It’s a looming heavyweight prizefight that nobody wants to see come off.
But should escalating tensions between bitter regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia break out into open conflict, Riyadh’s formidable military arsenal would quickly overwhelm Iranian forces in a conventional war, while Tehran would hold the advantage against any Saudi forces in a proxy guerrilla war, analysts say.
The animosity between the two main pillars of power in the Middle East has escalated over the past week, when Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry ordered all Saudi nationals to immediately evacuate Lebanon. The move was presumably targeted at the growing power of Hezbollah, the Shiite movement long seen as Iran’s strongest regional bulwark against Saudi influence in the country.
Iran says the announcement, days after the bizarre, abrupt resignation of Lebanese Prime Minster Saad Hariri, was engineered by ambitious Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That has led to speculation that Saudi and Iranian military forces may be on a collision course.
Mr. Hariri, in his first televised remarks since stepping down, said Sunday that Saudi Arabia did not seek a war with Iran but that he would return home only if Hezbollah agreed to stay neutral in the region’s simmering conflicts.
“We are in the eye of the storm,” the former prime minister said, a storm that has focused even more attention on the two leading protagonists.
While Iran’s 550,000-member active-duty force is over double Saudi’s 256,000 total active-duty and reserve troops, Tehran’s arsenal consists of less-advanced Chinese and Russian fighters, tanks and helicopters backed by a handful of Soviet-era armor and heavy artillery, according to independent figures compiled by GlobalFirepower.com.
Saudi’s substantial military assets, on the other hand, which outnumber Iran’s arsenal both in quantity and quality, has been cultivated over decades. Riyadh has become the Middle East’s top importer of American and Western arms.
That advantage, coupled with Saudi Arabia’s strong military ties to the U.S. and its allies in the region, would guarantee a swift defeat of any Iranian military force on the conventional battlefield, said Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“In a zero-sum game, all-out war is much more dangerous to Iran,” he said in an interview from Riyadh. “It [all] depends on the nature of the confrontation.”
Indeed, while Saudi Arabia’s military assets may be more sophisticated, Iran and its allies have arguably performed better in real-life combat situations, including the campaigns against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Saudi firepower has been on devastating display in neighboring Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition has relentlessly bombarded targets controlled by the Iranian-backed ethnic Houthi separatists who have been at war with the central government in Sanaa since 2015.
But the conflict has not brought the quick victory Crown Prince Salman reportedly expected. Instead, it has denigrated into a brutal stalemate and humanitarian disaster that has earned Riyadh sharp criticism around the world.
Riyadh’s heavy-handed strategy to defeat the Houthis, punctuated by a devastating aerial campaign — reportedly including the use of cluster bombs, which have been banned under the international rules of war — has prompted the Obama and Trump administrations to keep the conflict at arm’s length, even while providing logistical support for the Saudi alliance.
On Saturday, security officials in Riyadh said it had intercepted a medium-range missile fired on the capital by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. A Houthi statement on Yemeni television claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it has targeted King Khalid International Airport, 20 miles north of Riyadh.
Saudi leaders condemned the strike as an act of war. They said it was implausible that the Yemen-based Houthi militia could have carried out a long-range missile attack against Saudi Arabia without Iranian assistance.
“Without the support of Iran, there is no way that this rogue terrorist group could have the means to obtain such weaponry that is used to target civilian areas in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and threaten its security,” said Col. Turki bin Saleh Al-Malki, the main spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition battling Houthi fighters in Yemen.
Few see Iran’s leaders spoiling for a direct fight with Saudi Arabia, a war that could draw in Israel and the United States if not contained. Tehran, military analysts say, prefers to play to its strengths and the reliance on proxy forces such as Hezbollah and the Houthis as a way to undercut its rival.
“There is always asymmetric warfare,” Mr. Alyahya said, referring to the military tactic of arming and training proxy forces in guerrilla forces to wage war against a much larger force. “This is the way Iran operates,” to great success in places like Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
Saudi commanders “promised a “decisive storm,” but [they] got a quagmire and the world’s biggest humanitarian catastrophe” in Yemen, former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, wrote in an analysis paper on the situation.
Saudi Arabia is widely seen as the aggressor in recent days, with Crown Prince Salman appearing ready to provoke a crisis with Iran even as he oversees a political crackdown at home designed to consolidate his power domestically.
“Nobody is beating around the bush here. Any tolerance for Iranian aggression is waning” in Riyadh, Mr. Alyahya said.
Despite growing animosity from the Trump administration, Iran has scored a number of political and diplomatic successes recently.
Iran-backed Shiite militias played a key support role in Iraq’s successful campaign to drive back Islamic State, and Iranian “advisers” have been on the front lines with the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the drive against Islamic State and rebel forces. Hezbollah remains the dominant military force in Lebanon, and the support of the Houthis has proved a low-risk, high-reward investment in the rivalry with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states.
“Iran and its allies, for their part, have been seeking to capitalize on their ‘victory’ in Syria to further consolidate their dominance over Lebanon” via Hezbollah, said Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute.
But the situation remains unstable, and Iran’s advantages may not last.
“At worst, [the Lebanon crisis] might be the prelude to a spiral of further escalation that could lead to internal conflict or another international war,” he said.
Such an escalation would fall in line with Crown Prince Salman’s foreign policy designs.
Since usurping his elder cousin Mohammed bin Nayef to become next in line for the Saudi monarchy, he has long sought a harder line against Iran while pushing domestic economic and social reforms.
While sharply criticizing recent Saudi moves, Iran has shown a measure of restraint in answering Riyadh’s latest charges. In an unusual move, courts suspended publication of a hard-line Iranian newspaper for two days last week after a front-page story suggested that the Houthi rebels may target Saudi ally Dubai with their next missile firing.
Tehran runs the risk of “miscalculating the resolve of Saudi Arabia and its allies,” said Mr. Salem. “This could take a turn in a very ugly direction.”
Mr. Riedel said the Hariri resignation is seen “as a way to isolate Hezbollah’s influence in the country,” but he predicted that “most likely the gambit will ricochet and benefit the Iranians and Hezbollah.” Riyadh may have overplayed its hand in Lebanon, prompting a fight Tehran can use to bring other regional powers to its cause, he said.
“Iran has a blank check” in Lebanon, said Mr. Alyahya, noting that the power-sharing deal between Mr. Hariri and Hezbollah “is a broken system in Beirut.”
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