There has been a major shift in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) with the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman to Crown Prince. The 32-year old prince presents his rise as heralding an era of modernity for the Kingdom, but his rise also involves consolidation of power internally. This power is likely to be projected through the Gulf region. The Saudis rightly recognize that Iran’s push for regional hegemony is a danger to their interests, one they will forcefully oppose as necessary. They have also taken a more potent role in opposing terror financing and in the post-ISIS situation in Iraq.
It was in this new environment that Iran’s proxies executed a missile attack on the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The missile originated in Yemen, and was clearly of Iranian origin. KSA might have been expected to escalate its war in Yemen as a consequence. Instead, the Saudi government closed the border with Yemen and stated that Lebanon and Iran have declared war upon them. The Yemeni front represents a serious strategic interest for KSA, but the Saudis appear to be rejecting the bait dangled by Iran’s proxy forces in favor of another move. This paper will explore why the Saudis are acting as they are in response to that and their overall more active posture in the region. It will also offer some brief policy recommendations for the United States.
What is the strategic situation from the Saudi perspective?
The Saudi government is facing a severe threat from an emboldened and enriched Iran that has recently regained access to global oil markets. This worsened a glut that was already threatening Saudi revenue streams. In addition, Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen have been engaging in an anti-ship missile campaign designed to bleed KSA naval resources. These same missiles could be used to close the Asian oil routes that supply a substantial part of the Kingdom’s national income.
The Iranian navy and ballistic missile array could potentially close the Straits of Hormuz to Saudi traffic. The Yemeni missile batteries can do the same at the Bab el Mandeb strait. This threatens to cut off the Pacific routes for Saudi oil exports, leaving Iran free to feed the Asian oil demand.
The Saudis cannot afford to ignore the Yemeni front, which Iran must have hoped would cause them to double-down on Yemen in the face of the missile strike on the Saudi capital. Iran benefits from the Saudi war in Yemen due to its asymmetric nature. The Saudis are spending a great deal of money fielding naval and air forces against Houthi proxies, which are of minimal cost to Iran to supply and train. A further commitment of formal military resources by the Saudis to the Yemeni front will only increase this asymmetry, tying down more of Saudi’s power projection capacity in the south.
Keeping the Saudis focused on the south is to Iran’s benefit and helps in their ongoing goal of establishing a Shia Crescent in the north. With the fall of ISIS and the submission of the Kurds, Iran has largely succeeded at this grand strategic goal. The Saudis are facing a northern Middle East that is close to being completely dominated by Iran. Saudi leaders must look on this situation as exceptionally grave. If Iran finalizes its hegemony in the north it can devote its full resources to control over the Asian oil routes as well as the Shia Crescent and land bridge to the Mediterranean they have long desired.
The potential of that crippling financial and strategic loss is not the only thing that must figure in the Saudi consciousness. Iran has also been challenging the Saudi claims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The Ayatollah Khomeini said during the worst brutality of the Iran/Iraq war that he could forgive Saddam, but never King Fahd of Saudi Arabia for KSA’s use of Mecca. Just last year, the Ayatollah Khamenei stated that the Saudis could no longer be trusted to hold the holy sites of Islam and called for Muslims to change that. Iran is close to being in a position to affect that agenda.
The Saudis appear to be starting a major play to oppose Iran because from their perspective this is an existential crisis.
What can the Saudis do?
The Saudi leadership appears to have determined that the attack from Yemen was bait meant to draw them into a larger commitment in the south. Instead, the Saudi crown prince is moving to consolidate power so that he is free to conduct a major retaliation against Iran, or at least to threaten one. This action is pointed at Lebanon, which the Saudis say has declared war upon them via its effective national submission to Hezbollah. As Iran’s most successful and powerful proxy force, a move against Hezbollah constitutes a move against Iran.
No land border between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon exists and it is unlikely, but not impossible, that they will attempt an air war across Jordan or Iraq. What is more likely is that they will privately endorse an Israeli move against Hezbollah. The Israeli leadership sounds convinced that there is an imminent move against them by Hezbollah, and they have a preference for preemption. The Saudis may also use their intelligence apparatus to carry out an assassination campaign in Lebanon.
There are a number of other ways the Saudis could decide to make a greater military commitment to a war against Hezbollah and to the greater goal of opposing Iranian expansion in the region. One course of action that might seem plausible would be to support a Sunni insurgency in Iraq. This insurgency could be encouraged by Saudi intelligence, along the model by which Iran encouraged and developed proxy forces using its Quds Force. Such forces were a thorn in the side of Saddam, were used to kill Americans during the Iraq war, and now are integrated with Iraq’s military as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). It is a highly successful model that Saudi Arabia might want to emulate.
Nor would it be difficult for a Sunni insurgency to develop in Iraq right now. Sunni tribes have valid complaints against the government in Baghdad. SSG has argued that there is already a distinct possibility that the Sunni regions will blossom into a third insurgency, with Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State (ISIS) having been the first two. Iranian involvement in retaking Sunni areas from ISIS was marked by war crimes conducted by aggressive Iranian-led Shia militias. This, coupled with a justified lack of trust in the Baghdad government arising from its serial mistreatment of the Sunni populace, makes it highly unlikely that Sunnis can be integrated smoothly into a federal Iraq under the best circumstances. The Saudis could encourage a Sunni insurgency to develop a proxy force of their own, and commit to ‘train and equip’ the insurgents in the same way that Iran has used Quds Force support to Iraqi Shia militias.
Such an insurgency, once it has control of parts of western Iraq, could invite in Saudi forces or operate itself against Hezbollah which is deeply involved in Syria. This could happen quite quickly, as the rise of ISIS demonstrates. The Saudis would then have created a second front against Hezbollah instead of leaving them to Israel alone.
The United States has an interest in avoiding a new Sunni insurgency in Iraq, but also in seeing Hezbollah brought to heel. This would tame some of Iran’s regional ambitions, while lessening the risk that a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia should escalate into a full-scale war between those powers. There is a way to attain all of America’s interests.
The process of reintegrating Iraq’s Sunni population would be eased if a trusted ally of the Sunni populace were to conduct peacekeeping and rebuilding in these areas. KSA is well-suited to this role, being neighbors they share many tribal and family ties with Iraq’s Sunni population. KSA also has more than adequate resources to assist in the rebuilding of ISIS-held areas. The introduction of Saudi peacekeepers was part of the plan put forth by SSG earlier this year that would put an international protectorate in the Sunni tribal areas of Iraq and Syria. Such a force would provide guarantors of fair treatment to Iraq’s Sunnis during a cooling-off and rebuilding period. In terms of preventing a third Sunni insurgency, this move was already a good idea.
Establishing a zone of control for KSA peacekeepers in western Iraq and Southern Syria would also create a ground line of communications between KSA and Lebanon. The ease with which the Kingdom would be able to move forces and materiel against Hezbollah would serve to pressure that terrorist organization. Should Israel move against Hezbollah as expected, this approach would allow the Kingdom to come in on their side. Hezbollah might be brought to the table much more rapidly by the threat of a two-front war against two major regional powers. Likewise, the spectacle of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the state of Israel jointly fighting a major terrorist organization would be instructive to the region.
This move would also provide the Saudis with a way to prevent Iran’s grand strategy of securing a Shia Crescent in the north. Having Saudi peacekeepers in western Iraq would cut off some lines of communication between Iran and Hezbollah.
At the moment, this may be all that the United States can do to support its own goals in the region. Preventing an Iranian Crescent is certainly in America’s interests. The joint Saudi and Israeli goal of destroying or degrading Hezbollah is also entirely in America’s national interests. Hezbollah is a major complement to Iranian power, has repeatedly murdered American forces, and threatens multiple American allies. There is no reason we should interfere with a Saudi or Israeli campaign against Hezbollah.
We cannot join or endorse such a campaign, however, without first disentangling our American military advisers from Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Currently the Iranian-backed militias in the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are too close to American forces as they interoperate with the ISF. Distancing our forces from the ISF would mean giving up a major lever for contesting Iranian control of Iraq; however, it would also clear the road to supporting the Saudi moves and, also, supporting a better deal for the Kurds in Iraq who have long been American allies. These moves should be considered, both for these strategic reasons and to protect the American forces involved from Iranian retaliation.