Fear over Iran Guides Saudi Arabia’s Irrational Foreign Policy


Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on April 25, 2016. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh on April 25, 2016. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

Mohammad bin Salman, the young deputy crown prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and reportedly the most powerful figure behind the monarchy, seemed satisfied with President Donald Trump’s state visit to the Saudi capital of Riyadh on May 20. Trump was wined and dined, and nearly $400 billion in deals were signed between the two countries. The speech Trump delivered in the Saudi capital touched on subjects the hosts were most eager to hear about: the calling out of Iran for its totalitarianism, despite its recent and highly participated in elections (whereas Saudi Arabia does not elect its leaders), and old, repeated accusations declaring it to be the “greatest sponsor of terrorism.” Not only is there no evidence to support that claim, but the vast majority of the State Department’s designated list of terror groups are Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded.

It is no secret that the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran, two influential Muslim powers, carry enmity towards each other. Both are seen by political observers as engaging in a sort of Sunni versus Shia proxy war in the Middle East, with battlegrounds that include Yemen, Iraq and Syria. But the Saudi leadership is growing extremely afraid of its adversary and what it will do next. A 2015 Wikileaks report unveiled Saudi documents that outlined their fixation on what they consider to be Iran’s malign role in the region. The New York Times said the contents of the document resembled the country’s “obsession” with the Islamic Republic. Saudi Arabia’s inability to convince the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” and declare war against Iran at its behest has been filling the kingdom with angst, and, to make matters worse, its own military has failed so far in combatting “Shi’ite influence.” In their hapless war against the ragtag Houthi rebels of Yemen, the state-of-the-art Saudi military, backed by tens of billions in funding per year, has been so far unable to achieve any significant battlefield victories. For this, they blame Iran. The Islamist rebels Saudi Arabia spent money supporting in Syria to fight the Assad regime are now on the verge of being defeated, with the Assad regime winning back the former rebel stronghold of Aleppo and the militants retreating to Idlib. Saudi Arabia blames Iran for this as well. The monarchy’s delusions that the country’s eastern coast, populated largely by Shia Muslims in contrast to Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Salafist majority, holds dual loyalty for the government of Iran and has led the Saudi government to take bizarre courses of action, such as engaging in mass arrests of residents of that region. While Saudi Arabia builds resentment among its own Shia citizens by persecuting them, the kingdom attempts to justify its actions through its usual rhetoric: blaming Iran.

Iran has played a role in the Middle East providing arms and funding to militant groups, many of whom have opposed Saudi regional ambitions. Several militias in Syria combating al-Qaida and ISIS have been trained by Iran, and allegations of Iran supplying Houthi rebels in Yemen are still circulating in mainstream media, though evidence is dubious considering the Saudi land, sea and air blockade of the country. For these activities, Iran pays a price, as it faces sanctions implemented by Congress and unfounded accusations by figures in mainstream media, which has been propagated in large part by the kingdom’s massive PR apparatus in Washington, D.C.

As Saudi Arabia has grown desperate in attempting to limit Iran’s reach and the United States has grown more pragmatic in realizing the inevitability of Iran becoming a regional power, a development that would have been considered impossible just a few decades ago has begun to evolve. Saudi Arabia has quietly aligned itself with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel, another fellow Iran-obsessor, as they both engage in paranoia against the exaggerated influence of the ayatollahs, some of whom are likely flattered by the depth of their perceived influence.

Clearly, for the Saudi monarchy, countering the perceived “Shia Crescent” is the first priority. Saudi Arabia’s readiness to spend $110 billion on additional weapons and another $200 billion on investing in American infrastructure may have been a surprise to observers who are aware of the country’s deep economic problems. It was not shocking, however, to weapons companies cognizant of the monarchy’s Iranophobia. Though oil prices remain low and Saudis are finding themselves unable to diversify their petroleum-reliant economy due to their education system being in “a firm grip of Wahhabi fundamentalists” and unable to adequately prepare citizens of the kingdom for professional jobs, government leaders still see fighting an illusory Iranian threat to its security as taking precedence. Many would argue that the deal made with the United States was not just about weapons, but also a measure that Trump would firmly take the kingdom’s side in countering what they believe to be their biggest geopolitical adversary and greatest threat to the stability of the kingdom. The Saudis may have been under the impression that the United States, under Trump, would be willing to do to Iran what it did to Saddam’s Iraq after 1991: sanction it to the point of starvation, bomb its military sites and wreak havoc on its ability to maintain any influence outside of its borders.

But in 2017, U.S. assurances will only go so far. Trump has shown no indication of wanting to overthrow the Iranian client regime of Bashar al-Assad, nor has he ordered any direct attacks against Houthi rebels in Yemen. And considering Trump ran a campaign centered around criticism of the expensive and disastrous Iraq War, he likely does not want to find himself entangled in war against a far more powerful Iran, especially at the behest of back-stabbing Saudi monarchs. Even breaking the nuclear deal, a stated goal of the Republicans in Congress, is no longer discussed, and an Iranian deal to buy Boeing planes is well underway. The United States may be vocally supportive of the geopolitical aspirations spouted by the Saudi monarchy, but when it comes to concrete action and military support, it seems that even $400 billion is not enough to get the United States to entertain Saudi Arabia’s fantasies of bringing about regime change in Iran. Whether the kingdom’s sybaritic monarchy truly wants to intensify the proxy-war that it has been already losing against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – a massive military network led by war-hardened revolutionaries with renowned tactical skills – is a choice the Saudis will have to make, but the consequences may be dire.

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