People better start waking up and paying attention to what is happening in the Middle East, because the situation is becoming quite serious.
If things go badly, we could be facing a major regional war which would involve not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also potentially the United States and Israel.
Yesterday, I quoted an article in the New York Times that warned that tensions between the Saudis and the Iranians were raising “the threat of a direct military clash between the two regional heavyweights”.
And now Jake Novak of CNBC is saying that a “direct conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as opposed to the proxy war they’re fighting in Yemen, looks inevitable.”
I put those last two words in bold so that there wouldn’t be any confusion.
In fact, Novak is warning that the Saudis “are marching ever closer towards a wider regional war”.
Novak understands the dynamics of the Middle East, and he realizes where things could be headed if cooler heads do not prevail.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have already been fighting proxy wars against one another in Syria and Iran for quite a while, but a direct military conflict between the two could literally be a nightmare scenario.
One of the primary characters in this ongoing drama is Saudi Arabia’s extremely hawkish crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He hates Iran with a passion, and he has already said that he believes that a peace dialogue with Iran is impossible.
And over the past several days, events in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have moved talk of war to the front burner…
In an article yesterday, I discussed the “purge” that is currently taking place in Saudi Arabia.
Many believe that this purge is all about removing any potential obstacles to a war with Iran.
Mohammed bin Salman and his father have made dealing with Iran their number one strategic priority, and they have even enlisted the Israelis as allies in their cause…
As is already well-known, the Saudi and Israeli common cause against perceived Iranian influence and expansion in places like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq of late has led the historic bitter enemies down a pragmatic path of unspoken cooperation as both seem to have placed the break up of the so-called “Shia crescent” as their primary policy goal in the region.
For Israel, Hezbollah has long been its greatest foe, which Israeli leaders see as an extension of Iran’s territorial presence right up against the Jewish state’s northern border.
If Saudi Arabia and Iran go to war, it is probably inevitable that Hezbollah will strike Israel at the same time, thus getting the Israelis directly involved in the conflict.
Not only that, if a major regional war does erupt in the Middle East it would almost certainly mean that the U.S. would have to get involved as well. Here is more from Jake Novak of CNBC…
But if full blown war breaks out directly between the two countries, it’s hard to see the U.S. being able to sit it out without at least some form increased weapons support and other aid.
Then it will be up to Iran’s possible allies, like Russia and China to make the next move.
If you are thinking that this sounds like the type of scenario that could cause World War III to erupt, you would be correct.
The Iranians and the Saudis both have weapons of mass destruction, and so a direct conflict between the two would seem to be unthinkable.
But rational thinking does not always prevail in the Middle East.
The conflict between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam has a long and bitter history, and the bad blood between the Saudis and the Iranians is never going to subside until one side or the other ultimately prevails.
Saudi Arabia is more aggressively confronting its rival Iran on multiple fronts. It’s a policy that risks sharpening several conflicts in the Middle East, even though so far it has failed to score any successes in stemming Tehran’s influence.
The bolder steps are largely seen as the work of the son of King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has consolidated his power. Under his leadership, the kingdom has shown a readiness to shake up the region, launching a military campaign in Yemen against rebels its sees as Iranian proxies and sparking a confrontation with Qatar in part over ties with Tehran.
Still, Iran has been able to use wars in Iraq and Syria to build a bridge of alliances stretching from its border to the Mediterranean.
The question is whether the Saudis will push even harder against Iran — and what will happen if they do. So far, the kingdom’s policies appear to have the full support of US President Donald Trump.
The past weekend saw dramatic developments connected to the kingdom that intensified regional tensions:
• Yemeni rebels fired a missile targeting the international airport in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia accused Iran of supplying the missile, saying that could be “considered an act of war.” The missile was intercepted by air defenses, but it was the deepest rebel strike in Saudi territory since the Yemen war began in 2015.
• Saudi Arabia seems to have acted to wreck Lebanon’s government that includes Iran’s powerful ally, Hezbollah. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Saudi ally, announced his surprise resignation in Riyadh, believed to be at the Saudis’ prompting.
• Crown Prince Mohammed appeared to strengthen his power at home. There were a series of arrests of princes and senior figures in what was billed as a crackdown on corruption but was widely seen as a purge of potential rivals and critics.
Direct confrontation with Iran?
Though Saudi Arabia said it reserved the right to respond over the Yemeni missile, it is unlikely to take direct military action against Iran.
The kingdom’s military is already tied down in the Yemen war, with its warplanes leading the air campaign there and troops on the border. Iran’s military is larger and more battle-hardened than Saudi Arabia’s, but the kingdom has far more advanced weaponry bought from the US and Europe in the past decade. It has a strong ally in the United Arab Emirates, which also has built a large military.
Direct military action would risk huge destabilization in the Gulf and beyond, disrupting oil shipments vital to Saudi Arabia and its allies. The kingdom is unlikely to act without a green light from Washington, where the policy has been to avoid direct confrontation with Iran.
That leaves them squaring off in proxy battles for power in the region.
That leaves them squaring off in proxy battles for power in the region.
The war in the impoverished nation on Saudi Arabia’s southern border has been a quagmire for the kingdom. In 2015, a coalition of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other allies began a campaign against the Shiite rebels known as Houthis, who they say are tools of Iran.
This prevented the Houthis and their allies from overrunning Yemen and preserved a hold in the south. But the coalition has been unable to push the rebels farther back, leaving them in control of the capital, Sanaa, and much of the north.
The Houthis’ missile launch increased tensions, and Saudi Arabia responded by intensifying its blockade of Yemen, raising fears an already dire humanitarian situation will get worse.
Neither side seems willing or able to escalate the fight, leaving a debilitating stalemate. But the missile strike underscores the potential for the conflict to grow beyond Yemen’s borders.
Hariri’s resignation was widely seen as a Saudi move against Hezbollah, the Shiite political group and guerrilla force that is Iran’s powerful arm in Lebanon and Syria.
In doing so, the Saudis demonstrated an ability to sabotage Lebanese politics, wrecking the compromise government led by Hariri that the kingdom saw as too close to Iran.
But it’s difficult to see what Saudi Arabia gained otherwise.
Hezbollah still dominates Lebanon, and nothing will shake that anytime soon. No Sunni militia or political group has the same clout...
Prominent Saudi minister Thamer al-Sabhan was quoted as blaming Iran for the instability and saying the kingdom will now treat Lebanon “as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia due to the aggression of Hezbollah.”
What is MBS? Why did Lebanon’s prime minister resign — and why in Saudi Arabia? What’s Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas doing in Saudi Arabia? Where is Jared Kushner in all this?
And what does it all mean for Israel?
Mohammed bin Salman (the MBS contraction is so cool, it’s already uncool), the recently minted Saudi crown prince, has placed a stack of his rivals under luxuriant house arrest, and Saad Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon, has resigned, saying the country was ungovernable as long as Iran interfered in its affairs.
But of course Israel is involved: When does something happen in the Middle East that does not eventually involve Israel?
Mohammed, 32, was named crown prince by his father, King Salman, in June. That in itself was an upheaval, as succession had been an opaque, delicate process aimed at preserving balance among the welter of descendants of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz. Salman’s declaration that his son would succeed him rattled the extended family.
Already the defense minister since 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed moved quickly to make clear he was in charge (his father is ailing). He placed his predecessor as crown prince under house arrest, talked repeatedly about modernizing the kingdom and made good on a promise when his father decreed that women may drive.
This weekend he rounded up another 11 princes and dozens of other high-ranking officials and placed them under house arrest, many in Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton. Officially, father and son were cracking down on corruption.
Guess who else was in Riyadh? Hariri, the Saudi-backed prime minister of Lebanon. Former prime minister, that is. He said he was quitting because Iran is controlling the country through its proxy, Hezbollah, and that he feared for his life.
Hezbollah controls a militia that dwarfs the Lebanese army in firepower, and effectively has had a veto on all things Lebanon for decades. And it is widely believed to be behind the 2005 killing of Hariri’s father, Rafik, who also was a prime minister.
This may be the same story.
Crown Prince Mohammed has, since becoming defense minister in 2015, been behind an aggressive Saudi bid to reassert dominance in the region in the face of an increasingly assertive Iran. He is driving Saudi Arabia’s war with Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Pulling Hariri out of Lebanon is a piece with a broader strategy of keeping Iran teetering.
As he guides Saudi Arabia into bolder confrontations with Iran in the region, the crown prince may feel he needs to consolidate his power at home.
“MBS has taken a very assertive approach to Saudi foreign policy,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It’s happening simultaneously with his efforts to consolidate internal control.”
Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador there who is now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said Israel should be wary of being drawn into a war with Hezbollah — one that would damage Hezbollah, a key goal of Crown Prince Mohammed, but one that would cost Saudi Arabia little and Israel plenty.
“Israel and Saudi Arabia may be strategically aligned” in seeking to contain Iran, Shapiro said, “but they are not tactically aligned.”
He said Hezbollah may take the bait, as it suffers from a blow to its ambitions to be a Lebanese unifier.
“It may accelerate the confrontation Hezbollah already wants with Israel because [war with Israel] would be a unifying event” for the Lebanese, Shapiro said.
Boghardt said the Saudis may be coordinating with Israel behind the scenes, but there are not yet incentives to make the relationship open. Henderson, joining her in a conference call for reporters, said there remained plenty of disincentives, preeminently popular opinion, noting the hostile reception for Israeli athletes at a judo competition in Abu Dhabi.
Trump may have boosted the conspiracy theories late Monday when he tweeted his support for Crown Prince Mohammed’s crackdown.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” he said on Twitter.
The Brookings Institution’s Wittes said that if anything, MBS was taking cues not from Kushner or anyone else in the Trump administration, but instead is filling a vacuum created from what at times has seemed to be a rudderless US foreign policy.
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