Saudi-Iranian conflict

Sleepwalking into war

War between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be of no use to anyone, not even to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Ben Salman in Riyadh or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. On the contrary: both men could conceivably find themselves ousted. Yet powerful political factions exist that are intent on warmongering. By Ali Sadrzadeh

Following months of bellicose exchange between Riyadh and Tehran, deadly actions could soon follow. Or have we already arrived at a true declaration of war, issued on 5 November by Tuki Al Maleki on Saudi television? Maleki is the spokesman of one of the alliances led by the Saudis, one that has been fighting against Houthi rebels for two-and-a-half years.

Iran had just committed an act of aggression against a neighbouring country ″that endangers peace and security in the region,″ said Maleki, in a dry and ambiguous tone. He was referring to a missile fired from Yemen that had been intercepted dangerously close to Riyadh airport just a few hours earlier. The missile had originated from Iran and the attack was therefore an ″act of Iranian aggression,″ said the Saudi military spokesman.

On the escalation scale there are few steps higher than this. This ″declaration of war″ by the two rivals is likely to have dangerous ramifications for the entire Middle East region.

Full blockade on Yemen

Yemen has been under a full blockade by the Saudis for a week now. Nothing is being allowed to enter the country from outside, not even food or medicine. Even aid organisations are being affected by this punitive measure: the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) claims it was not able to import a cargo of chlorine tablets. These are used to prepare drinking water and are needed in the fight against cholera. 900,000 people have already died of cholera in Yemen. The ICRC estimates this figure will rise to one million by the end of the year.

Treating a child suffering from cholera in Sanaa, Yemen (photo: Reuters)
Emerging humanitarian catastrophe: according to UNICEF, the World Health Organisation and the World Food Programme, one consequence of the Saudi blockade of Yemen is that there has been a dramatic rise in the number of diptheria cases, a disease to which children are particularly prone. At the same time, concern is growing that the cholera epidemic, which appeared to be on the wane, could begin gaining ground again. Aid agencies in Yemen to date have registered 900,000 cases of cholera in the war-torn country

In addition to this, the United Nations says seven million people are threatened with starvation. The UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Marc Lowcock is warning of the ″biggest famine the world has seen in decades,″ and says the situation is not even comparable with that of southern Sudan or Somalia. On Monday the Saudis announced they would be easing the full blockade, but only for their allies and the port city of Aden.

End of the moratorium in Lebanon

The Saudis are continuing to turn the escalation screw. After Yemen, it is now the turn of Lebanon. Almost simultaneously with the rocket attack from Yemen, the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation – on Saudi television. This was more than a  just a resignation. It was also the end of the moratorium agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Lebanon.

This tacit agreement was of existential importance for the nation. It led to a kind of national reconciliation. It has enabled Lebanon to keep its distance from the Syrian civil war, the Sunni Muslim Hariri to become prime minister and meant the Shia Hezbollah militia entered his government at the behest of Tehran. This moratorium is now history.

The Lebanese conflict could develop into a conflagration for the entire region. It could result in a large-scale war, directly involving Syria, Israel and Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never left any doubt over where he wants to stand in this drama.

″I have clarified to our friends in Washington and our friends in Moscow that we will operate in Syria, including southern Syria, in accordance with our understanding and in accordance with our security needs,″ the Israeli radio broadcaster Kan quoted Netanyahu as saying in an address last Monday to the members of the governing Likud party parliamentary group.

"Kayhan" edition, 21 January 1979
Mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution in Iran: issue of ″Kayhan″ from 21 January 1979 praising the still exiled revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini – three weeks before the Shah was overthrown

Read ″Kayhan″!

So what is the Islamic Republic doing now? What signals are coming from Tehran? Various and contradictory ones. And which of these signals should we take seriously? The answer is: read the Iranian newspaper ″Kayhan″! After all, it is seen as the voice of the hard core of Iran's power system.

On November 6, Kayhan published a front-page story suggesting that after the Houthi missile attack on Riyadh, Dubai could be next. Following the newspaper's headline, suddenly millions joined in with a social media discussion over what was no longer whether, but when the big clash would come. After all, experience has taught us to take Kayhan very seriously. The threat of war was felt everywhere, nervousness was tangible, the dollar rate rose on the Tehran black market.

This was all too much too soon, even by Iranian standards. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman saw himself forced to intervene. Kayhan's headline is endangering national interests, he explained. But the next day in his leader, publisher Shariatmadari made it abundantly clear what was more in the national interest: supporting the oppressed Yemeni people or the skyscrapers in Dubai?

Following a decision by Iran's national security council, publication of Kayhan was suspended for two days, but the question posed by the newspaper is crucial for the Islamic Republic. To deflect any suspicion of weakness, one day later Iran's President Hassan Rouhani issued a robust warning to Saudi Arabia: ″You know the might and place of the Islamic republic. People more powerful than you have been unable to do anything against the Iranian people.″

Sleepwalking into war?

In both Tehran and Riyadh, powerful groups are fomenting campaigns and setting them on a collision course. The fires are also being stoked by external powers such as the U.S. and Israel. That a war would really increase the powers of those already holding it – Mohammad Ben Salman in Riyadh and Ali Khamenei in Tehran – is more than doubtful. Conflict could actually result in loss of power on both sides.

Saudi Arabia/Iran/Lebanon infographic (source: DW)
Lebanon′s role in the burgeoning conflict zone: following the announcement of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri′s resignation, fears were rife that this might trigger a new proxy conflict between the Sunni kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its Shia arch-rival Iran. Such a war could destabilise the entire Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Hariri accused Hezbollah and its protector Iran of fomenting unrest in the region, while Lebanon′s President Aoun claimed that Saudi Arabia was holding the Sunni politician Hariri against his will

These were the days of the sleepwalkers – future historians will probably describe our days thus. This idea will not be an original one. A globally destructive war has already been described as the armed engagement of sleepwalkers. That was 1914, one hundred years ago. ″The Sleepwalkers – How Europe went to war in 1914″ is the title of a non-fiction book by the Australian historian Christopher Clark. Clark's core theory: no European power really wanted war at the time, but all the warring powers slid into it like sleepwalkers.

A war with Iran would undo all the plans laid by the ambitious Prince Mohammad Ben Salman for himself and his nation. And in Tehran, Khamanei may be omnipotent, but the country is neither economically nor militarily in a position to survive a war against Saudi Arabia. Not only because the Saudis have stockpiled top-of-the-range weapons worth hundreds of billions of dollars from all parts of the world. Israel and the U.S. also demonstratively hold their protective hands over the Saudis. Should Mohammad Ben Salman and Ali Khamenei nevertheless go to war, they will have been driven to it.

Ali Sadrzadeh

© Iran Journal

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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