By: Nir Boms and Shayan Arya
The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been escalating beyond rhetoric and is fast moving into an actual military confrontation. Following a long round of proxy moves from Yemen – as well as an attempts to stop oil tankers in the Persian gulf – Iran have crossed another escalation threshold with a recent a missile attack on the Saudi Abqaiq oil field. Condemnations and additional sanctions have already taken their course and seem to have frustrated the Islamic regime even further. Yet, these measures did not stop Iranian actions such as last week seize of another ship as well as the announcement on newusage of advanced centrifuges in violation of the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Judging from current trajectory, these last moves will again likely to result in additional rounds of sanction or “limited escalations.” However, sooner or later, a new strategy will be required as the current one is having little effect on Iran’s motivation to destabilize oil markets and continue it’s path of nuclear and proxy confrontation.
Few seek another war in the Middle East. But will that likely leave the victory in the hands of Iran’s supreme leader and its top military operator, Qasem Suleimani?
The rivalry between Iran’s Shi’ite Islamic regime and Sunni Saudi Arabia is not a new development nor it is the result of policy misunderstandings. It is an old dispute, almost as old as Islam itself and dating to the day Prophet Muhammad died and the Shiite- Sunni schism over his successor began. The climax took place in the year 680 when Hussein ibn Ali (Muhammad’s grandson) and his household were killed by the ruling Umayyad Caliph Yazid I, in the battle of Karbala. This battle over the succession of Islamic Umma has not yet ended. Both, the Islamic regime in Iran as well as that in Saudi Arabia claims a supreme position in the Muslim world that has only room for one of them. And patiently, the battle continues and not without strategic calculations.
Bbeleaguered by crippling sanctions, Iran’s Islamic regime sees escalation as the only way out of the corner it finds itself. It’s leaders count on a broader lack of appetite for yet another war in the Middle East as well as on Saudi’s historically cautious approach and desire to avoid a military confrontation with Iran. Saudi Arabia -with its top of the line petrochemical industries – has much more to lose from a full-scale war compared to Iran with its crippled and crumbling oil and petrochemical industries. And these are not the only reasons that help Iran assume that it can continue with a path of escalation knowing that its adversaries are not likely to turn the tables:
Trump’s resistance to another military confrontation in the region plays another important card for Iran in the Persian Gulf, where increasing frustrations may put a wedge between the US and the GCC. After all, why should the Arab Gulf countries rely on US while their infrastructures are attacked by Iran despite a significant American presence on their land? By resisting a military response to Iran’s attack on Saudi oil fields, President Trump is unintentionally doing what Iran has tried to do for the past four decades and failed: drive The Persian Gulf countries away from US.
Iran’s leaders also seem to count on Russia and China to block a direct military attack by the U.S under UN security council support. After all, they didn’t sign lucrative economic agreements with two permanent members of the security council – China and Russia – without a tacit understanding that they will block any UN resolution authorizing an attack.
Islamic regime also assumes that this show of force and lack of Western response will help silence an increasingly restless and hostile populace. It should be noted that less than two years ago – and not for the first time – a spontaneous uprising engulfed more than 140 cities and towns in Iran with calls for the abolishment of the Islamic regime and restoration of Iranian monarchy.
In short, counting on GCC fears, Russian support and American hesitation, the Islamic regime seeks to have a war in its own terms. And unless a different strategy is enforced by the US and it’s allies, Iran will continue to appear as the winner in this dangerous chess game: it will avoid a war and see little response to it’s belligerency; continue to suppress internal decent to assure its survival; damage the US-GCC while avoid action by UN security council and, lastly, give China and Russia the opportunity to enter the Persian Gulf.
At the end, it may also force a war that will be fought in its own terms. Changing these terms is not an easy task – but a possible one. It involves pointing to a different path of harsher responses as well as clearer help to the Iranian people who seek to change this radical revisionist regime. Hopefully, before the third Gulf war is launched.
Dr. Boms is a professor at the Dayan Center for Middle East Studies. Mr. Arya is a member of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran