Iran is using Israel to distract from its real aims in the Persian Gulf
It has become conventional wisdom that most sectarian conflicts in the Middle East today are fueled, to some extent, by Iran and Saudi Arabia. The worsening political situation in Yemen — which led to Shi’ite Houthi rebels ousting President Abrabuh Mansour Hadi on Jan. 22 — was described by some military experts as the result of a purported Saudi-Iran “proxy war” in Yemen. That these two countries are enemies has been taken for granted by most, but is rarely examined or questioned.
It is time the West takes a hard look at exactly why Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are so concerned about the Iranian threat. Much of the Western commentary on the strategic threats in the Middle East focuses on violent jihadist threats from non-state actors and the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel. The reality is far more complicated and involves the vital strategic interests of the United States, Europe, and Asia.
To begin with the nuclear issue, it is important to remember that Iran has no nuclear weapons at present and that Israel is a mature nuclear weapons state with thermonuclear armed missiles that can reach any city or key target in Iran. At the same time, Iran has every reason to focus its political rhetoric on Israel as a threat and a target. Like its support of Gaza and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the nuclear question deflects Arab fears of Iran’s growing ability to threaten Arab states, divide the Arab world, and lever Iran’s ability to threaten the flow of Gulf petroleum exports.
Iran already has large missile and rocket forces that can reach any target in the Gulf and most targets in the Middle East. But these forces lack the accuracy and lethality to do great damage to targets in the Arab Gulf states and other neighboring states with conventional warheads. Iran’s air force is aging, worn, and lacks anything like the capability of Saudi, United Arab Emirates, and other Arab forces — which have far more capable aircraft, surface-to-air missile forces, and missile defenses supplied by the West — as well as support from U.S., British, and French air and naval forces and the forces they can project forward in an emergency.
If Iran can acquire nuclear warheads, however, this would radically shift the balance against Arab states that lack nuclear weapons. It would greatly increase the threat Iran can pose, and help deter its Arab neighbors and their allies from using their advantage in air power. This is why Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are so concerned about the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. Their governments do not see an Iranian threat to a nuclear armed Israel; they see a nuclear threat to the Arab world.
And, this is only part of the story. The Arab Gulf states see a major Iranian build-up in air, missile, anti-ship missile patrol boats and forces, smart mines, submarines, and other threats like Iran’s Marines and Special Forces to shipping in the Gulf, and their offshore and coastal facilities. Iran’s forces can now reach out into the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean.
This Iranian threat is as real and serious to the Arab Gulf states — and to the flow of petroleum exports to the global economy — as its nuclear threat. It is the reason why Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states — as well as the United States, Britain, and France — have built up their naval, air, mine warfare, and missile forces in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia and other key Arab states like the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan, and Egypt have equal reason to fear Iran’s expanding role in the region and Iran’s efforts to divide the Arab world. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq destroyed its ability to deter and contain Iran. It brought Shi’ites with strong ties to Iran to power, gave Iran far more influence in Iraq, and allowed Iran’s Quds Force and Revolutionary Guards to gain serious influence over Iraq’s military forces and Shi’ite militias. Iraq is still far from an Iranian satellite, but the struggles between its Sunnis and Shi’ites, the need for Iran’s support in fighting Islamic State, and its deep political divisions give Iran a major opportunity.
Iran has also reached out to Shi’ites in Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and to the Alawites and Assad regime in Syria – as well as Palestinian Sunnis in Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Like Iraq, none of these groups are “proxies” in the sense that Iran has the ability to dictate or command their actions. Iran can still, however, threaten Arab states by encouraging Shi’ite minorities to oppose the regime and training and arming small factions within them.
Iran has provided massive transfers of weapons like missiles and rockets to Hezbollah in Lebanon and some arms and funds to the Houthis in Yemen. Both are Shi’ite forces that have own leadership and show little interest in supporting Iran’s Supreme Leader or becoming Iranian satellites, but give Iran the ability to play a spoiler function in dividing the Arab world and expanding its influence. The same is true of Iran’s support for the Assad regime, which had forced much of the Arab world to take on both the Assad regime and ISIS as threats. Iran does not have to care about Hamas or the Palestinians, or really care about Israel, to use them to create new Arab-Israel tensions, and serve a major strategic distraction.
These are the reasons why Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states are buying over $50 billion worth of new arms from the Gulf. They are equally critical to Western interests and are the reason why the United States keeps major air, missile defense, naval, and special forces capabilities in the Gulf, and why Britain and France are creating new naval bases there. Iran poses a far more complex mix of threats than simply its nascent nuclear capabilities, and most will remain in place regardless of the outcome of the P5+1 negotiations.