And over the past several days, events in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have moved talk of war to the front burner…
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…
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.
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.
Direct confrontation with 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.
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.”
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.
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.