By Mahmood Monshipouri (Prof. of San Francisco State University and the University of California, Berkeley)

Dangers of cold war between Riyadh and Tehran

November 19, 2017

Saudi Arabia's frustrating and catastrophic entanglements in Yemen have spilled over into Lebanon, where the young Saudi prince Mohamed Bin Salam seems fixated on encouraging the Israeli invasion of Lebanon to eradicate Hezbollah’s influence in that country and the region more generally.  It is not unreasonable to assume that this troubling situation is a direct consequence of the encouragement that the Trump administration has in fact given the Saudis. In the wake of the tense political climate in the region, several questions come to mind.  Could all this be related to the US withdrawal from the region?  Does this withdrawal signal a US return to an off-shore balancing strategy, in which the United States provides the necessary military wherewithal to its allies in the region to counter Iran? Is the new leadership in Saudi Arabia emboldened by such a strategy?  

It is worth remembering that this strategy does not necessarily include the absence of US interests, either in associated political regimes or non-state actors. The sudden abdication of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, who has become a pawn in Saudi efforts to isolate their regional rival, Iran, and its ally Hezbollah (The New York Times, November 14, 2017), illustrates one way in which Riyadh intends to undercut Iranian influence in the region.  Hariri’s resignation under pressure from Riyadh is also a direct result of giving the Saudis the go-ahead to reclaim and redirect the power structure of the Middle East.  This may even portend a partnership of sorts among Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States aimed at rolling back increasing Iranian influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Yet this partnership has its own limits and perils. A fundamental question is whether and the extent to which a new war between Israel and Hezbollah would serve the region’s order and stability.  

History is full of instructive examples.  Israeli attacks on South Lebanon (1985–2000) and the 2006 Lebanon War in response to the abduction of two Israeli reserve soldiers by the Hezbollah have shown that Hezbollah cannot easily be defeated or dismantled.  If, however, Israel decides to attack Hezbollah, the new war will be an invitation to a risky and uncertain venture that should concern most Israelis, even as Israel’s military superiority is not in question.  Knowing that Hezbollah has 120,000 rockets and missiles would most certainly factor into Israel’s decision to go to war.  The Jerusalem Post (July 12, 2016) reported that Hezbollah now possesses “more missiles below ground in Lebanon than the European NATO allies have above ground.” Any attacks against Hezbollah would likely become a wider confrontation, involving Iran.  It is unlikely that Washington’s ongoing strategic interests in the Middle East (stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, defeating ISIS and radical Islamic movements, and stable oil prices and markets) will be better served as a result.  

How did the crisis and rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia reach this critical point?  The rise of young prince Mohammed bin Salman to power has introduced a new element into the way the Saudis strategize about coping with the challenges of domestic politics and regional chaos. Saudi involvement—both directly and indirectly—in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon has thus far failed to pay political dividends.  Furthermore, it appears now that the young Saudi prince seeks to shift attention away from his domestic troubles and challenges (reform, purges, young demographics, unemployment, and declining oil prices) to more nationalistic and foreign policy oriented contexts to further consolidate his power at home.  

Placing the spotlight on confronting Iran will effectively serve this purpose, but it is a scenario that, in the long run, will likely have dangerous repercussions. Belligerent saber-rattling rhetoric is best avoided by both sides.  Hopefully, both Tehran and Riyadh will demonstrate restraint in the coming days and weeks, while making genuine and concerted efforts to avoid the disaster that could result from a direct confrontation between the two countries. Meanwhile, Russia, which appears neutral in the conflict between the two countries, might be in a better position than the United States to act as mediator.

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