points.”

Then Khaddam detailed the position conveyed from Riyadh. He told Khamenei, “President Hafez, based on the fact that Syria and Iran stand in the same trench to confront all forms of imperialist, Zionist, and reactionary conspiracies, which creates unity in their political interests and positions. All past circumstances have demonstrated the nature and uniqueness of the relationship between the two countries, and each has shown concern for the other. Based on all of this, President Hafez wishes his brother, President Ali Khamenei, and the leadership of the Islamic Revolution in Iran to recall with him our previous joint analyses and conclusions about the situation in the region. Our previous joint analyses have shown us the following:

  1. Saddam Hussein’s interest lies in expanding the scope of the war in the region to include other countries, thereby strengthening his front by involving a greater number of Arab countries, as this would provide him with broad support and distract the Iranian revolution with a series of wars and minor battles.
  2. The interest of global imperialism, especially American imperialism, lies in expanding the conflict to include other Arab countries, increasing the need for these countries to rely fully on American protection and assistance within the scope of American decision-making to use them to encircle and besiege the Islamic revolution in Iran, drain it, strike it, and besiege progressive Arab forces.
  3. The continued bombing of ships dealing with Saudi Arabia, coming to or leaving from Saudi Arabia, may lead to Saudi reactions to intercept and strike Iranian aircraft, thereby expanding the war. In this case, the following will be achieved: a. The main battle for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and the Arab countries supporting them will be with Iran, and the conflict with Israel will be as if it does not exist. b. These actions will remove all barriers between the Gulf Arab states and the supporting countries and the Camp David regime in Egypt, but they will lead to solidarity and further solidarity between this group and Iraq and Egypt…”


Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Iranian "Guide" Ali Khamenei on December 9, 1997

Khaddam concluded his remarks by saying, “Based on our shared vision, progressive orientation, and the interests of the Islamic Revolution and progressive Arab forces, we hope that our brothers in Iran will avoid this escalation in the situation with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and restore dialogue that leads to improving the situation. In proposing this suggestion to you, we do so with the existing trust between us.”

Assad informs Khamenei that expanding the war with Saudi Arabia will increase solidarity with Iraq and the Camp David Egyptian camp.

According to the minutes of the meeting between Khaddam and Khamenei, the Iranian President said, “I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to my brother President Hafez al-Assad for his interest in this matter, which ensures our interests and the interests of the region, as well as for his fraternal and sincere words. I fully support his analysis. As His Excellency indicated, this issue has been raised in our direct conversations and written correspondence, but I would like to clarify some points to complement or comment on his perspective.” He then commented on the points outlined in the Saudi position.

Getty Images

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in Damascus on January 28, 1979


He continued, “As for the words of President Hafez al-Assad, I support them, and we do not wish for the scope of the war to expand. We have avoided and will continue to avoid this, as is evident in our actions. However, our reluctance to expand the scope of the war should not be understood to mean that the Islamic Revolution is ready to accept any imposed terms. If we are to accept the logic of force, then we will not accept this from them.”

Khamenei responded,

He reiterated his position: “I have a suggestion, which is for the Saudis to declare clearly and officially that if the Iraqis attack Iranian ships, they will cut off the aid provided to Iraq by facilitating its access to roads, ports, and airspace, as well as financial assistance. If the Saudis declare this and act on it, then we will not strike a single Saudi ship even if Iraq hits a hundred ships. Let the Saudis take this step, and we are ready. Even Kuwait can do this. What do you think?”

A discussion took place between Khamenei and Khaddam, who supported the Saudi position, stating, “Regarding the attack on Sirri Island, I am not an expert, but based on my general knowledge, there are several possibilities, and the main possibility is that the Iraqi aircraft reached Sirri Island directly. The MiG-25 is capable of reaching there, but it is not a bomber.” Khamenei commented, “The Russians provided them with the necessary equipment to enable the MiG-25 to bomb, as this aircraft is fundamentally a fighter.”

A technical discussion ensued about aircraft, radars, and missiles. Then Khamenei said, “Regarding the solution I proposed, you can ask the Saudis if they are happy when Iranian ships are hit. If they are uncomfortable with this action, announcing (the cessation of aid) is important.”

Khamenei continued, “You are our trusted party. Inform President Hafez: Inshallah, all these matters will be resolved with Saddam’s fall. I have heard that this has become necessary. If Saddam ends, the problem with the Gulf will also be resolved.” He said, “Our relations with Saudi Arabia are troubled, including their assistance to Iraq. The OPEC problem, and we always asked them why they manipulate the (oil) markets. This problem has now diminished. If the Saddam issue is resolved, many other issues will be resolved, and we hope that Saddam falls soon.”

After Khaddam’s return from Iran, Riyadh was informed of the results of his visit to Tehran. The Syrian Vice President wrote in his papers, “Communications between us and all the Gulf states were ongoing, and Iran was always the main concern. Any action taken by Iran caused concern for them, and they considered that this Iranian action should not occur despite their full support for Iraq, and Syria was the party with whom discussions were held due to the existing relations between us and Tehran.”

At that stage, tensions increased between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on one side, and Iran on the other, due to the issue of oil tankers and the results of the war with Iraq, in addition to the events during the Hajj in two consecutive years. In the latter, a clash occurred between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security, resulting in the deaths of several people.”

He concludes, “In all these circumstances, Syria’s role was to extinguish the fire and calm the situation for fear of its escalation, which was extremely dangerous.”