Saudis' bolder moves to confront Iran echo across region
By AYA BATRAWY and LEE KEATH, Associated Press
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — 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 U.S. 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.
How Saudi policies are affecting different countries of the Middle East:
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 U.S. 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.
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 war has killed more than 10,000 civilians and pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of famine. It also has drained Saudi resources at a time of already lower oil prices. Saudi troops have largely stayed out, relying instead on airstrikes. The crown prince has said a ground invasion would cost too many Saudi lives.
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.
A Houthi-linked army spokesman said the rebels will continue to target Saudi airports and also threatened to hit the UAE. That seems unlikely, since Dubai is one of Iran’s top trading partners and home to a significant number of Iranians and Iranian businesses.
Iran has backed the Houthi rebels, but denies arming them. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif dismissed Riyadh’s accusations over the missile, saying Saudi Arabia blames Iran for the consequences of the kingdom’s own “wars of aggression, regional bullying, destabilizing behavior and risky provocations.”
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, and few Sunnis want to risk a destabilizing fight with Hezbollah. The Saudi intervention only made many Lebanese, including some Hariri supporters, resent the kingdom, fearing it will upset the delicate power-sharing structure among Lebanon’s Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and other communities. The country will probably be stuck without an effective government — or a weak, provisional one.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi criticized it as a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi plot to cause tension in Lebanon.
The fear is that Saudi Arabia will push the situation further somehow to try to set back Hezbollah. That could potentially destabilize Lebanon, which saw bloody clashes between the guerrilla force and Sunni rivals in the mid-2000s.
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.”
After six years of war in Syria, Iran and its ally President Bashar Assad are prevailing over mainly Sunni rebels, many of them backed by Saudi Arabia.
Iran has intensified its influence in Syria, with its own forces and fighters from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias battling alongside Assad’s troops. Iran’s direct intervention and Russia’s air campaign rescued Assad and turned the tide in his favor, recapturing large stretches of territory.
As international pressure on Assad to step down recedes, Saudi Arabia’s effort to push Iran out of Syria has crumbled.
Still, the kingdom is trying to hold influence in the mainly Sunni areas that remain out of Assad’s hands. Saudi warplanes helped in the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State group. A Saudi envoy recently went to the Syrian city of Raqqa, newly retaken from IS, to discuss a Saudi role in reconstruction.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain cut relations with neighboring Qatar in June over the tiny Gulf state’s ties with Iran and its support of Islamist groups.
The diplomatic rift has played out to Iran’s advantage. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE barred Qatari aircraft from their airspace, Qatar used Iranian airspace. When Saudi Arabia sealed Qatar’s only land border, it looked toward Iran and Turkey to fill the gap.
Despite repeated efforts by Washington to encourage dialogue and resolve the standoff, the Saudis and Emiratis demand a number of concessions from Qatar, many of which Qatar has rejected.
Keath reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Maggie Michael in Cairo, Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed.