Saudi Arabia Throws the First Punch, but Comes off Worse


Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ

9th January, 2016


Saudi Arabia has found a way to respond to the attack of its Embassy in Tehran. The Royal Air Force attacked the Iran Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a.

According to some reports, the strike was not on the Embassy building but on nearby objects, which then scattered in the explosion shards of stone and concrete that damaged the Embassy and inflicted injuries to the guards. However, the Iranians took the strike as a direct attack on their diplomatic mission.

“This deliberate and conscious action of the Saudi authorities is a violation of all international conventions and norms of international law” — said the outraged official representative of Iranian Foreign Ministry, Husain Ansari Jaberi.

The Riyadh-led coalition, in the spring of last year, launched air strikes on Yemen, explaining that their goal was not the Iranian Embassy, but the Houthi rocket launchers.

However, the truth is on the side of the Iranians – in the background of all the events unfolding in Iran-Saudi relations, it was not a sin to bomb the Iranian embassy in Sana’a. Recall that Saudi Arabia and Iran have long been in a state of cold war.

However, in the new year, after a very strong reaction of Iran to the death of Shiite preacher Nimr al-Nimr, the conflict actually escalated into an open phase. On January 4th, Saudi Arabia broke relations with Iran, who responded with an embargo on Saudi goods, and now there is a serious public escalation of the relations between the two countries.

Of course, in this conflict the parties have certain red lines. So, any direct military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not an option as none of the parties can afford to initiate direct military action.

Iran won’t attack Saudi Arabia because that will immediately activate the Quincy Pact (defense agreement between the Saudis and the US), and Riyadh cannot attack the Islamic Republic because they have nothing to attack. However, inside these red lines the parties virtually have a free hand, and they are trying to weaken each other by inflicting painful blows.

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Apparently, the attack on the Iranian Embassy in Sana’a was “accidental”, but it became one of shock.

“This is not only a response to the defeat of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, but continual provocation of Iran, forcing them to retaliate. According to reports from the Iranian side, the action was carried out so that human sacrifices would be qualitatively different from what happened in Tehran. This series of provocations will continue, I think.  The most unfavourable development could be a blow to the Iranian embassy in Beirut that, taking into account the positions of both Iran and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, could lead to a new wave of sectarian war in Lebanon,” says Iran expert Sevak Sarukhanyan.

Recall that in November 2013, militants had staged an attack near the building of the Iranian embassy in Beirut (during which more than two dozen people were killed, including Iranian cultural attaché Ibrahim Ansari).

Perhaps, if Saudi Arabia was really interested in igniting a sectarian confrontation in Lebanon, it would at least distract Hezbollah from the Syrian Affairs, and as a maximum, cause the outcome of a confrontation with the Iranian army. Additionally, Riyadh can support both the Syrian and Iraqi civil war, where related entities are fighting against the Pro-Iranian government.

For the Iranians the most effective tool to weaken Saudi Arabia is the Yemeni conflict. Firstly, because, unlike Syria and Iraq, it does not require active and costly Iranian presence.

“Cooperation between Tehran and Houthis has deepened, but it is certainly not the level of relationship that Iran has with the Syrian government or the Shias in Iraq. Tehran has no control over the Houthis, Iranian advisers and military also does not help the Houthis,” says Sevak Sarukhanyan.

Secondly, the conflict in Yemen directly threatens the security of Saudi Arabia — Yemen is the “Shiite underbelly” of Saudi Arabia and has huge potential for export to the unstable Shiite-populated southern provinces of the Kingdom. This is actually a dagger aimed at the heart of Saudi.

Until Riyadh will cut it out and deal with the Houthis and deprive them of their military capabilities (the Houthis not only successfully defend their territory from Saudi attacks, but also regularly invade the territory of Saudi Arabia and hold local military operations and capture their bases), until then we cannot talk about any serious saudi expansion in the region.

Finally, thirdly, the inability of Saudi Arabia to deal with the threat on its own borders generates in the minds of the Gulf (nominal allies of Riyadh) serious questions about the capacity of the Saudis and the advisability of further orientation of the Kingdom.

There are, of course, countries that are not going to leave Riyadh’s gravity (for example, Bahrain is occupied by Saudi troops after the “Pearl revolution”), but others have freedom of choice. And it is highly symptomatic that only a few states followed the example of Saudi Arabia and broke diplomatic relations with Iran.

And similarly, Egypt (which receives Saudi support), refused such a move and preferred to take a neutral position. Therefore, despite the airstrike on the Iranian Embassy, while the ongoing cold war continues the advantage is on the side of the Ayatollahs.

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