From Proxy Wars to Direct War Between Iran and Saudi Arabia: America’s Options
Masoud Kazemzadeh and Penny Watson
The Middle East appears on the precipice of a great war. The fundamentalist rulers of Iran are confident that their goal of establishing a coalition of Shia countries and regions under their control is nearing fruition. Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980 was a response to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s policy of overthrowing the ruling regimes in Iraq and much of the Middle East. By 1988, that war ended not by victory of one side over the other, but by the exhaustion of Khomeini’s regime and the recognition that no end was in sight. The 1988 ceasefire has been but a respite in the warmongering policy of the fundamentalists, whereby despite military adventurism, many members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) still express bitterness over the acceptance of the ceasefire.
The American removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam’s regime in Iraq after 9/11, destroyed two ugly bulwarks that had contained the expansionist and jingoist policies of Iran’s fundamentalist rulers, which in turn allowed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to resume the policy of creating the Shia bloc under his command.
The Obama administration policy of reaching the nuclear accord with Khamenei became a de facto policy of appeasing Khamenei’s never-ending ambitions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and the Shia-dominated oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and distancing from American allies in the region (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, and Israel). With the withdrawal of American power from the Middle East by Obama, and the continued aggression and subversion by the Shia fundamentalist regime in Iran, the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Israel began their efforts to resist the expansionist policies of Ayatollah Khamenei.
The stated strategy of the Trump administration is to reverse Obama’s appeasement policy and begin to stand up to Iran’s rulers. Khamenei has responded to Trump’s rhetoric not by retreat or restraint but by increasing his efforts to expand his regime’s influence in the region through attacking America’s allies and undermining American influence in the Middle East.
For example, the most pro-American nation in the Islamic world has been the Kurds of Iraq; moreover, America’s closest ally in the Moslem world was Masoud Barezani, the President of the Kurdish Regional Government. Ayatollah Khamenei and his military point man, Gen. Ghassem Soleymani (the Commander-in-Chief of the IRGC’s Qods Force), orchestrated the crushing of the Kurds and forced the resignation of Barezani through a smart utilization of Hashd al Shabi (various Shia militia comprising about 100,000 about 80% of whom are under direct control of Gen. Soleymani) and the regular Iraqi armed forces. The Trump administration failed to structure a political solution to keep Barezani in power while keeping Haydar al-Ebadi (the Iraqi prime minister who relies upon both the U.S. and Iran’s regime for support) popular and relevant. This was a huge strategic victory for Khamenei. In Syria, Khamenei also succeeded in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power due to massive intervention by his own forces and those of the Lebanese Hezbollah. In Yemen, Khamenei continues to support the Houthi rebels in undermining the Saudi efforts to stabilize the regime in their own backyard.
The proxy wars between the fundamentalist regime in Iran and the Saudi government appears to be reaching a boiling point. Saudis, confident of American support since the election of Trump, are more stridently standing up to Khamenei’s aggressive moves in the region. One of the main flashpoints might be in Lebanon, perhaps others in Bahrain or Syria. There are reports that Saudis are encouraging Israel to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Syria. It is not clear what Israelis would want from Saudis. Would Israelis want the Saudis and Jordanians to send troops into Syria and create zones free from Hezbollah, IRGC, and Assad forces? Of course, Israel has its own reasons for confronting Iran. Israel has repeatedly attacked convoys carrying Iranian weapons for Hezbollah through Syria. Now, with the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Israel fears that Iran has a land bridge connecting Iran to Lebanon and Israel whereby it may easily supply Hezbollah with heavy weaponry.
If there were such attacks on Hezbollah, then Khamenei would have the following options: (1) do nothing and accept the crushing of Hezbollah by Israel and Saudi Arabia; (2) merely resupply Hezbollah with weapons and fighters; (3) open a new front in an area more favorable to his forces such as in Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates; (4) unleash the Shia terrorists in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province such as the so-called Saudi Hezbollah to carry out terrorist attacks on the oil facilities (e.g., fields, depots, terminals, refineries), water desalination plants, and American bases; and (5) drastically increase supplies to Houthis.
Many in the Middle East believe that a direct war between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the most likely possibility. At this juncture, it appears that neither Khamenei nor Saudi leaders want a direct war. Most likely, both sides would attempt to go after each other’s vulnerable allies. The missile attack by the Houthi rebels on Riyadh airport on November 4, 2017 was, in all likelihood, Khamenei’s order to intimidate Saudis. Saudi officials declared that they consider the attack to constitute an act of war by Iran on Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the bombing of Bahrain’s main oil pipeline on November 11, 2017 was such warning shot. Perhaps, they were also Khamenei’s response to Trump’s policy speech on Iran, where he imposed sanctions on the IRGC’s “officials, agents, and affiliates” for their support of terrorism.
The most likely flashpoint may be Lebanon. On November 3, 2017 Khamenei’s senior foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati went to Beirut and had a meeting with Lebanon’s prime minister Saad Hariri. Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia on that very day and after a discussion with Saudis, he went on live television on November 4 and announced his resignation and blamed Iran’s regime and Hezbollah for undermining Lebanon’s sovereignty and bringing instability and violence to the region. Hezbollah had assassinated Rafiq Hariri (Saad’s father who also had been Lebanon’s prime minister) apparently on direct orders from Khamenei back in 2005. In his live television speech, Saad Hariri said that the conditions today were similar to the conditions prevailing when Hezbollah murdered his father. Saudi officials then called on their citizens to leave Lebanon.
We are at a terribly dangerous turning point. Both Saudis and Khamenei are prone to miscalculations and escalation of the conflict. In all likelihood, Khamenei would respond to attacks on Hezbollah by opening new front in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Then, the Saudis may see no choice but to directly attack Iran relying upon the vast and modern American military hardware they have. Iran possesses a variety of missiles, which can easily reach Saudi Arabia’s terribly vulnerable oil facilities. During the Iran-Iraq war, both sides targeted each other’s oil facilities. Unlike in 1980-88, today Iran’s regime possesses an array of means, including terrorist bombings, to successfully target the oil facilities of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait. If Iran is successful, such a halt in oil production would cause catastrophic damage to the global economy, precipitating American entry to the war in support of Saudi ally and against the fundamentalist regime in Iran.
The Trump administration cannot repeat the mistake that it made in Kurdistan and the attack on Kirkuk. The stakes are simply too high in a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since coming to power in 1979, the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran has brought terrorism, extremism, instability, and war to the region in large parts due to its violent terrorist ideology similar in many ways to the ascension to power in Germany by the Nazi Party. As long as the fundamentalist regime is in power it will pose serious threats to peace and stability in the region and the world. The best solution, if not the only one, is regime change in Iran. This begins by imposing sanctions on sale of crude oil and natural gas.
The U.S. should simply tell the world that they may trade with the U.S. (with a 19 trillion-dollar economy) or with the fundamentalist regime (with a 400 billion dollar economy). Khamenei relies upon the sale of oil and gas to fund both his domestic apparatuses of repression and his war machine abroad.
The art of leadership is to see farther than most people and the ability to convince them of the necessity to sacrifice short-term comforts for long-term core interests. Such leadership is necessary today to confront the challenge of the fundamentalist regime ruling Iran. The costs of failure are simply too catastrophic to contemplate.