For months, reports in the international media have been highlighting the growth in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These tensions have been amplified by their competing interests in a number of other countries of the region, including Yemen and Syria, both of which have been severely damaged by civil wars. Both Saudi and Iranian officials have been making efforts to respond to that reporting in a way that ascribes to the other side the greater share of blame for the discord.
On Thursday, Reuters described some of the latest such efforts coming from the Saudi capital of Riyadh. The report quotes Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir as emphasizing that recent Saudi measures are justified by the aggression that remains on display in the actions of its chief regional rival. “Any way you look at it, they are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner,” he said. “We are reacting to that aggression and saying, ‘Enough is enough. We’re not going to let you do this anymore’.”
These remarks follow two new sources of conflict that emerged this month. Firstly, the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a missile that penetrated more deeply into Saudi territory than any other since the beginning of the more than two-year civil war, which sees a Saudi-led coalition supporting the exiled president Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi. After destroying the missile near King Khaled International Airport, the Saudis laid blame for the attack on the Iranians, who had previously been caught smuggling arms to the Houthi as well as helping to boost the missile range of other regional terrorist groups including Hezbollah.
That Lebanese militant organization was also the partial focus of the second source of conflict, namely the surprise resignation of Lebanon’s President Saad Hariri. The Saudi-backed official announced his resignation after traveling to Riyadh, where he still remains. His message described threats of assassination presumably originating from Hezbollah, which wields considerable political power and has long functioned as an arm of Iranian policy in the country on the eastern Mediterranean coast.
In his statement on Thursday, Jubeir said that Hezbollah must disarm and restrict its role to that of a political party. He added that Saudi Arabia was consulting with its allies to determine how to fulfill this goal and prevent Hezbollah from furthering Iran’s imperial aims across the Middle East. Many countries of the region are being challenged to take sides in the growing tensions between the two leading regional powers. A few, including Qatar, are stuck squarely in the Middle.
Saudi Arabia and some of its allies have been working to keep Qatar isolated in the hope of compelling it disavow former ties to Iran and come fully on board with a plan by fellow Sunni Arab states to counter the adventurism of the Persian Shiite theocracy. But so far this has reportedly encouraged the government of Qatar to drift closer to Iran while looking to it to compensate for some of the lost goods and revenue that used to come from Arab neighbors.
Some Saudi allies have refused to commit to the punishment of Qatar. Others, like Egypt, have participated in that action but have showed reticence toward other Saudi efforts to strike back against perceived Iranian aggression. The Associated Press published an article on Thursday that detailed the Egyptian government’s particular efforts to stand alongside Saudi Arabia while also discouraging the ongoing escalation of tensions with Iran.
This naturally raises questions about whether and to what extent Egypt and Arab governments will support Saudi efforts to contain Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies. In fact, the AP report quoted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi as saying that the Middle East “has enough instability and challenges as it is,” without courting a conflict centered on Hezbollah or Tehran. But this is not to say that Sissi’s government will not support targeted measures to exert pressure on Hezbollah without openly inviting real conflict. Furthermore, some regional powers may not even be inclined to impose such limits on Saudi ambitions. And somewhat surprisingly, not all such potential allies are Arab.
Newsweek ran a story on Thursday that called renewed attention the growing cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, based upon their mutual anxiety over the growth of Iranian influence in the region. The article described the first ever interview with an Arabic-language newspaper by Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of staff of the Israeli military. In it, he made an unprecedented declaration of willingness to coordinate with the Saudi kingdom, offering to share any information that advances the two countries’ “common interests”.
Eisenkot highlighted some of these common interests by calling for Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies to leave Syria. At the same time, Hezbollah and its supporters have similarly identified Saudi-Israeli common interests and have used them to suggest that the resignation of the Saudi-backed Prime Minister of Lebanon was a possible precursor to Israel launching an attack on Hezbollah. For his part, Eisenkot denied that Israel had any intention of launching such an attack, but he added, “We will not accept there being any strategic threat to Israel.”
Israel considers Iran to be not only a strategic threat but an existential one. And Hezbollah, being so close to the Jewish state, is a major factor in that threat. But similar, even if less dire threats are recognized by many governments both in the Middle East and the West. On Thursday, the Washington Examiner published an article suggesting that this recognition is leading to broad coordination of pressures against Hezbollah, which could ultimately “unravel Iran’s Middle East ambitions.”
The article described Hariri’s resignation as a serious blow to claims of legitimacy by Hezbollah, which had effectively given control of Lebanon to Iran over the previous two years. In the wake of that power shift, the US has moved to expand sanctions on the terrorist organization, and the Examiner suggests that this could support the emerging efforts by Saudi Arabia and its neighbors to diminish Hezbollah’s power. Furthermore, these efforts have seen thinly-veiled declarations of support from elsewhere in the West, as when French President Emmanuel Macron spoke in Riyadh to demand a “very demanding stance on those who could threaten any leader.”
Macron’s show of support for Saudi Arabia also extended to the other issue contributing to the recent escalation in Iranian-Saudi tensions: the development and exportation of Iranian missile technology. Reuters reported on Wednesday that the French government had called for an “uncompromising” dialogue with Iran over its ballistic missile program, possibly leading to a separate agreement to impose limits on that program.
However, the same report indicated not only that Iran had rejected this call but also that the European Union as a whole had contradicted France’s position while remaining more focused on the preservation of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. This goes to show that while many forces are lining up in opposition to the expansion of Iranian influence, there is some distance to go before consensus is reached either in the Middle East or among Western powers.