With Islamic State routed everywhere, the threat of plunging the Middle East into a large-scale war has not diminished, but, on the contrary, it has grown. There are signs that a Saudi-Iran conflict, threatening to activate new fronts in the region, is imminent. The struggle between these countries for political and religious influence has geopolitical implications that extend far beyond the waters of the Persian Gulf and encompass nearly every major conflict zone in the region. With tensions running high, a spark is enough to start a big fire at any moment.
Eleven of Saudi Arabia’s richest and most influential businessmen and politicians were detained in a corruption probe by the Crown Prince’s Mohammed bin Salman’s anti-corruption committee over the weekend. Separately, the minister of the Saudi National Guard, who controlled the branches of the military that weren’t yet under the crown prince’s control, was replaced by King Salman. “Nothing like this has ever happened before in the history of Saudi Arabia, giving the sense the kingdom is entering into unchartered waters with unknown consequences,” David Ottaway, Middle East Fellow at the Wilson Center, said in a statement. He added the actions “could well threaten the House of Saud’s stability for years to come.”
The views on what happened in Saudi Arabia may differ but one thing is certain – the power in the kingdom is being consolidated against the background of possible conflict with Iran. The consolidation is taking place as Riyadh becomes increasingly determined to adopt a more assertive foreign policy and pursue a more aggressive approach toward what it sees as an Iranian threat.
A ballistic missile – a Burkan 2-H Scud-type missile with a range of more than 800 km – fired from Yemen towards Riyadh was intercepted on November 4. It was seen by the Saudi-led military coalition as a “dangerous escalation” by the Iran-allied Houthi militia in Yemen. All air, land and sea ports to Yemen were temporarily closed to stem the flow of arms to Houthi rebels from Iran.
On November 6, Saudi Arabia made a statement, citing evidence that Tehran was behind the strike and labelling it a potential “act of war.” According to it, an examination of the debris confirmed the role of Iran’s regime in manufacturing ballistic missiles and smuggling them to the Houthi militias in Yemen for the purpose of attacking the kingdom. The document accused Iran of violating United Nations Security Council Resolution 2216, which prohibits states from supplying weapons to Yemeni armed groups.
On November 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his snap resignation from government, triggering a crescendo of war drums. The resignation was unprecedented as it was announced in a televised address from an undisclosed location in Riyadh. It came in the context of Saudi’s renewed push to confront Iran.
Hariri, a pro-Saudi politician and the leader of Lebanon’s Sunni bloc, accused Tehran of sowing “disorder and destruction” in Lebanon. He also said: “Iran has a wild desire to destroy the Arab world,” and vowed that “Iran’s hands in the region will be cut off.” The PM also accused Hezbollah, a Lebanese pro-Iran political and armed movement, for building “a state within a state”. Hariri said his life was in danger.
Lebanon is split along sectarian and political lines with parts of the country closer to Riyadh and others closer to Tehran. The PM’s resignation is likely to plunge it into a political quagmire, as the country’s fragile coalition government suffers a severe blow and general elections set for May appear uncertain. The move is seen as the demonstration of Riyadh’s will to confront Iran in Lebanon. According to Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah, the unprecedented resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister was imposed by Saudi Arabia.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the resignation was “a wakeup call to the international community to take action against the Iranian aggression that is trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon“. Bahrain ordered on November 5 its citizens in Lebanon to “leave immediately”, amid mounting tension between the regional rivals.
The Syrian military and its allies have converged on holdout Islamic State (IS) group fighters in the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor, the militants’ very last urban bastion, following a string of losses. Iraqi Shia pro-Iranian Hashd al-Shaabi paramilitaries crossed the border to approach the IS stronghold.
Pro-US Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are also making fresh gains in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province in an attempt to seize Albu Kamal ahead of Syria and Iraqi Shia forces. The rival forces may be heading for a fight. Kurds and their SDF Arab allies are Sunni Muslims, a clash with Syria’s Shia allies would be seen as a Sunni vs. Shia conflict. Neither Iran nor the Saudi Arabia-led coalition will stand idly by.
The US has taken the side of Saudi Arabia to exclude its involvement in any potential mediation effort. It is overtly hostile to Iran. Besides, if a conflict sparks, US oil exporting frackers will gain.
Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Tehran on November 1 to address the problems of Middle East security. The Russian president and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran and Moscow are “strategic partners”. Saudi King Salman visited Russia in early October. If mediation to prevent the worst is possible, nobody else is better placed to assume a mediating role in the supercharged atmosphere than Moscow. Meanwhile, the Middle East’s longest-running cold war is about to turn hot.