Iran is on Saudi Arabia’s radar, making war more likely

Now that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has consolidated power within the kingdom, largely through an anti-corruption campaign and the purging of key military and ruling class figures, he is setting his sights on the country’s biggest security threat: Iran.

In doing so bin Salman, or MBS as he is called, is enlisting the assistance of a powerful friend — the United States — as well as regional power Israel and other Middle Eastern nations to form a “coalition of the willing” to confront a rising Persian state.

MBS was feted by President Trump this week at the White House, but that’s not really the most interesting aspect of Saudi Arabia’s ‘awakening,’ so to speak — it’s the kingdom’s burgeoning, mutually beneficial partnership with Israel, something that was unheard of just a few short years ago. Then again, given the situation on the ground in the Middle East, the partnership makes perfect sense: Iran is a mutual enemy of both Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state.

And both have been engaged in proxy wars with Iran; the Saudis in Yemen and the Israelis in Syria and, to another degree, in Lebanon. The former is battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels while the latter is engaged in conflicts with Iran-backed militias and even Iranian forces inside Syria. Soon, Israel is likely to be facing Iran-backed and Iran-supplied Hezbollah as well.

The Saudis don’t really have much of a choice. It is either exert its own power and influence or sit back and allow Iran to remake the Middle East as Tehran sees fit, which is an unpalatable option. [source]

Analysis: As the alliances forge, the risk of conflict in the region rises. Iran has mounting internal instability so its window of opportunity may be closing. War often serves to unite a people against a common enemy, however, so the Mullahs may be counting on a conflict to help suppress unrest caused by decreasing economic opportunities and failure of the regime to fulfill the basic needs of the most vulnerable in Iranian society. 

Iran also has another problem. Soon, President Trump is likely going to back out of the so-called “nuclear agreement” that the Obama administration signed with the Iranians because he has never favored it. That means new economic sanctions won’t be far behind though it isn’t clear how many European allies will back Trump’s play. Still, sanctions are only going to ramp up pressure on the regime and are likely going to heighten instability.

Iran may risk war with the Saudis and even a [suspected] nuclear-armed Iran, at least via its proxies, but would Tehran risk war with a powerful coalition that included the United States? It might if it had the backing of its own powerful patron, Russia. But would Russia risk war as well, or sit back, offer material support to Iran and then step in to reap the benefits of dramatically higher oil prices — even taking over some of Iran’s business if the Persian state’s oil infrastructure is damaged by conflict?

Lots of unanswered questions remain, but regardless, MBS is nevertheless focusing his country’s considerable power against Iran, which makes conflict in the region far more likely.

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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