Escalating Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions

Jan 14, 2016

Escalating Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions

Update from AIJAC

January 14, 2016
Number 01/16 #06

This Update features material on the sharp escalation in what was already a sort of Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Saudi execution of Saudi Shiite religious leader Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2. It follows up with some analysis of a related development overnight – the Iranian arrest, and then release, of 10 US Navy personnel after Teheran alleged that their two boats entered Iranian territorial waters.

This Update leads with a useful summary of the current tensions and especially motivations on the Saudi side of the equation from Israeli scholar of Persian Gulf politics Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum. Among Saudi motivations he mentions are a determination not to be the next nation to fall to “Arab Spring” protests which Nimr was trying to lead, a demonstration by the new King and his son of the adherence to Wahhabi principles, and an effort to demonstrate both to Teheran and to Washington, perceived in Riyadh as pro-Iranian under Obama, that they are still in the game and will not be ignored. He notes that the over-the-top Iranian response played into Riyadh’s hands, but Iran and Saudi Arabia are leading the region into some very rough waters. For his complete analysis, CLICK HERE.

Next up is Washington Institute strategic expert Michael Knights, who looks at where the Iranian-Saudi confrontation is likely to go from here. He says a war of a sort is in fact already under way, with Iran and Saudi Arabia killing each other’s proxies and agents, “in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Eastern Province” – and this is expected to continue and intensify, with each side testing and seeking to hurt the other. While neither side wants this to lead to direct conventional military conflict, Knights says miscalculation will likely lead to a “very short, very sharp burst of military force against each other” sometime in the next few years. For his complete analysis, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Michael Singh analyses what we know and do not know about the Iranian seizure and then release of those 10 US sailors yesterday. He says US government claims that the outcome represents a vindication of its policy of detente toward Iran are very premature – especially in view of the fact that Iran is apparently using photos of the sailors for propaganda purposes, a violation of the Geneva Convention. Singh argues that this latest incident, along with other provocative Iranian behavior of late, such as the ” testing of ballistic missiles, a live-fire incident in the proximity of US Navy and commercial shipping vessels, the continued detention of Iranian-Americans, [and] the recent ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran” mean that there is likely to be more continuity than change in Iran’s aggressive foreign policy. For all the detail’s of Singh’s discussion, CLICK HERE. More on the apparent Geneva Convention violation by Iran from Michael Rubin.

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Domestic and Regional Implications of Escalated Saudi-Iran Conflict


By Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 324
January 10, 2016

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: By executing a prominent Shiite leader, the Saudi King and his son the Deputy Crown Prince sent a strong signal to Iran, to the kingdom’s beleaguered Shiite minority, and to the world. To its Iranian Shiite rival, Sunni Riyadh was saying that it would absolutely not tolerate intervention in its internal affairs. It was telling its own Shiites that it would not allow “Arab Spring”-like dissent. And to the world, Salman and Muhammad were signaling that the Saudis were growing into their new role as a defender and leader of the Sunni Muslim countries; especially since the Obama administration appears to be siding with Iran.

On January 2, 2016, Saudi Arabia announced the execution of the Shiite religious leader Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr (and 46 other prisoners). In the region, this was the climax of escalating tension between Saudi Arabia, which perceives itself as defending the world’s Sunni Muslims, and Iran, which claims the mantle of Shiite leadership.

In Saudi Arabia, the execution was a stark warning to the country’s embattled Shiite minority. And for King Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, only a year in office, and his young son and Minister of Defense, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, this was a further demonstration of a developing muscular and assertive foreign policy.

About Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr

Shaykh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr was the star of the “Arab Spring” demonstrations, which broke out in the kingdom’s Eastern Province in 2011-2012. Relations with the Shiite minority are an open sore in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. Since the 18tth  century, these interactions have been marked by cycles of persecution, oppression, demonstrations, violence and terrorism, and sometimes even dialogue. But Saudi Arabia is still at its core a Wahhabi state, and traditionally Wahhabism abhors Shi’ism as a perversion of the true Islamic creed.

The Saudis had hoped to give the Arab Spring a miss. Its Sunni majority never took to the streets, limiting its remonstrations to social media. But its politically active Shiite minority demonstrated forcefully, sometimes even violently, particularly in solidarity with Bahrain’s Shiites after the Saudis joined their fellow Sunni rulers in putting down the Shiite rebellion in Manama in March 2011. The Saudis pulled no punches in suppressing the Shiite protests at home, resulting in many casualties, on both sides.

Nimr stood at the forefront of these demonstrations. His charismatic rhetoric was sharp and harsh.  He called openly for God to take the lives of the Saudi dynasty. Upon the death of the feared Minister of the Interior, Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz, Nimr expressed his wish that worms would devour his corpse. He did not directly call for violence, but some Shiites and certainly the Saudi regime saw his fire-breathing speeches as a call to arms. For the Saudis he was a leader who had to be stopped.

The circumstances of Shaykh Nimr’s arrest in July 2012 are not entirely clear, but he was shot, thrown into the back of a car by Saudi authorities, and whisked away. This ignominious picture was Tweeted, You Tubed and Facebooked all over Saudi social media, further enraging the kingdom’s Shiites.

He was executed along with 46 others terrorists (that’s the Saudi term), mostly Sunnis associated with al-Qaida.

Domestic Considerations

King Salman and his young protégé Muhammad are just about a year into their respective jobs. It has been a tumultuous period: a war in Yemen and Syria, world acquiescence to a nuclear threshold Iran, not to mention the notorious Islamic State. The Saudis lead the counter-revolution to the Arab Spring. Shiites are the ultimate other in Saudi Arabia – they are not popular with the majority Sunnis, and they led the Arab Spring demonstrations in the kingdom.

Domestically, executing Nimr may have been a way to kill two birds with one stone. The precipitous drop in oil prices will likely soon necessitate slashing subsidies and promised jobs and housing that quelled economic griping during the Arab Spring. Putting Nimr to death is an easy way to beef up Wahhabi credentials, show who is boss, and turn attention away from cost-cutting measure.

Although Nimr’s execution received most of the press coverage, the Saudi were “balanced”; 46 others, mostly Sunni al-Qaida sympathizes, also met their end. Islamic State has struck several times in the kingdom, so putting fellow Islamist fanatics to death put that organization on notice as well. Salman wants to drive home that Saudi Arabia is the Sunni boss in the neighborhood. And politics is also personal. Nimr may have called for worms to devour the body of Minister of Interior Nayif bin Abd al-Aziz, but Nayif’s son, current Minister of Interior and Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Nayif, appears to have had the last laugh.

International and regional implications

Saudi Arabia’s regional and international position in the past several years has been shaped by two challenges: Iran and Islamic State. In the background is the perception in the kingdom, not unfounded, that the Obama administration is abandoning its traditional allies.

In the zero-sum game of Middle Eastern politics, Washington’s acquiescence to the Iran deal, which left Iran a nuclear threshold state, unfettered to continue its military ballistic missile program and  advance a hostile regional agenda, means in Riyadh that President Obama is essentially pro-Iran. His comments about needed reforms in Saudi Arabia, or his view that a strategic balance is needed between Sunnis and Shiites, only strengthen this perception.

The execution of Nimr is King Salman and son Muhammad bin Salman’s way of signaling both Obama and Iranian Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei that the Saudis are still in the game. They are filling the vacuum left by American retrenchment with a muscular, pro-active foreign policy that includes playing hardball in Yemen and in the oil market.

The Iranian response has played into Saudi hands. Harsh statements from Iranian leaders and the sacking of Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran demonstrated to the Saudis that Iran was interfering in their internal affairs. The Sunni-Shiite game is a transnational one. Just as Iran claims the mantle of Shiite leadership, the Saudis do the same with Sunni leadership, as demonstrated late last year by the cobbling together of a 34 member Sunni Islamic Military Alliance.

The Saudis have broken off diplomatic relations with Tehran, and several other fellow Sunni states have done so as well in solidarity. Foreign Minister Adil al-Jubayr is heading the Saudi diplomatic effort. Jubayr, Riyadh’s former ambassador to Washington, remembers that in 2011 the Iranians tried to have him assassinated.

On June 7 Iran claimed that Saudi planes had bombed the Iranian embassy in Yemen. Tit for tat? It remains to be seen. Saudi Arabia’s muscular foreign policy might just be in for its first serious test. What is certain is that these two leaders of competing Islamic camps are heading for very rough waters.

* Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, and pan-Arab issues, is a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He teaches in the department of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University.

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What Would a Saudi-Iran War Look Like? Don’t Look Now, But It Is Already Here


Michael Knights

Foreign Policy, January 11, 2016

Even a short, sharp burst of direct military clashes would serve as a reminder to both sides of the overriding imperative to keep their conflict limited to the territories of unfortunate third parties.

When asked to address the question of what a Saudi-Iran war would look like, my first instinct is to ask the reader to look around because it is already happening. As the futurist William Gibson noted, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” Already, Saudi Arabia and Iran are killing each other’s proxies, and indirectly are killing each other’s advisors and troops, in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia’s Shiite Eastern Province.

The future is likely to look similar. The existing pattern will intensify, eventually spill over in a short, sharp direct clash, and then sink back down again to the level of proxy wars in other people’s territories.

The preferred method of conflict between these states has for a long time been proxy warfare. Since its devastating eight-year war against Iraq, the leadership in Tehran has demonstrated a strong preference for acting through proxies like Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shiite militias, and Hamas. Lacking a strong military for most of its existence, the state of Saudi Arabia has likewise used proxy warfare to strike painful blows against its enemies, notably against Egypt’s occupation forces in the 1962-1970 Yemeni civil war and against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Both these players try to get others to do most of their fighting and dying for them.

Iran’s powerful support for Shiite militias is well-documented. Lebanese Hezbollah has evolved into a central pillar of Iran’s retaliatory capability against Israel, and more recently has answered Iran’s call to provide reliable ground forces to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. Lebanese Hezbollah is no militia: it has Zelzal-1 missiles capable of hitting Tel Aviv. Hezbollah has large stocks of advanced anti-tank guided missiles and Explosively-Formed Penetrator (EFP) roadside bombs capable of penetrating any Israeli tank. Iran as also supplied Hezbollah with advanced C-802 anti-shipping missiles, which crippled an Israeli warship in 2006, and most recently with even more advanced Yakhont anti-ship missiles.

Now Iran seems to have provided its Shiite Houthi allies with C-802 missiles, which have been used in a number of attacks on United Arab Emirates (UAE) warships in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The Houthis are inflicting heavy damage on the Saudi military, destroying scores of U.S.-supplied main battle tanks and other armoured vehicles using Iranian-provided anti-tank guided missiles. Iran’s proxies are seizing terrain in southern Saudi Arabia and lobbing Scud missiles at military bases deep within the kingdom.

In Iraq the Iranian-backed militias have been provided with Iranian air support, artillery, electronic warfare equipment and medical support. Badr, the main Shiite militia in Iraq, fought as a military division in the Iranian order of battle during the Iran-Iraq War. Badr now leads Iraq’s largest security institution, the half-million Ministry of Interior, and the Shia militias are being formed into a proto-ministry that resembles their patron, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The “Hezbollah-ization” of two key regional states is well-underway.

Most worryingly for Saudi Arabia, the Iranian bloc is demonstrating a disregard for long-lasting “red lines” over Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province, which has a majority Shiite population. In 2011 Saudi Arabia and the UAE deployed scores of main battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers to directly safeguard the Bahraini royal family in the face of Arab spring uprisings. This robust move seemed to deeply shake Tehran, triggering the hapless Iranian plot to assassinate Adel Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States. In the last year Iran seems to have been acting increasingly recklessly in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Iraqi Shiite militias like Badr spin-off Kataib Hezbollah have worked with Iranian-backed cells in Bahrain and Eastern Province to import advanced EFP munitions in large numbers with the evident intent of giving Shia communities the ability to self-defend against future Saudi military crackdowns. This kind of game-changing behaviour by Tehran is undoubtedly one reason the Saudi government chose to recently execute Eastern Province Shia dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

Long before the current hullabaloo, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf States have been slowly cultivating their own network of military proxies. The first major recipient of Gulf military support was the Saudi-supported Lebanese government. The UAE sent nine fully-armed and crewed SA-342L Gazelle helicopters to help the Lebanese government crush Al-Qaeda-linked Fatah al-Islam at Tripoli’s Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in May 2007. In 2009, a year after Saudi’s King Abdullah called for the U.S. to “cut the head off the snake” by bombing Iran, Riyadh launched a nine-week military campaign against the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, losing 137 troops. This triggered a major intensification of Saudi Arabian, Jordanian and UAE provision of training, salaries, armored vehicles, and weapons to anti-Houthi militias in northern Yemen. Now the Gulf States and other allies like Pakistan and Somalia are building up new proxy forces in Yemen to assist in the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis.

So what happens next? Saudi and Iran will want to test and hurt each other, signal limits, but not suffer mutual destruction. Iran will begin to stir violence in Eastern Province and Bahrain, and it may try harder to fight supplies through to Yemen by sea by bolstering Houthi coastal missile batteries.

The next stage in the Saudi Arabian war with Iran will be an intensification of the proxy war in Syria. This is where Riyadh plans to fight its main battle against Iran. Then Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal signaled as far back as March 2012 that “the arming of the [Syrian] opposition is a duty.” Already Saudi, Qatari and Turkish support has allowed rebels in northwestern Syria to inflict severe armor losses on pro-Assad forces using anti-tank guided missiles. The provision of anti-aircraft missiles may be next. The U.S.-led coalition seems to be backing away from the morally-ambiguous war west of the Euphrates in Syria, where the main opposition to the Islamic State and Assad are radical Salafists that Western nations cannot engage. But Saudi Arabia and its allies have been doing exactly this in Yemen for half a decade and are now likely to take over the war west of the Euphrates in Syria. Riyadh now seems to view Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as a lesser evil to the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen: how soon before it views “moderate splinters” of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra the same way in western Syria?

Though neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran envisages an open conventional war between them — a result that Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown price and defence minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently termed “a major catastrophe” — there is always the potential for frontier skirmishes on their shared littoral borders and in the neutral space of the Gulf. Shared gas fields and disputed islands are obvious touchpoints. Iran might test missiles closer and closer to Gulf sea-lanes and coasts. Aerial patrols might begin to test each other: this happened during the Iran-Iraq War along the so-called “Fahd Line” until a Saudi interceptor shot down two Iranian fighter aircraft in 1984. Iran (or the Gulf States) could undertake tit-for-tat harassment, boarding or even deniable use of naval mines against each other’s trade routes. (Iran also used this tactic in the 1980s). Cyberwarfare is a likely deniable weapon of choice for both sides also.

At some point in the coming years we are likely to see both sides miscalculate and unleash a very short, very sharp burst of military force against each other. This will be a wake-up call. Both Iran and the Gulf States are far more powerfully armed than they were during the Iran-Iraq War. The advanced air forces of the Saudis and their key ally the UAE are now capable of destroying practically all Iran’s port facilities, oil loading terminals and key industries using stand-off precision-guided munitions. Iran can shower the Gulf coastline with multitudinous unguided rockets and a higher concentration of guided long-range missiles than ever before. In 1988 the Iranian navy was destroyed by the United States in a single day of combat — Operation Praying Mantis. Even a day or two of such “push-button warfare” would serve as a reminder to both sides of their overriding imperative to avoid direct conflict and to keep their conflict limited to the territories of unfortunate third parties.

Michael Knights is a Lafer Fellow with The Washington Institute.

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What We Don’t Know About Iran’s Capture and Release of U.S. Sailors

Michael Singh

Wall Street Journal, January 13, 2016

Fundamental questions now center on how exactly the seizure occurred, how the sailors were treated, and whether Washington offered a quid pro quo for their release.

It is too early to draw conclusions about the capture and release of 10 U.S. Navy personnel by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It’s clear, however, that the incident will be important to how supporters and critics of the nuclear agreement frame their argument in the coming months.

To be clear, the speed with which the Americans were let go — less than 24 hours after their capture — was welcome. This contrasts sharply with incidents in 2004 and 2007 involving British Royal Navy personnel, which lasted three and 13 days, respectively. One British marine captured in 2004 said later that he had been subjected to mock executions.

So far, the Obama administration seems to be taking the sailors’ release as not only good news but also as a vindication of sorts. A statement by Secretary of State John Kerry said the incident demonstrated the value of the administration’s engagement with Iran. That’s not self-evident. In 2004 and 2007, the British had even more extensive ties with Iran, including formal diplomatic relations and an embassy in Tehran. Yet that country faced greater difficulties in achieving the return of its naval personnel. And the diplomatic channel between Mr. Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has not secured the release of other Americans detained by Iran.

The Obama administration likely sees the incident as validating the idea behind its approach to nuclear diplomacy: that concluding an agreement with Iran would lead to a broader warming of bilateral relations. Mr. Zarif is thought to enjoy little influence with the IRGC, which is considered more anti-American than Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters; the Guards are more closely aligned with hard-liners engaged in a bitter power struggle with Mr. Rouhani ahead of Iran’s parliamentary elections in February. This factionalism inside the Iranian regime is often offered as an explanation for the inability of U.S. interlocutors to secure the release of imprisoned Americans; detainees are effectively cards the hard-liners play against not just the U.S. but also their domestic adversaries. If Mr. Zarif played a role in the Guards’ decision to release the U.S. sailors, it would be a surprise.

The administration’s conclusions seem premature, as critics of the administration have noted. The sailors were not immediately released but were held overnight, questioned, and photographed for media consumption. Photos and video have shown the sailors kneeling with their hands clasped above their heads. Video of sailors being questioned and one apologizing as part of the exchange was reportedly shown on Iranian television; broadcasting propaganda images of prisoners violates the Geneva Convention. All of this will be seen as a provocation designed to embarrass the U.S. and a contrast to Washington’s recent reluctance to perturb relations with Tehran.

Several questions must be answered: How, precisely, did the two boats and their personnel fall into Iranian hands, and did the initial incident take place in waters that are internationally recognized as Iranian territory? How were the sailors treated while detained? Were their boats and equipment inspected or manipulated before being returned? Did the U.S. offer any quid pro quo for their release? (Any gesture that U.S. officials make toward Iran in the coming weeks will almost certainly be interpreted as such.) And, finally, what was behind the IRGC’s release of the sailors?

Answers to the last question are of particular importance to those crafting U.S. policy toward Iran. One can hope the sailors’ quick release portends a shift in Iranian power dynamics or officials’ attitudes toward the U.S., but it’s also possible that Iranian officials were seeking to safeguard sanctions relief that almost certainly would have been delayed had the incident dragged out.

This incident must be triangulated against other Iranian actions, including its testing of ballistic missiles, a live-fire incident in the proximity of U.S. Navy and commercial shipping vessels, the continued detention of Iranian-Americans, the recent ransacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Iran’s undiminished support for the Assad regime in Syria. All of these things point toward continuity, rather than change, in Iran’s regional policy.

Initial explanations should also be taken with a grain of salt. If Iran’s actions were more provocative than first reported, policy makers risk reinforcing a moral hazard if they do not focus on that provocation but reward its reversal.

Michael Singh is managing director of The Washington Institute. This article originally appeared on the Wall Street Journal blog “Think Tank.” 

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