Saudi Arabia appears to be on a warpath across the Middle East. The Saudi-orchestrated resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and Saudi officials’ bellicose rhetoric after the launch of a ballistic missile targeting Riyadh from Yemen, appear to herald a new period of assertiveness against Iranian interests across the Middle East.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s sudden moves on a variety of fronts may superficially have the feel of Michael Corleone’s swift and simultaneous strikes at his family’s enemies in the closing frames of The Godfather. Unlike in the film, however, the credits are not about to roll. Rather, these are the opening moves in an ongoing contest — and it is far from clear that the 32-year-old crown prince has found a formula to reverse Iran’s advantage.
Let’s take a look at the track record so far. The confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is taking place across a swath of the Middle East in which, over the last decade, states have partially ceased to function — Iraq and Lebanon — or collapsed completely, as in the case of Syria and Yemen. A war over the ruins has taken place in each country, with Riyadh and Tehran arrayed on opposing sides in all of them.
So far, in every case, the advantage is very clearly with the Iranians. In Lebanon, Hezbollah vanquished the Saudi-sponsored “March 14” alliance of political groups that aimed to constrain it. The events of May 2008, when Hezbollah seized west Beirut and areas around the capital, showed the helplessness of the Saudis’ clients when presented with the raw force available to Iran’s proxies. Hezbollah’s subsequent entry into the Syrian civil war confirmed that it could not be held in check by the Lebanese political system.
The establishment of a cabinet dominated by Hezbollah in December 2016, and the appointment of Hezbollah’s ally Michel Aoun as president two months earlier, solidified Iran’s grasp over the country. Riyadh’s subsequent withdrawal of funding to the Lebanese armed forces, and now its push for Hariri’s resignation, effectively represent the House of Saud’s acknowledgement of this reality.
In Syria, Iran’s provision of finances, manpower, and know-how to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has played a decisive role in preventing the regime’s destruction. The Iranian mobilization of proxies helped cultivate new local militias, which gave the regime access to the manpower necessary to defeat its rivals.
Meanwhile, Sunni Arab efforts to assist the rebels, in which Saudi Arabia played a large role, ended largely in chaos and the rise of Salafi groups. In Iraq, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has developed an officially-sanctioned, independent military force in the form of the 120,000-strong Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Not all the militias represented in the PMU are pro-Iranian, of course. But the three core Shiite groups of Kataeb Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq answer directly to the IRGC.
Iran also enjoys political preeminence in Baghdad. The ruling Islamic Dawa Party is traditionally pro-Iranian, while the Badr Organization controls the powerful interior ministry, which has allowed it to blur the boundaries between the official armed forces and its militias — thus allowing rebranded militiamen to benefit from U.S. training and equipment.
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has been left playing catch up: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Riyadh in late October to launch the new Saudi-Iraqi Coordination Council, the first time an Iraqi premier had made the trip in a quarter-century. But it is not clear that the Saudis have much more up their sleeve than financial inducements to potential political allies.
In Yemen, where the Saudis have tried their hand at direct military intervention, the results have been mixed. The Houthis and their allies, supported by Iran, have failed to conquer the entirety of the county and have been kept back from the vital Bab el-Mandeb Strait as a result of the 2015 Saudi intervention. But Saudi Arabia is bogged down in a costly war with no end in sight, while the extent of Iranian support to the Houthis is far more modest.
This, then, is the scorecard of the Saudi-Iranian conflict. So far, the Iranians have effectively won in Lebanon, are winning in Syria and Iraq, and are bleeding the Saudis in Yemen.
Source » foreignpolicy