Should America Be Worried About a Saudi-Iranian War?

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The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps test a missile during war games
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps test a missile during war games (Photo: -/AFP/Getty Images)

Is a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran likely? And if it happens, what would the impact be on the United States?


Is War Likely?

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been rising for some time. A meeting of the Arab League, called by Saudi Arabia, convened in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the threat posed to the region by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Particular focus was given to Lebanon, where the Iranian-linked terrorist group Hezbollah is part of the government. The Arab League meeting denounced Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. They also said they would take Iranian aggression to the UN Security Council

Saudi Arabia called to remove Lebanon from the Arab League, but the move was blocked by Egypt.

Lebanon is not the only place the Saudis are facing off with Iran. A ballistic missile intercepted over the Saudi capital of Riyadh on November 4 was confirmed to be Iranian in origin by American officials last week. The missile was fired by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Showing leniency toward Iran will not leave any Arab capital safe from those ballistic missiles,” Saudi Foreign Minister Al Jubeir told the Arab League meeting. “We will not stand idly by in the face of Iran’s aggression.” Saudi Arabia even described the missile as “an act of war.”

However, they pulled back from actually declaring war on Iran. Saudi Arabia issued a statement saying they have decided not to declare war on Iran “at this stage.”

Although anything of course can happen, it does not seem likely that war will break out in the immediate future, despite it remaining a distinct possibility that shouldn’t be discounted.


What Happens If War Comes?

Some analysts, such as Jonathan Spyer, senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, argue that Iran decidedly has the advantage. Iran’s proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen significantly bolster the Islamic Republic’s hard power. Yet, Saudi Arabia has a much more sophisticated and well-equipped military. In 2016, Saudi Arabia spent $63.7 billion compared to Iran’s relatively paltry $19 billion budget for 2016/17. Furthermore, Iran’s weapons are older and far less sophisticated than the systems acquired by the Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies.

However, Iran is much larger than Saudi Arabia and more defensible, with mountain ranges and a large nationalistic population. Furthermore, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has poorly managed both the campaign against the Houthis in Yemen and Saudi Arabia’s support for the Sunni rebels fighting against Assad in Syria.

Further, Saudi Arabia’s army has never been seriously tested in battle and despite its impressive equipment may ultimately fail to perform on the field.

So how does this impact America? President Trump has taken a strong line against Iran’s nuclear program and missile program, and works closely with Saudi Arabia.

But America is already embroiled in Iraq and Afghanistan and has taken action in Syria and Yemen as well. 

However, Trump has not pushed for military action against Iran, which could be extremely destructive and lead the region into further chaos. It still remains unlikely that there will be an open war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If there is, there is no reason to assume it would be to the benefit of the United States.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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