The latest developments that just unfolded in Riyadh are unsettling and carry a high risk of a regional confrontation. An assertive Saudi crown prince is determined to consolidate power by purging dissidents at home while escalating rhetoric abroad.
Such a diversionary approach, seemingly employed to shift attention away from domestic turmoil, is challenging an emboldened Iranian regime whose armed proxies have been strengthening their hold from the Levant to Yemen. While these circumstances are tantamount to an imminent war scenario between Riyadh and Tehran, there are indications that it might not actually be the case.
On November 4, within the span of few hours, two major events took place: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh in a challenge to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and then Saudi defence forces intercepted a long-range missileheading from Yemen towards the kingdom’s capital. Saudi Arabia initially pointed finger at the Houthis and closed off Yemen’s land, sea and air borders but that political narrative changed on November 6.
Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir said that “it was an Iranian missile, launched by Hezbollah, from territory occupied by the Houthis in Yemen”. On the same day, another Saudi minister affirmed that Riyadh will treat the Lebanese cabinet “as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia due to the aggression of Hezbollah”. There are four reasons why these Saudi statements should not be taken at face value.
First, Riyadh is setting sights on the weakest links in Tehran’s orbit: Lebanon and Yemen, instead of the more consequential Iraq and Syria. Lebanon has a known consociational system and making political headway in the country is unlikely. Lebanese allies of Saudi Arabia are aware that Riyadh will not intervene to help them in the event of a confrontation with Hezbollah. In Yemen, after 33 months of war, there is no further human and material damage that can be done that can lead to altering the country’s territorial control map.
Second, the Saudi rhetoric does not match the kingdom’s foreign policy stance. Two Saudi ambassadors in Iraq and Lebanon were appointed last week, showing a willingness to engage. On October 25, Saudi Arabia and Iran finally agreed to have the Swiss government as a go-between for consular and diplomatic services, after breaking off diplomatic ties in early 2016.
Riyadh has returned to Iraq after a long absence, hoping to increase political influence and explore a new market. A military confrontation with Iran is counterproductive to Saudi engagement in Iraq. While in Syria, Saudi Arabia has been keeping a low profile with an influence restricted to elements in the exiled civilian opposition.
Third, a confrontation is not in Iran’s interest for now. The Iranian regime, which has been more united since President Hassan Rouhani‘s reelection in May, is focused on reaping the economic benefits of the nuclear deal and preserving the gains made in Syria.
Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, announced on October 31 that Iran will be restricting its long-range missiles to 2,000km, which can reach Israel and US interests in the Middle East. The move was meant to reassure European countries that are beyond that missile range.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who visited Tehran on November 1, convinced Tehran to tone down the rhetoric against the US. While Russia is focused on advancing a political solution in Syria, Iran sees that the Syrian war will not be over even after defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and is wary of a US-Russian deal which might come at the expense of Iranian interests in the region.
Finally, the ambivalent US policy is giving Saudi Arabia leeway to escalate the rhetoric against Iran; however, turning a blind eye on Saudi’s escapades will most likely not last long in Washington. There seems to be, once again, policy differences between the White House and the US establishment. While President Donald Trump remarked on November 5 that “a shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia”, the State Department noted on November 7 that there is no “full determination” yet who launched that missile.
The State Department and the Pentagon are also distancing themselves from the Saudi campaign in Lebanon by reiterating US support for the Lebanese government and armed forces. Most importantly, the US military posture in the Middle East is not embracing for a military confrontation with Iran, whether directly or via proxies. On the contrary, the Syrian regime and its allies are currently in the final phase of controlling the al-Boukamal crossing and the Damascus-Baghdad highway, as Russia and the US seem to be coordinating to share control of Deir Az Zor, the Syrian province on the border with Iraq.
The Saudi leadership will most likely tone down the rhetoric once it contains the fallout of the domestic purge. While the White House will give Riyadh latitude for a while, pressure will grow in Washington to prevent further regional escalation. Iran has been expectedly reserved in its reaction and prefers not to risk regional gains for an impromptu confrontation. If the US does not contain the situation, unintended consequences might follow.