In recent weeks, Riyadh has signaled an intention to respond more aggressively to Tehran’s growing power in the Middle East. But it is unclear whether the Saudi kingdom can succeed, as Jonathan Spyer writes:
[T]he Iranians have effectively won in Lebanon, are winning in Syria and Iraq, and are bleeding the Saudis in Yemen. In each context, Iran has been able to establish proxies that give it political and military influence in [the relevant] country. Tehran also has successfully identified and exploited seams in its enemies’ camps. . . .
There is precious little evidence to suggest that the Saudis have learned from their earlier failures. . . . So far, [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s] actions consist of removing the veneer of multi-confessionalism from the Lebanese government [which is in fact dominated by the Shiite Hizballah], and threatening his enemies in Yemen. Those may be important symbolic steps, but they do nothing to provide Riyadh with the hard power it has always lacked. Rolling back the Iranians, directly or in alliance with local forces, would almost certainly depend not on the Saudis or the United Arab Emirates but on the involvement of the United States—and in the Lebanese case, perhaps Israel.
It’s impossible to say the extent to which Washington and Jerusalem are on board with such an effort. However, the statements last week by Defense Secretary James Mattis suggesting that the United States intends to stay in eastern Syria, and by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel will continue to enforce its security interests in Syria, suggest that these players may have a role to play.
Past Saudi behavior might encourage skepticism. Nevertheless, the Iranians here have a clearly visible Achilles’ heel. In all the countries where the Saudi-Iran rivalry has played out, Tehran has proved to have severe difficulties in developing lasting alliances outside of Shiite and other minority communities. . . . Elements of the Iraqi Shiite political class also have no interest in falling under the thumb of Tehran. A cunning player looking to sponsor proxies and undermine Iranian influence would find much to work with. . . . The prospects of success for the Saudis will depend on the willingness of their allies to engage alongside them, and a steep learning curve in the methods of political and proxy warfare.