An Iran-Saudi War?
Tensions have been mounting in the Middle East. The “Qatarstrophe” has cut off Qatar from the rest of the Gulf States, and has sent Qatari stocks tumbling. It also has pitted Iran and Saudi Arabia on opposing sides of yet another potential flare up, which could have grave consequences for the rest of the region.
Early Wednesday morning in Tehran, a pair of terrorist attacks killed at least 12 people. Initially, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks-the first time they have attacked Iran, whom ISIS refers to as a “nation of heretics” due to its predominantly Shia religious makeup. However, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard (who protects Iran’s theocratic and Islamic system) blamed Saudi Arabia for carrying out the attacks. The Revolutionary Guard also blamed US President Donald Trump for inciting and provoking Saudi Arabia into carrying out the attack.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not just limited to the attack in Tehran. The war in Yemen is largely considered to be a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, fought between Shia, Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Sunni, Saudi-backed rebels. The Syrian civil war can also be considered a proxy war between the Saudis and Iran, with Iran backing Assad and his Shia government, while Saudi Arabia backs Sunni rebels.
A direct conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be absolutely devastating, horrific, and destructive. Iran has nearly twice Saudi Arabia’s manpower, and has a numerical advantage in most weapon systems. However, Saudi Arabia has more aircraft, and spends nearly 10 times more on defense than Iran. The two powers have one country separating them: Iraq-and with the chaos in Iraq, no country wants to enter Iraq and deal with the near-anarchic, terror laden war zone that is Iraq. Instead, it would likely be an amphibious invasion across the Persian Gulf, along with regular bombings and cruise missile strikes.
Iran, however, would never try to invade Saudi Arabia. After the disastrous Iranian counter-attack in the Iran-Iraq war which killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians, Iran grew wary of regional conquest. Instead, Iran now funds Shia groups across the region, such as Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, does not have the manpower to invade Iran. The Saudis had a first-hand view of the Iran-Iraq war, and do not want to repeat the mistake that the Iraqis made.
Instead, the future of the Middle East is likely going to be more and more proxy conflicts between Iran and the Saudis. Iran may try and create an uprising in the majority Shia Bahrain, or attempt to make Iraq a Shia state by instigating a rebellion among Iraq’s majority Shiite population. Similarly, Saudi Arabia will continue its attempt to have its Syrian Sunni rebels overthrow Assad’s Shiite regime, and keep Sunni power in Bahrain and Yemen.
The US has a thin line to walk. On one hand, it must honor its alliance with Saudi Arabia. However, the US must not give the Saudi’s unequivocal support. If Saudi Arabia is empowered, it could fuel more sectarian violence. On the other hand, the US must keep Iran’s power in check and stop Iran from gaining more puppet states, while still maintaining the ability to negotiate with Iran. Failure to do this will only result in more wars, bloodshed, and regional chaos.