TEHRAN, Iran — Hundreds of Iranian pilgrims were killed in the Sept. 24 stampede in Mina, near Mecca. The incident was followed by Saudi negligence in reporting the situation on time, and failure to collaborate with Iranian authorities. This prompted Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to call on Saudi Arabia to apologize to the “Muslim world” and Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei also accused Riyadh of not fulfilling its obligations in returning the bodies of the Iranian pilgrims, and behaving “maliciously.” He further warned, “The slightest disrespect to tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims in Mecca and Medina as well as the Saudi government’s refusal to fulfill its duties with regard to the transfer of the pure corpses [of those killed during the hajj] will elicit a harsh and tough reaction from Iran.”
Meanwhile, upon the Oct. 3 return of the bodies of 104 Iranian pilgrims, President Hassan Rouhani issued an additional warning. He said, “So far, our language has been one of brotherhood. When necessary, we have used the language of diplomacy; however, if needed, the language of authority will be used as well.”
Indeed, on the very same day, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said, “The IRGC has prepared all its possible potentials in order to fulfill the will of the great leader of the Islamic Revolution and make the Saudi dynasty answer for the crimes it committed in Mina and restore the rights of the victims. We are ready and are awaiting orders.” Jafari added, “The Muslim World is tired of the Saudis’ betrayals and ignorance, which reminds us of Abu Lahab, including the massacre of the people of Yemen, displacement of the poor people of Syria, repression of the people of Bahrain, ethnic massacres in Iraq, creation of ethnic tension and support of terrorism. The Saudis shall melt in the anger of the Muslims.”
Lastly, former IRGC Cmdr. Mohsen Rezaei, who is also adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, warned Riyadh, “Don’t play with fire, because the fire will burn you … don’t follow the example of Saddam [Hussein], who in the middle of the Iraq-Iran War had no way out.”
In response, Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of playing politics with the stampede. “I think the Iranians should think of more productive activities than to play politics with a tragedy that has befallen those people who were performing their most sacred religious duty,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told the UN General Assembly. Mindful of the increasingly hostile rhetoric, the question arises of what the “harsh and tough reaction” that Iran has warned of could potentially constitute.
In general, harsh reaction translates into military action. Iran has just finished its negotiations with the six world powers over its nuclear program, and thus considers itself to be in a stronger position. Separately, Iran also assesses that Saudi Arabia is in a desperate situation in Yemen. Therefore, in the case of a possible military confrontation with Saudi Arabia, there are several scenarios that Tehran could consider:
- A ground campaign. For this kind of campaign to be possible, Iran would need to cross both Iraq and Kuwait. Neither of these countries will allow Iran to enter their territory in order to attack Saudi Arabia. Therefore, this option is not on the table. In addition, such a military campaign requires a large and well-equipped army as well as logistical, financial and economic abilities enjoyed by a superpower. Iran is only considered a mid-level power in the region. There is also the historical example of the US reaction to Iraq’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait for Iran to consider.
- A naval campaign. This would mean that Iran has to travel a distance of 200 miles to reach the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. Such a campaign is impossible considering the Iranian armed forces’ lack of strategic depth vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia, as the latter has the advantage of controlling the sea from land.
- Supporting allies in proxy wars. This would mean that Iran will, more determinedly than ever, support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against opposition forces. Tehran would also support Hezbollah against pro-Saudi elements of the Lebanese government, as well as in Israel, and the Houthis in Yemen. Of course, while supporting Hezbollah and Assad is possible and easy, it is more difficult to give military support to the Houthis since Yemen is under naval blockade. Moreover, UN Resolution 2216 forbids provision of military support to the Houthis. Iran can, however, achieve this goal via smugglers and private contractors.
- Restricting Saudi access to the Strait of Hormuz. Considering Iran’s familiarity with the Strait of Hormuz and the military advantages that it enjoys in this regard, this option is possible. The problem, however, is that this scenario can lead to a battle of tankers, as it did toward the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Indeed, Saudi ships could be prompted to raise a third party flag. In addition, this scenario will give an excuse to world powers to increase their military presence in the Persian Gulf, which runs counter to Iran’s objectives.
- Destroying the bridge that connects Saudi Arabia to Bahrain. The King Fahd Causeway, which is 25 kilometer (15.5 miles) long, was used for the first time in December 1986. If the bridge is destroyed by high-explosives missiles from the air, the Saudi military support for Bahrain is likely to decrease, which will in turn weaken the Bahraini regime. If such an attack is carried out, and Iran at the same time manages to provide opposition groups in Bahrain with logistic and military support, the Bahraini regime is likely to collapse. However, considering that the United States maintains a military presence in Bahrain, it is not possible for Iran to conduct a direct military campaign against Bahrain.
- Supporting the Shiite population of Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, with the condition that in case of receiving military and logistic support, the Shiites of Saudi Arabia will rebel with the aim of toppling the Saudi government. Considering that Saudi Arabia has built a very long wall on its border with Iraq, and also considering the distance between the Shiite-inhabited region of Saudi Arabia and Iran, this is hardly a probable option. In addition, there are doubts about whether Saudi Shiites will in fact rebel against their government if provided with such support.
- Firing missiles at Saudi Arabia. As Iran is equipped with multiple types of missiles, it can hit a variety of targets inside Saudi Arabia. Since Saudi Arabia does not have the necessary infrastructure for an effective air defense, such as an Iron Dome, an Iranian missile attack will be effective. The problem, however, is that in such a scenario, Saudi Arabia and its allies will destroy Iran's oil infrastructure in retaliation.
Considering the options above, and existing limitations, any “harsh” response on the part of Iran will likely be limited to options three through six above. Of course, in case of any kind of confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf — minus Oman — and more than likely the United States and Israel, will offer their complete support to Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, as history has shown, a country’s desire to start a military campaign is not always logical. Iran might decide that no matter what, it must launch a military campaign against Riyadh in order to punish Saudi Arabia. It is therefore more beneficial, for both Iran and Saudi Arabia, to solve their problems via diplomatic means. However, the current exchange of harsh words between Saudi and Iranian officials shows that the situation will either get critical, or the current cold war will continue.