Saudi Arabia Has Signaled Its Intention to Contain Iran, but Does It Have the Capability?

Nov. 29 2017

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.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Middle East, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy

The Struggle for Iraq, and What It Means for Israel

Oct. 17 2018

Almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, Iraq became a battleground between the U.S. and Iran, as the latter sent troops, money, and arms to foment and support an insurgency. The war on Islamic State, along with the Obama administration’s effort to align itself with the Islamic Republic, led to a temporary truce, but also gave Tehran-backed militias a great deal of power. Iran has also established a major conduit of supplies through Iraq to support its efforts in Syria. Meanwhile, it is hard to say if the recent elections have brought a government to Baghdad that will be pro-American or pro-Iranian. Eldad Shavit and Raz Zimmt comment how these developments might affect Israel:

Although statements by the U.S. administration have addressed Iran’s overall activity in the region, they appear to emphasize the potential for confrontation in Iraq. First and foremost, this [emphasis] stems from the U.S. perception of this arena as posing the greatest danger, in light of the extensive presence of U.S. military and civilian personnel operating throughout the country, and in light of past experience, which saw many American soldiers attacked by Shiite militias under Iranian supervision. The American media have reported that U.S. intelligence possesses information indicating that the Shiite militias and other elements under Iranian auspices intend to carry out attacks against American targets and interests. . . .

In light of Iran’s intensifying confrontation with the United States and its mounting economic crisis, Tehran finds it essential to maintain its influence in Iraq, particularly in the event of a future clash with the United States. The Iranian leadership has striven to send a message of deterrence to the United States regarding the implications of a military clash. . . .

A recently published report also indicates that Iran transferred ballistic missiles to the Shiite militias it supports in Iraq. Although Iran has denied this report, it might indeed attempt to transfer advanced military equipment to the Shiite militias in order to improve their capabilities in the event of a military confrontation between Iran and the United States and/or Israel, or a confrontation between [the militias] and the central government in Baghdad.

From Israel’s perspective, after years when the Iraqi arena received little attention from Israeli decision makers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have mentioned the possibility of Israel’s taking action against Iranian targets in Iraq. In this context, and particularly in light of the possibility that Iraq could become an arena of greater conflict between the United States and Iran, it is critical that there be full coordination between Israel and the United States. This is of particular importance due to [the American estimation of] stability in Iraq as a major element of the the campaign against Islamic State, which, though declared a success, is not yet complete.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Iraq, ISIS, Israel & Zionism, U.S. Foreign policy