Are Iran and Saudi Arabia Heading Toward War?

By Mohammed Nuruzzaman | (Informed Comment) | – –

Relations across the Persian Gulf are deteriorating fast. Iran and Saudi Arabia are once again at daggers drawn and sounding highly menacing to each other. The last time they were on the verge of a showdown, which they eventually averted, was in early 2016 following the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a populist Saudi Shi’a cleric and political activist. Al-Nimr’s execution triggered the sacking of Saudi embassy in Tehran and Riyadh’s breaking off diplomatic ties with Iran. The latest round of war of words, sparked by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, points to worsening hostility between the two countries – a situation fraught with the dangers of war.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a widely circulated interview on May 3 last, accused Iran of harboring “an extremist ideology” and signaled a policy shift from the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran, so long played out by proxy forces in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, to a war to be fought on Iranian soil. He said Saudi Arabia is “a primary target for the Iranian regime” and declared: “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. We’ll work so that the battle is for them in Iran”. The bellicose words from the prince predictably provoked a harsher response from Iran. Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan, in an interview with Lebanon’s Arabic language Al-Manar TV, hit back at Riyadh and warned: “If the Saudis do anything ignorant, we will leave no area untouched except Mecca and Medina”.

But, what explains the new round of bellicosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s traditional archrivals? There seems to be a new sense of empowerment in Riyadh pushing the Saudi royals to go for an all-out confrontation with Iran. So long, since at least the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011, Iran was having an upper hand in the region’s web of complex politics. Tehran was successfully leading the anti-ISIL fight in Iraq by mobilizing the Shi’a militias, defending the Bashar Al-Assad government in Syria against major regional and international odds, and supporting the Houthi fighters in Yemen, though at a minimum level. The Iranians also succeeded in clinching a historic nuclear deal with the Obama administration in July 2015, defying strong opposition from the Saudis and the Israelis. The Saudis are now banking on the new Trump administration to reverse Iran’s hard won strategic gains.

That President Trump is staunchly anti-Iran was well received in Riyadh. During presidential election campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized the Iran deal, branded it “the worst deal ever negotiated” by the US and threatened to tear it up, if elected president. Nonetheless, the Trump administration has not so far ditched the deal but renewed sanctions relief for Iran allowing foreign companies to deal with their Iranian counterparts. That does not mean the president and his officials have stopped from ramping up the anti-Iran rhetoric, however. Part of the problem is the acceptance of the neoconservative (henceforth neocon) foreign policy framework built by the former George W. Bush administration. The neocon framework has tirelessly identified Iran as a major “destabilizing force” and the principal “source of terrorism” in the Middle East region, while sidetracking their own crimes for letting loose bloodshed, massive killing and destructions through their planned invasion of Iraq in March 2003. They even refuse to accept the reality that the ISIL is a product of their missteps and wrongdoings in Iraq.

Influential foreign and defense policy officials in the Trump administration – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and US ambassador to the UN Nicki Haley are wedded to the neocon foreign policy visions and probably unable to think out of the box. They highly value alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia to browbeat Iran. Tillerson’s interview with the NBC news, about the purpose of President Trump’s upcoming visit to the Middle East, frankly admitted that. He said: “I think there is broad view and broad consensus among all in the region, all Arab nations, among Israel, and among others of Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region”. Hardly are they concerned about Israeli violations of Palestinian rights and illegal settlements expansion or financial and military aid to the jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria – the primary sources of violence in the Middle East region.

What motivates the Saudis to curry favor with the Trump administration is its neocon thrust, with an avowed anti-Iran posture. They were fed up with the Obama administration’s pro-Iran stance that culminated in the landmark nuclear deal. On top of that, they were furious with President Obama’s description of Saudi Arabia as a “free rider” and his suggestion to share the Middle East region with Iran. In contrast, what President Trump says about Iran is music to their ears. The neocon drive in Trump’s foreign policy is particularly appreciated by the young generation of Saudi royals – the Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayyef, and Prince Mohammed bin Salman. These youthful leaders favor a confrontational approach with Iran on the ground of sectarian hostility. What is more, their open animosity toward Iran is supported by the otherwise anti-royal family Islamist group – the al-Sahwa (awakening) movement. The al-Sahwa leaders generally buy the Saudi nationalist narrative that the kingdom is the defender of all Sunnis in the Middle East; so they broadly support Saudi war on the Shi’a Houthis in Yemen and aid to Islamist groups in Syria to contain Shi’a Iran’s expanding sphere. The radical Islamist fighters under the ISIL banner, many of whom are Saudi citizens and nationals from other Gulf Arab states, also see Shi’a majority Iran as a serious threat and are committed to destroy it.

Saudi domestic consensus on the Iran threat coupled with President Trump’s impending visit to Saudi Arabia has created a worrisome situation in Iran. The visit is preceded by renewed US military buildup along the Iraq – Syria borders in the name of tightening up the nose on ISIL and reinforcements in Afghanistan to check the resurgent Taliban. Once their common enemy – the ISIL is eliminated, the possibility that Iran and the US might engage in skirmishes cannot be totally ruled out. The US may also use its troops and allies on the Iraq – Syria borders to deny Iran the use of Syria as strategic supply lines to refurbish Hezbollah, a realistic option to neutralize anti-Israel threats looming large from Lebanon.

Adding more to Iranian concerns, the Saudis have invited seventeen Arab leaders for a summit with President Trump to solidify a common anti-Iran platform. Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan has issued a stern warning that the Saudis, the Israeli Zionists and the Trump administration are hatching up a “devilish plot” to create an “Arab NATO” to invite wars and bloodshed to the region. If an “Arab NATO” really emerges out of the Arab – Trump summit, it may push the Middle East one step closer to a region-wide war.

Detractors might argue that an Iran – Saudi war is not so imminent, especially in the absence of serious conflicts, territorial or resource sharing, between the two countries. But neither the Saudis nor the Trump administration seem patient enough to digest Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Israel and the Trump administration also find the presence of Iranian military advisors and Hezbollah troops along the Syria – Israel borders particularly threatening to Israeli security. This is what makes Iran a common enemy of all three parties – Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel. Their joint military action against Iran is a possibility. Yet, Iran’s missile capabilities, guaranteed retaliations and the presence of its fighters and allies all around, not to speak of its alliance relationship with Russia, are effective disincentives against such joint military actions. Still, no conventional deterrent is effective enough to stop adversaries from engaging in a conventional war, especially when a particular adversary is encouraged by outsiders to attack the opposite party.

Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Durham Senior International Research Fellow,
Durham University, UK. Contact: mohammed.nuruzzaman a t durham d o t ac d o t uk

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Now This: ” Why Do Saudi Arabia And Iran Hate Each Other?”

12 Responses

  1. Is there actual proof of Iranian involvement in Yemen, can not seem to find much on the web.

  2. A few guns smuggled through Oman seems to be about all, plus some encouraging noises made by Tehran to bait the Saudis with.

  3. Most of the saber rattling seems to come from the Saudi/Israel/US side. Of course they will eventually bomb Iran, they have been working towards that for years, including the time Netanyahu held up a cartoon bomb at the UN. It would also explain why the US is selling $340 billion worth of weapons to SA. After a while the proxy wars will go nowhere, then we will all hear about how dangerous Iran is, and how much the region is threatened by them, and these three nations will bang the drums of war.

  4. The Saudis should be real careful what they “wish for.”

    War with Iran would be devastating to Saudi Arabia since Iran has spent the last 35 years developing extremely deadly defensive weapons such as LOTS of very inexpensive but accurate medium range missiles that can destroy all of KSA’s oil infrastructure and make living in any KSA city very dangerous.

    Iran has also prepared for a major USA attack, so any Saudi, Israeli and/or USA attack will be very costly. There is a very good reason Israel has never attacked Iran – the IDF bluntly told Bibi it would fail miserably and lead to massive deaths in Israel. Per the IDF there are over 50,000 very accurate and deadly missiles pointed at Israel (the IDF actually said over 100,000 but I discount their rhetoric because it was during budget discussions).

    Saudi sabre rattling is based on delusions of grandeur and if they follow through things could fall apart for the Saudis real quick.

    Sure the Saudis have lots of extremely over-priced USA war toys, but they do not have that large of a trained military and it appears that much of that training is not very effective.

    In the mean time, Iran has quietly been building a very well trained and very well equipped military and thanks to the USA invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranian military is very battle-hardened.

    I suspect that when the Saudis give into their hubristic egos, they are going to quickly regret it and will have to sign a peace treaty with Iran that will make Iran stronger politically and help the Saudis avoid bankruptcy (all wars drain treasuries, especially when the military and war toys makers are vastly over-paid).

    Trump’s cheer-leading for a Saudi/Iran war (even though the US military is well aware just how bad it will turn out for the Saudis and the USA) will just further marginalize the USA on the world stage.

  5. If the Americans continue to throw fuel into the Mideast ethnic and religious conflicts – in the forms of massive arms sales, and promises of support for war and armed uprisings – they can keep the Middle East at each others throats for generations.
    First rule for any colonizing power – divide and conquer.

  6. Trump just bought $340 billion of corporate sponsorship.
    Saudi has a small army and even with all the new weapons it’s doubtful that they can occupy Yemen.
    If I was Israeli and really thought war with Iran was possible, I’d move because there’s no way, even with nukes that Israel would survive. Iran might not have a nuclear bomb but they do have a nuclear threat. Probably in about 45 minutes they could cobble up some dirty bombs.
    Saudi will be killing in Yemen while Raytheon will make a killing and Trump’s stock will go up with the people who run the US.
    Personally, I think many Saudi actions can be traced to blackmail over 9/11.

    • As I noted above, while some Israeli politicians think that war with Iran would be “great fun,” the very professional Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Mossad (Israel’s CIA/MI6) are very much against any attempt because they are well aware just how dangerous Iran’s CONVENTIONAL weapons are.

      Yes, Iran does NOT need nuclear weapons (or “dirty bombs”) to make Israel and /or Saudi Arabia a huge pile of rubble since they have a huge number of very accurate conventional weapons – the number is several orders of magnitude more than Israel’s mythical anti-missile systems (that have the usual high failure rate of all anti-missile systems). That is, long after Israel has fired off all its anti-missile systems, Iran will still be able to rain destruction on Israel.

      Iran is NOT a pushover and in the last 35 years has educated a large cadre of brilliant engineers who KNOW how to make very effective, deadly weapons that cost very little to produce. Iran gets a lot more “bang for its buck” than the USA or Israel or Saudi Arabia.

  7. The youthful Saudi leaders who favor confrontation with Iran on the ground of sectarian hostility will be nowhere near the battle same as the Trump offsprings will be nowhere near any war he starts.

  8. I agree with most of the above analysis. Israel tried its best to trigger a US attack on Iran but they couldn’t get their wish. The biggest irony is that Iran is of no threat whatsoever to US’s interests in the region. Even in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s actual position is at least partially aligned with US’s purported position. This makes it hard for for the US to make an argument to its own public. If it were an easy war that wouldn’t be a problem but as many suggested above, it is going to be hard with no particular end game: US and its Arab coalation will never be able to physically occupy Iran and regime change will be out of question because almost every single Iranian will unit behind their government in the face of an aggression. For Saudis to justify a war with Iran is also very difficult: the cost will be extremely high (perhaps the end of KSA) and the reasons are non-existent. Everyone knows that Iran will never attack Sauid Arabia or any other country as they don’t have any reason to do so. Finally I would like to present a different interpretation: all this hoopla about Iran is really not about Iran. Isreal, US and GCC clearly understan and see their failures in all aspects of the regional affairs and the noise about Iran is simply a ploy to cover it – for the time being.

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