The Saudi-Iranian conflict that followed the execution of Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr is now smoldering, but was it just an accident or is it a step towards a big war in the Middle East?
Let’s look at the background. In 2011 al-Nimr supported Shia protests in the east of Saudi Arabia. On July 8, 2012, he was arrested. On Oct 15, 2014, he was sentenced to death for “seeking foreign meddling in Saudi Arabia, disobeying its rulers and taking up arms against the security forces.
Iran was very angry. So, we might expect it to get furious if al-Nimr was executed.
On Jan 2, the Saudis executed 47 people – mostly those charged with complicity in Al Qaeda terrorist attack in 2003-2004. But five of the executed were Shias and one of them was al-Nimr.
In the east of Saudi Arabia, the protests were not very strong and the authorities were ready for them. But outside the country the protests were much stronger. In Bahrain, the Shia majority was in the streets till Jan 11-12.
In Tehran, protesters broke into the embassy. In Mashhad people put on fire the consulate. As a result, some 40 people were arrested.
On Jan 3, there was one more attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Ayatollah Khamenei said that "unfairly-spilled blood of oppressed martyr will affect rapidly and divine revenge will seize Saudi politicians."
On Jan 4, Saudi Arabia severed its diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran. Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates followed suit.
On Jan 5, Kuwait recalled its ambassador from Tehran.
On Jan 6, Erdogan appeared with charges against Iran. Qatar recalled its ambassador. Djibouti suspended all diplomatic contacts.
On Jan 7, Iran accused Saudi Arabia of attacking its embassy in Yemen. The same day Saudi Defense Minister, Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud said it was not what the Saudis could foresee. “Whoever is pushing towards that is somebody who is not in their right mind. Because a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the beginning of a major catastrophe in the region, and it will reflect very strongly on the rest of the world. For sure we will not allow any such thing,” he said.
In the meantime, Somalia severed its diplomatic relations with Iran.
On Jan 9, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (Saudi Arabia, the UEA, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman) threatened Iran with additional measures if the conflict continued. The Saudi representative even mentioned new sanctions.
On Jan 10, the chief of the general staff of the Pakistani army General Raheel Sharif said that Pakistan would immediately react to any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity. He is even alleged to say that Pakistan is ready to destroy Iran.
The League of Arab States also expressed support for Saudi Arabia.
On Jan 11, Saudi protesters attacked the intelligence building in Qatif. Iran imposed food embargo on Saudi Arabia.
On Jan 14, Comoros broke diplomatic relations with Iran.
On Jan 16, Turkey said it would deploy a military base in Qatar.
The Saudi-Iranian conflict is almost 50 years old. In the 1950s-1970s, the sides both sought to gain control over the smaller Gulf states and to get a leading role in OPEC. At that time, Iran is pro-Western, pro-Israeli and secular, while Saudi Arabia was anti-Western and anti-Israeli. But common enemies, like pro-Soviet Egypt, put the opponents on the one side of the barricades.
After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, things turned about. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states stood at the back of Saddam Hussein. In 1980-1988, they gave him a total of $30.9bn in mostly in arms. In fact, the Iraqi-Iranian war was a hybrid war of the Gulf monarchies against Iran. As a result of that war, Iran lost 900,000 men and $500bn. The tanker war of 1984 resulted in one air battle (then the Iranians lost one plane). In 1986-1988 the Saudis lost 8 ships. In 1987, there was also a clash between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi policemen in Mecca. That incident claimed as many as 275 Iranian lives.
The war made Saudi Arabia the leader in Arabia. In 1981, it formed the Gulf Cooperation Council. Under this aegis, in 1983, the Gulf monarchies began uniting their armed forces. Their defense strategy was as follows:
1. to rely upon own resources and not to ask foreign states for help;
2. to help each other;
3. to develop their joint armed forces;
4. to coordinate their arming process;
In other words, Saudi Arabia created its own economic and military bloc.
The 1990s were mostly peaceful. Iran was facing a war and sanctions. The Gulf war revealed the weakness of Saudi Arabia’s army, so, the Saudis were also calm at that time. The Gulf Cooperation Council was not developing. The only field of battle between the sides was Afghanistan, where Iran supported the Northern Alliance, while Saudi Arabia backed up the Taliban.
The new spiral of tension was registered in the mid-2000s. In 2003, the Americans toppled the Sunni regime of Hussein, which implied dominance of Shias in Iraq.
In June 2004, Shias revolted in Yemen (Zaidi insurgency). In Lebanon the pro-Saudi Almustaqbal faced resistance from Shia Amal and Hezbollah and Christians. After the second Lebanese war, Hezbollah grew even stronger.
But the worst moment for the Saudis was Shia dominance in Iraq. Three Shia parties came into power in Baghdad in Jan 2005. In June they signed a military cooperation deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia was enraged, with its Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal saying: “The Iranians now go in this pacified area that the Americans have pacified, and they go into every government of Iraq, pay money, install their own people, even establish police forces for them. And they are being protected in doing this by the British and the American forces in the area. To us it seems out of this world that you do this. We fought a war together to keep Iran from occupying Iraq after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait. Now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason.”
In other words, Shias are gaining upper hand in the Middle East and Iran is actively contributing to this. In 2004, its GDP grew by 6% and that was not only oil. The Iranians produced 63 of all steel in the region. The same year car production grew by 37%. In 2005 Iran’s GDP grew by 4.7, in 2006 by 5.8% and 2007 by 10.8%.
In Bahrain, Shias make up 75% of all residents, in Kuwait 30-45%, in the UAE 15-20%, in Qatar for 10%. In Saudi Arabia they account for 8-20% of the population but are a majority in the east of the country, where the Saudis have almost all of their oil fields. Officially, in Saudi Arabia Shias have no access to top political or military offices. But unofficial discrimination is even tougher. Nimr al-Nimr: “We were born into an atmosphere of intimidation. We feared even the walls. Who among us is not familiar with the intimidation and injustice to which we have been subjected in this country?”
In fact, today, the Saudis are facing the prospect of an Iran-led Shia crescent from Lebanon to Bahrain. As a result, they are very bellicose and this attitude is being actively encouraged by the Americans, who have been openly anti-Iranian since 2002.
For over seven years already, WikiLeaks has reported quite aggressive moods from Arabia. During the CIA Chief David Petraeus’ visit Riyadh King Abdullah urged the US to “cut off the head of the snake.”
In Feb 2009, Iran started to test its Bushehr NPP. The next day the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice charged Tehran with supporting terrorism and attempting to create a nuclear weapon. Sept saw the first direct clash between Saudis and Iran-supported forces. The former tried to help to suppress the Zaidi insurgency, with 73 soldiers killed as a result. The same year Hezbollah-led coalition gained almost half of the seats in the Lebanese parliament.
In 2009, Saudi Arabia said it was ready to have its own nuclear weapon.
In 2010, the UAE ambassador to the United States said that preventive strike at Iran was the best way to stop its nuclear program. It was the first time the “oil kings” made public their position. Later WikiLeaks quoted Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan as saying that war was the better than the prospect of Iran having a nuclear weapon.
And the words were followed by actions: the Saudis and their satellites were very active in buying arms. In 2009, Iran spent $11.8bn or 3.2% of its GDP on arms while Saudi Arabia spent $40bn or 8% of its GDP. During the same year the UAE’s military expenses made up $13bn or 6% of its GDP.
The Arab Spring of 2011 was followed by a Shia revolt in Bahrain, when the Saudis killed 84 people. In 2012, the number of protesters grew to 100,000 with Bahrain’s population being just 1.23mn. Shias were also active in Kuwait and the east of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis responded with repressions and killings.
But the key events happened outside Arabia. In Syria, the Saudis’ interests clashed with those of Qatar and Iran, in Yemen the Saudis sought to topple Saleh and to put in his place pro-Saudi Hadi but it all ended in an even stronger Houthi rule. In 2014, the civil war became open.
The arms race grew. Before Yemen the Saudi military budget was $45bn in 2010, $52.5bn in 2012, $67bn in 2013 and $80.8bn in 2014. This is almost equal to the military budget of Russia. In 2010-2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council imported 71% more arms than in 2006-2010.
The pro-Saudi bloc was developing quite quickly. In 2009 the monarchies formed a monetary union, in 2009-2011 they created a joint energy system.
In Dec 2012, they agreed to establish a joint military command. But 2011 revealed a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which ended in an open conflict in Mar 2014, when Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Doha. The conflict was settled in late 2014. As a result, in Nov 2014 the monarchies decided to form a joint navy.
One more, less evident, process developing under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, is a new cultural identity Khaleeji (Gulf) program.
Internal political factors contributed to the conflict. In Jan 2015, the Saudi throne was given to Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Salman Al Saud, who was openly anti-Shia while being Defense Minister. Just like King Fahd, Salman is from the al Sudairi clan, while his predecessor Abdullah was from the Shammar family. The first steps of Salman have shown that it is against the Al Thunayyan clan and its prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was replaced by Muhammad bin Nayef from the Al Jiluwi clan. Now he is a crown prince.
But, de facto, both the Jeluwi and Shammar clans have been set aside by Salman and his US-supported Al Sudairi clan.
The Mar 2015 intervention in Yemen was just a chance for Salman to win a “splendid little war” and to strengthen his positions. The execution of al-Nimr had the same purpose. But the unprecedented growth in the number of executions in Saudi Arabia shows that the local regime is becoming increasingly repressive.
In other words, the key factors that push Saudi Arabia to conflict with Iran are its geopolitical contradictions and clan interests.
Will the cold war grow into a hot one?
Iran is not interested in this – in fact, it has nothing to war with. Its air force is a flying museum. It has just 60 Tiger F-5s, some 40 local destroyers, 24 Chinese clones of Mig-21, 25 Tomcat F-14, 35 Mig-29s, 10 Mirage-1s. In other words, the Iranians do not have enough planes to defend its own territory. Their striking force is 65 Phantom bombers, 24 Su-24s and 5 Su-25s. But most of Iran’s planes are already exhausted. The same is true for the country’s air defense system.
The fleet is 3 old Varshavyanka diesel submarines, 4 Vosper frigates with 4 Chinese S-802 anti-ship systems, 3 corvettes and lots of mostly old boats. So, if the enemy proves to be strong in the air, Iran’s fleet will be of no use.
The only serious hope of Tehran is its anti-ship and ballistic missiles.
The core of Iran’s missile arsenal is Shakhab-3 and Ghadr. The range of Shakhab-3 is 1,300 km. its circular error probability is 200 m, but its North Korean prototype, Nodon-1, is much less precise (2.5 km). So, this missile can hardly be used for hitting even large targets. And even though reports say that Iran has 600 of them, the real figure is no more than 100. The latest modifications of the missile have a range of 2,000 and circular error probability of 30 m (this also seems to be an overstated figure) but their number is very limited. Iran also has a limited quantity of modern solid-propellant fuel missile, Sejil.
The littoral areas of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are within the reach of Iran’s Shahab-2 missiles. In the late 2000s Iran had 64 missiles systems and some 200 missiles. One more weapon that can play a “strategic” role in the conflict is Khalij Fars ballistic missile. Though its precision is overstated, it may well be able to hit big tankers and ships.
Let’s look at the other side of the Gulf. As was mentioned above, the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council are full of bellicose moods and are quite efficient in relaying them to their people. 53% of the Saudis consider Iran as their key enemy. For 22% the key enemy is ISIL, for 18% it is Israel. And their technical capacities are in line with their wishes – for even the second echelon of the Arab monarchies is armed quite well.
The air forces of the United Arab Emirates are strong that the Iranian ones as they consist of 79 F-16s and 68 Mirage 2000s.
But this cannot be compared with the capacities of Saudi Arabia, who has 82 F-15C/D, 70 F-15S, 32 Typhoons. In other words, the Saudis have 184 modern destroyers. They also have 82 Tornados and 6 airborne early warning systems.
But they are planning to buy 74 Typhoons and 74 F-15SA. As a result, they have almost as many fourth generation jet fighters as Russia has. The air defense forces have 96 Patriots.
The Saudi fleet consists of 7 frigates and 4 corvettes. In 2012-2013 the Saudis were looking for 4-6 more frigates and 5 submarines.
Their missile complex is smaller than the Iranian one. But they still have 60 Dongfeng-3 missiles (each 2.15 tons heavy and able to fly for 2,800 km). In 2014 China sold them Dongfeng-21s, missiles flying for 1,450-1,800 km.
In other words, the prevalence of the Arab monarchies in the sea and the air is huge. And even though they have fewer missiles, they are much more precise than the Iranian ones.
And one more trump the Saudis have is the support of strong Pakistan. The Pakistanis are heavily dependent on the Saudis’ assistance and the money their gastarbeiters are sending from the Gulf states. Besides, the Saudis have paid 60% of the Pakistanis’ nuclear program. So, they in Islamabad have no other way but to support their sponsors.
Still, we can hardly see the conflict to become hot in near future as the Saudis have certain problems in the military.
First, the Saudi army, including armed forces, has already shown its low efficiency in Yemen.
Second, traditionally, the Saudis solved such problems by involving men from Pakistan but the present-day Pakistani authorities are not eager to be part of Riyadh’s offensive steps. Though quite supportive in words, the Pakistanis did nothing to support the Saudis in Yemen.
Third, Saudi Arabia’s programs to modernize its army are stalling.
Fourth, as a result of the fall in oil prices, the Saudis are forced to cut their costs by 30%.
And, fifth, their excessive aggression has already been criticized by the White House.
But in mid- or long-term future the risks of a military conflict may grow. Iran has all preconditions for industrial and technological growth and if not pressured, will develop very quickly. This is a big threat for Saudi Arabia, who is heading for changes and is keen to have no more Shia factor in its internal policy. The Saudis have much more arms. So, once day they may wish to solve this problem by means of force.
The additional factor here is that Turkey is trying to interfere in the Gulf conflicts, which means that the traditional rivalry between Turkey and Iran is alive again.
And finally, we should keep in mind that the refusal of non grata regimes to use destruction weapons has never been a ground for them in the West to ease their pressure. On the contrary, they kept pressuring until they could intervene. Their standard scheme is not “destruction weapon-intervention” – on the contrary, they do not dare to intervene when there is a destruction weapon. The scheme is “destruction weapon-campaign for seizing it-attack on disarmed enemy.” This is what we witnessed in Iraq, Libya and Syria. In other words, Iran’s refusal to carry out a nuclear program will not reduce tensions but may lead to their escalation in mid- and long-term future.
If Russia wants to support Iran, it will face a bloc of states whose aggregate military budget is much bigger than the Russian one, whose missiles are already a threat for Moscow and who can easily have nuclear weapon if they wish. On the other hand, a pro-Western regime in Iran will create unacceptable geopolitical risks for the Russians.
The only reasonable scenario here is to arm Iran with modern weapons. Besides, missile defense system is not luxury but necessity for the Iranians. This is why they have rushed to buy more defense systems from Russia.