Saudi Arabia vs Iran: What should we expect?

The Saudi military operation, called Decisive Storm, was the first time – this century – that an Arab state took the initiative to attack Iran’s interests anywhere.

May 20, 2015 22:24

Shi'ite Muslim rebels in Sanaa, Yemen, March 26, 2013. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Saudi Arabia’s war on Houthis, Iranian loyalists in Yemen, was least expected. The Saudis did not speak much about their plans, nor did they even issue a warning. They have taken the Houthis by storm and have fully mobilized their advanced air force – the second largest in the Middle East after Israel’s.

Saudi Arabia had openly pre-set targets for the campaign: disabling Houthi militias and targeting their caches of weapons, which it achieved in a relatively short time. Now, while the Houthis still offer some resistance they no longer have the ability to operate freely in Yemen as they did before. But this is not the end of the story. The war, which was quick, has had very deep effects that will impact the region for years to come and that will have a major influence on many countries here including Israel.

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First, the Saudi military operation, called Decisive Storm, was the first time – this century – that an Arab state took the initiative to attack Iran’s interests anywhere. The Houthis are generously financed and equipped by their fellow Shi’ites, the Iranians. They are considered Iran’s army in the Arab Peninsula, just like Hezbollah is Iran’s puppet in Lebanon.

Before the Saudi strikes, Houthis had taken control of most of Yemen, including the capital, thus stretching Iran’s influence to the mouth of the Red Sea, something Iran has never been able to do before; Iran could have disrupted navigation through the Red Sea and targeted Saudi towns bordering Yemen.

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Saudi Arabia’s choice to fight Houthis was least expected by Iran itself – in fact, it could have never happened were it not for the 30-something Saudi deputy crown prince, Muhammad bin-Salman.

The young Saudi royal has led a campaign to convince the Saudi monarchy to fight Iran single- handedly. At the same time, he had to convince the Obama administration to support the war, and was able to present a good argument: the war has put Iran in a much weaker position at the negotiation table with the US over its nuclear program, especially as Iran’s allies Assad and Hezbollah are losing more ground to Syrian rebels.

The American contribution to the war centered around vital intelligence, as the Saudis did not need any jets, having enough of their own. In fact they are one of only four countries that operate F-15s.

But what does all of this mean? It means a young Saudi royal, Muhammad bin-Salman, was able to humiliate Iran before the world by ruthlessly attacking its only allies in Arabia, the Houthis, and Iran could not do a thing for them. Just before the war, Iran’s media was speaking of sending soldiers to support the Houthis, and also of sending military supplies. None of that materialized; Salman has shown Iran that Saudi Arabia can inflict serious damage on it. This is unprecedented in modern Arab history.

For one, Salman’s war in Yemen has exposed Iran’s weakness. Iran has been verbally threatening everyone in the region in recent years, and after the nuclear talks began with the US seemed to some to be untouchable. Salman has shown this not to be the case, slapping Iran in the face and not even worrying about any so-called consequences, despite the fact that Iran has always warned it could “fire up Saudi Arabia” and “destabilize the Saudi throne.”

What does this mean for Israel? It means that Israel is not the only state in the region willing to punish Iran militarily; it also means Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right when he addressed the US Congress warning it of Iran.

Also, it means any future military moves, or attacks, Israel could make against Iran will be welcomed and in fact praised by Arabs, not only with words, but with action. While Saudi Arabia may not have political ties to Israel, still Iran now has to worry that an Israeli military strike could be combined with Saudi strikes on Iran’s loyalists anywhere, including Syria.

The Saudis, Salman in particular, have been candid about their willingness to extend their operations to Syria, which means Assad, Hezbollah and Iran’s loyalists in general have never been in a more fragile position – not because of Saudi Arabia’s military might but because Saudi Arabia has public Arab support for its military operations in Yemen. In fact, Arab social media has been overflowing with praise for Salman and Saudi Arabia.

Before the Saudi operations began, many called Israel crazy for wanting to counter Iran’s hostility with military action. now Saudi Arabia has set an example of possibly the best method to silence Iran.

Also, the Saudi deputy crown prince, has established himself as a strong man willing to take the fight to Iran rather than just await Iran’s actions.

While his father is known for his very close sympathy with the Palestinians, both he and his son are known for their ruthlessness toward terrorist and political recklessness in general.

Yes, there may never be “peace talks” between Saudi Arabia and Israel, nonetheless, the world and Israel know there is a sane and capable power in the Arab world now, called Saudi Arabia under King Salman and his son, Muhammad.

On the other hand, the war is not exactly over; since the Saudis announced the end of operations in Yemen, the Houthis had been trying to target Saudi border towns, and Saudi jets have ruthlessly responded each time. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia seems to still have the upper hand there, and that is more bad news for Iran, which is now going through more or less attrition in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and possibly soon Lebanon.

A bold Saudi confrontation with Iran, even if by proxy, is the last thing Iran needed now, as is the prominence of a strong Saudi heir to the throne, who seems to hate Iran’s bullying with a passion.

In short, for now, there is good news for all of us concerned about Iranian destabilization of our region.

Mudar Zahran is a Jordanian Palestinian who resides in the UK.

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