Gulf Pulse

What will US-Saudi summit mean for Iranian policy in the Middle East?

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Article Summary
In a meeting Sept. 4 with US President Barack Obama, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud was assured that the nuclear deal prevents Iran — whose influence in the region the kingdom is eager to counter — from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

In his first visit to the United States since assuming the throne, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud met with US President Barack Obama to discuss various regional issues, foremost among them Iran’s destabilizing regional activities and the aftermath of the recent nuclear deal. The Saudi monarch was assured that the agreement prevents Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon through a robust inspections regime, and that there is a provision for a snapback of sanctions should the agreement be violated. But more broadly, the outcome of the meeting highlights and emphasizes Saudi Arabia’s continued efforts to counter and negate Iran’s influence in certain Arab countries.

Given the opposition of the Obama administration to engage militarily in the various wars of the Middle East, the Saudis have set out on an unprecedented expansion of their armed forces under the rubric of a Saudi defense doctrine. With over $100 billion already spent on conventional military expansion in the past five years and another extra $50 billion allocated over the next two years, the Saudis are fully committed to and capable of out-powering the Iranians. They are pursuing this path through an Arab alliance they lead that can defend Arab homelands from rebel Shiite militias supported and armed by Iran, conduct extensive counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and deter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

In fact, the Saudis have already proved successful in forming military coalitions that can push back the Iranians and their cronies. The first concrete victory occurred in Bahrain in 2011 when the Saudis led a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) coalition into the island nation to help it defend itself from an Iran-backed insurgency. The second victory took place last month when the Saudi-led Arab coalition liberated South Yemen by dislodging the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and army brigades loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and forcing them to retreat to the capital, Sanaa. The Saudis and their GCC allies, especially the United Arab Emirates, are currently engaged in finishing the job by pushing north with the objective of ridding the entire country of any groups that are affiliated with Iran.

Once Yemen is secure, the Saudis will begin to plan utilizing their increasing strategic alliances and formidable military infrastructure to address the Syrian civil war. Having long expressed their frustration with the world’s indifference to the grave humanitarian crisis that has caused nearly 300,000 deaths and created over 4 million refugees, the Saudis and their allies look primed and ready to take matters into their own hands. Saudi military planners have already started looking at potential scenarios where Riyadh could use air power to provide cover for anti-Assad forces not linked to terrorist groups. Sooner or later, a Saudi coalition will get involved in Syria, and it will become the largest and most dangerous front in the conflict between the kingdom, its Arab allies and Iran.

The increasing presence of the Saudis as the regional Arab power is a direct result of the nation’s economic, financial and energy dominance. Saudi Arabia possesses about 25% of global oil reserves, over $800 billion in net foreign assets (of which $661 billion is managed by the central bank) and has the largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa in terms of purchasing power parity. Even if Iran should see some limited windfall from the lifting of sanctions, its economy is so saddled with debt and financial disarray that the gains are likely to be meager. In addition, the religious demographics in the Muslim world are clearly advantageous to the Saudis. About 90% of all Muslims are Sunni, like the vast majority of Saudis, while only 10% are Shiite, like the vast majority of Iranians. This religious reality has proved critically important in the kingdom’s successes in forming a powerful and ever growing Sunni “front” to thwart the destructive Iranian actions.

Recently, this was displayed to the world when the Saudi security agencies scored a major victory against Iran’s Quds Force through the Aug. 20 arrest of terrorist mastermind Ahmed al-Mughassil nearly 20 years after the Khobar bombings that killed 19 American servicemen. Mughassil had been living between Tehran and Beirut since the terrorist attack under the protection of Hezbollah, the Iranian-created Lebanese terrorist group. He was nabbed in Beirut by a well-planned Saudi operation as he was arriving from Tehran, on an Iranian passport to attend the wedding of his son. A 2001 US federal indictment named Mughassil as the military leader of Hezbollah al-Hejaz, based in Qatif, just a few miles north of Khobar. US prosecutors stated that Mughassil had directed his associates to conduct surveillance of Americans in the kingdom starting in 1993, and that Hezbollah al-Hejaz reported to Iranian officials and took directions from Iranian military officers, in this case Quds Force Brig. Gen. Ahmed Sharifi. With Mughassil now in Saudi custody, initial indications are that he is corroborating all these accusations and that Iranian involvement in the Khobar bombing was being monitored at the highest level by a close adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the vast terrorist support provided by the Iranians in the Middle East.

As has been proven over and over again — in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait — the Iranians are bent on causing chaos and bloodshed in the name of asserting their Shiite revolutionary agenda. Fortunately, the Saudis and their allies are stepping in and showing that they have the superior financial, diplomatic and military power to counter this threat. As shown by the expansion of its defense doctrine, the liberation of South Yemen and Mughassil's arrest, the kingdom is on the march to consolidate an Arab coalition to get rid of Persian presence and influence in the Mashreq Arab countries.

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Found in: sunni-shiite conflict, salman bin abdul-aziz al saud, nuclear deal, khobar towers, is, houthis, gulf cooperation council, barack obama

Nawaf Obaid is a fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

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