Saudi-Iran tensions increase as King condemns Tehran
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz poses for a photo during his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 20, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman called for the international community to take a firm stance against Iran. The remarkable speech seeks to confront the Iranian regime’s threats to international peace and security, he said. He also argued that appeasement would not work with the Islamic Republic.Iranian media and officials slammed Riyadh’s comments.
What is driving the sudden decision for Saudi Arabia to speak up more strongly from the highest level about Iran’s threats, and what are Iran’s likely responses?
The speech was aimed at the 75th United National General Assembly now taking place until the end of the month, and comes in the wake of the UAE and Bahrain agreeing to normalization with Israel. The decision by regional states to begin a new round of relations with Israel is seen as part of a wider regional strategic consensus that is linked to Riyadh’s own support for its allies working with Israel.Saudi Arabia has been threatened by Iran for decades and Tehran has increased its rhetoric against Riyadh and its Gulf allies in recent years. The Islamic Republic regularly condemns these states, arguing they have betrayed the Palestinian cause and are working with Israel and the US. Iran views America as a great evil and has vowed to “resist” the United States and the Jewish state. This “resistance” takes the form of attacks across the Middle East.Iran has threatened Saudi Arabia in recent years by arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Tehran provides drone and ballistic missile technology. It also used 25 drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia last September. The king’s comments are therefore basically on the one-year anniversary of the attack on Abqaiq. That attack was unprecedented and was an act of war, but the kingdom acted with restraint. Riyadh has acted with less restraint in Yemen, having intervened in 2015 in the conflict there. Saudi Arabia now wants that war to end – and it has shifted to demand more action against Iran. RIYADH'S COMMENTS come as Iran is working more closely with Russia and China to get around US sanctions. Iran is also waiting for the arms embargo to expire. The US says Tehran is working with North Korea to develop longer range missiles. Iran has rapidly expanded its drone and missile arsenal in recent years. It says that it makes most of its weapons locally and will soon export arms. But Iran is pressured financially by the US.Saudi Arabia is concerned that an emboldened Iran, free from the arms embargo, could conduct more attacks. Iran has used proxies in Iraq and Yemen to strike Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia judges that this could get worse. It could also get worse because Iran and Turkey look to be coordinating actions in some areas of the region, especially against Israel.In addition, there are allegations that Qatar may even be funneling money now to the Houthis in Yemen. Recent coverage has accused Qatar of financing drones there. Saudi Arabia led the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to break relations with Qatar in 2017. Saudi Arabia is contrasting its policies with those of Iran. "We in the Kingdom, based on our position in the Islamic world, assume a special and historical responsibility, which is to protect our tolerant Islamic belief from attempts to distort them by terrorist organizations and extremist groups," the king said. Salman also said Hezbollah should be disarmed and called for peace talks with Libya. Turkey has been illegally arming Tripoli-based forces in Libya. He also spoke about his strong support of peace with Israel, but wanted to see the Arab peace plan of the early 2000s as the basis of that peace.The Islamic Republic condemned the kingdom. "The Saudi regime's support and alignment with the United States is continuing the failed policy of maximum pressure against Iran, trying to expand relations with the occupying Zionist regime and ransoming billions of dollars to others from the pockets of the people of that country,” an Iranian statement said. SAUDI ARABIA appears to be seeking to preempt more Iranian aggression by warning about Iran’s role in the region. This is also a message to Riyadh’s allies: that they are on the right path in terms of openness to Israel and confronting Iranian aggression. The main challenge for Saudi Arabia will be to confront an Iranian asymmetric attack, like the one on Abqaiq, or one from Yemen and Iraq.The kingdom also wants to be clear prior to the US election on where it stands. criticism of Saudi Arabia has increased in recent years in America amid partisan divides on foreign policy. This means that whereas Washington was once a close ally of Riyadh in the 1990s, there are now more calls for US policy to be colder to the kingdom, or withdrawing more from the Middle East.This policy shift received more headwind during the Obama administration, but the Trump administration reversed things, returning to a close relationship with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is showing it is not hedging its bets, but wants more close work with the US and also other allies in the region, such as Egypt and the UAE.Iran’s goal is to try to embarrass Saudi Arabia and its allies through using weapons like drones or missiles and exporting those weapons to groups in Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Baghdad wants to undermine Riyadh’s traditional role in Lebanon and elsewhere. Similarly, Turkey wants to do the same by displacing Saudi Arabia as a leader of the Islamic world. This is why Turkey has changed Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque and vowed to “liberate Al-Aqsa.”Saudi Arabia’s speech at the UN and calls to confront Iran seek to restore its leadership and draw a line of clarity around Iran’s destabilizing actions. Iran wants to undermine Riyadh and show it can strike at Saudi Arabia’s allies, but it is concerned about US reactions if it harms civilians or US military personnel. The calculations before the American election will include these concerns by Tehran not to provoke the US – which would give the Trump administration an excuse to strike at Iran or its proxies.
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