Summing up the recent events in the Middle East leads to the conclusion that the threat of a Saudi-Iranian war is looking increasingly credible as tensions rise in the Middle East. There are visible signs that the region is heading into an out and out conflict, waged simultaneously in different places and involving many actors.
Fears of an imminent conflict in Lebanon rose on Nov.9 as Gulf Arab states followed Saudi Arabia's lead in calling on their citizens to immediately exit Lebanon, whose former prime minister had resigned, citing an assassination plot against him as the reason. He blamed Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah for sowing strife, destruction and ruin wherever it went in the Arab world. Having flown to Saudi Arabia, he accused Tehran of being driven by a “deep hatred for the Arab nation.”
The resignation not only brought down the coalition government and plunged Lebanon into a new political crisis but also thrust the country into the frontline of regional competition between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran. The minister is a Sunni in Lebanon’s sectarian system and his stepping down risks exacerbating sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran escalated with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz blaming Tehran over the ballistic missile fired at Riyadh by Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Saudi air defenses intercepted a ballistic missile fired November 4 from the areas under rebels’ control. The missile was destroyed near King Khalid international airport on Riyadh’s northern outskirts. Supplying rebels in Yemen with missiles was a "direct military aggression by the Iranian regime," the prince said on Nov.7. The Saudis say that retaliation will follow, while the Houthis threatened to continue attacks against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, its closest ally.
There have been reports about Saudi Arabia and Israel working together against Iran, including diplomatic cooperation and intelligence sharing among other things. Israeli media recently reported that a senior Saudi prince, possibly Bin Salman himself, paid a secret visit to that country. Israel is worried about the situation in the Golan Heights and Gaza Strip with pro-Iranian forces to blame for rising tensions. Israel has just conducted its biggest-ever aerial military drill, just a month after its largest-ever land military exercise – both simulating war with pro-Iranian Hezbollah.
Commenting on the drone from Syria that was shot down over the Golan on Nov.11, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel takes an extremely grave view of violations of its sovereignty and will counter “all provocations with a powerful response.”
Bahrain said an explosion which caused a fire at its main oil pipeline on Nov.10 was caused by “terrorist” sabotage, linking the unprecedented attack to its arch-foe Iran. “Terrorist acts witnessed by the country in the recent period are carried out through direct contacts and instructions from Iran,” the statement quoted Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa as saying.
On Nov.8, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit stressed that Iranian interventions in the affairs of Arab countries reflect its desire to create tension and unrest in order to exercise hegemony over other nations. He added that Iranian intervention in Arab countries is unacceptable. Aboul-Gheit also stated that Arab nations should demonstrate solidarity with Saudi Arabia in facing the serious security threats it is facing.
The same day, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi threw his support behind Egypt’s Gulf ally Saudi Arabia amid the kingdom’s mounting tensions with Iran. According to him, Iran must stop “meddling” in the Middle East and the security of Arab Gulf countries must not be threatened.
In his turn, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says that Riyadh is interfering in Yemen and Lebanon, and its allies, US and Israel, dominate to ‘plunder oil and wealth.’ In preparation for possible hostilities Tehran has conducted a major reshuffle of its military top command.
It’s not so hard to guess whose side will the West be on. Iran has just responded to the call of French President Emmanuel Macron to hold talks on the country's ballistic missile program, firmly rejecting the idea and noting that it is solely defensive in nature. In July, the US imposed additional sanctions on Iran to punish it for ballistic missile tests, which are not covered by the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA). Last month, President Trump President Donald Trump formally decertified the nuclear deal with Iran under US law.
According to Stars and Stripes, several hundred US Marines are building a new base in western Iraq, about 20km from the strategic Anbar Province town of Al Qaim, which was captured from Islamic State recently. The US commanders are said to have taken into account possible clashes with pro-Iranian Shiite Iraqi militias, especially the PMU and other forces operating in the area. This was the first time a US military source has openly mentioned a possible hostile encounter between American military and pro-Iranian forces, such as the PMU and Hezbollah. Evidently, the move is part of US plan to prevent the creation of a Syrian-Iraqi corridor from Iran.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia in May, President Trump addressed tens of Arab nations in a speech that identified Iran as the leading state sponsor of terrorism, despite the fact that Iran has never carried out an act of terrorism on American soil. There has also been much discreet shuttle diplomacy in recent months and the Saudi minister for Gulf affairs, Thamer Al Sabhan, is travelling to Washington for talks on the standoff with Iran. Last month the US president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, went to Saudi Arabia for an unpublicized meeting with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
President Trump in recent days has posted on Twitter messages of unspecified support for Saudi Arabia’s rulers, saying they “know exactly what they are doing.”
As a major oil producer, the United States will be happy to take Iranian oil out of the market and replace it with its own exports. US shale operators and land drillers will significantly gain. The United States will soon be able to finance its trading deficit and solidify even more its position as a major oil exporter. Saudi Arabia also wants to keep the price of oil high, preventing Iran’s oil exports. The US Navy can keep the Hormuz Strait open with Iranian ships denied passage.
The very existence of potential threat will hike the price to benefit the US and the kingdom. By and large, the strategy of US administration on Iran converges with the Saudi strategy to counter Iran at any cost everywhere. The recent events demonstrate that convergence is a plan with mechanisms and instruments, distribution of roles, and assignment of responsibilities. That’s why Washington may do little if anything to stop a direct war between the two old adversaries. Is it a coincidence that all of a sudden US officials started to name the Persian Gulf the “Arabian Gulf”?
Even with cannons silent, the oil price is going up. One can expect a big hike in case the shipping in the Hormuz Strait is threatened! About 20 percent of the world's oil supply is exported through the strait. China is a US economic and political rival. Half of its imports originate in the Persian Gulf. By siding with Saudi-led coalition the US achieves a geopolitical goal delivering a crushing blow at China to make it plunge into economic recession with ensuing political and social repercussions.
True, fear has a quick ear but facts are stubborn things. Hariri’s resignation, the missile launched from Yemen, Bahrain’s accusations, and the US military base being built in western Iraq as well as a lot of other things are taking place by and large at the same time. All actors have hidden agendas and explanations for their actions, while the region is rapidly moving to a large-scale war.