Attention: We now interrupt our purge in progress for a regional sectarian war. Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince today accused Iran of “direct military aggression,” in a conversation with British foreign minister Boris Johnson and related by the royal family to the press. Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Johnson that Saudi Arabia might consider the missile attack from Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen “an act of war,” a move that might ignite a regional shooting war in the Middle East:
In the latest flare-up, Saudi Arabia on Saturday intercepted and destroyed a ballistic missile near Riyadh international airport, reportedly fired from Yemen by Iran-backed Huthi rebels, provoking a bitter war of words.
Saudi Arabia accused Iran of supplying missiles to the rebels. Tehran vehemently denied the charge and in turn accused Riyadh of war crimes in Yemen.
“The involvement of Iran in supplying missiles to the Huthis is a direct military aggression by the Iranian regime,” the Saudi Press Agency quoted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as saying during a telephone conversation with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
This “could be considered an act of war,” he said.
The Saudis claim that they have evidence of Iranian manufacture of the missiles:
The head of the Saudi military coalition said that experts in military technology had examined other missiles and “confirmed the role of Iran’s regime in manufacturing these missiles and smuggling them to the Houthi militias in Yemen for the purpose of attacking the Kingdom, its people, and vital interests.”
Nor is that the only hint that the prince might be looking at a wide war to clear the decks in the Middle East. The Washington Post notes that Riyadh appears to have engineered a political crisis in Lebanon to challenge Iran there, too:
In recent days, the Saudis have also stepped up their confrontation with Hezbollah, the Shiite party in Lebanon that is backed by Iran. The Saudis appear to have played a central role in the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, who sharply criticized Iran during a resignation speech he delivered Saturday from the Saudi capital.
This might be part of a larger strategy with the US to reverse course on benign neglect of the Iranian threat, and the Trump administration’s hopes to get Saudi Arabia and Israel to cooperate on the Palestinian question:
Presidential adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner has cultivated a special relationship with Mohammed, and he has traveled to the kingdom three times this year, most recently on an unannounced visit 10 days ago. Kushner, along with negotiator Jason Greenblatt, is leading the administration’s efforts to jump-start the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That goal will become more achievable, the administration believes, if the Saudis and Israel can be brought together based on their shared antipathy toward Iran.
In a series of messages posted Monday on Twitter, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that the Trump administration’s support for Saudi Arabia has “proved hazardous to regional health.” Following Trump’s visit to Riyadh in May, Zarif noted, Saudi ally Bahrain launched a violent crackdown against a Shiite opposition stronghold, and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates broke relations and closed their borders with neighboring Qatar.
If so, we are playing with fire, quite literally if Iran’s close to a nuclear weapon. The Sunni-Shi’ite and Arab-Persian rivalries go back more than a millennium and have enough antipathy to create a massive conflict that could reshape and/or destroy the Middle East, assuming it remains contained to the region. Such a war would fulfill the apocalyptic vision of Iran’s Shi’ite extremist mullahs, who have worked diligently toward fighting an Armageddon to hasten the arrival of the messianic Twelfth Imam.
Perhaps it’s better to have that fight earlier rather than later, but for the people of the Middle East, they probably don’t want to have it at all. Such a war would produce a tsunami of refugees that would dwarf the migration over the last few years from Syria and Libya. It would transform Iraq into the battlefield between the two regional powers, and likely would prompt the rebirth of ISIS or similar militias within the Sunni minority there.
This might just be Prince Mohammed’s strategy to succeed in his purge, too. US analysts described the crown prince as “getting out over his ski tips” in his zeal to go after hardliners at home. Nothing pre-empts a potential rebellion better than an outside enemy, however, and the Iranians have filled that bill ever since their 1979 revolution made them a mortal threat to the Sauds. Any hint of dissent at home during this kind of crisis could get chalked up to disloyal affection for Iran while Prince Mohammed consolidates power, especially given the absolute monarchy in place in Saudi Arabia. That might not be very reformist, but it’s a page right out of the totalitarian playbook.
For a lot more on what the Iranians are doing, read J.E. Dyer’s post from Sunday on their “land bridge to the Mediterranean.” Iraq has already become a battlefield between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and between Arabs and Kurds, at least. This might be why Prince Mohammed feels as though he has to act now, and why the conflict might be inevitable.
Update: I used the term “Asia Minor” to refer to the region, which was intended to include Iran as part of the theater of potential conflict, as well as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Asia Minor, as a number of people have reminded me, refers to the area above the Arabian Peninsula, not inclusive of it. I’ve replaced the reference with “Middle East.”