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    Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, on January 2, 2016

    Are Saudi Arabia and Iran Edging Toward War?

    © AFP 2016/ ISNA / MOHAMMADREZA NADIMI
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    The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran could spark a conflict considerably more damaging and horrific than the Iran-Iraq War, but would they actually do it?

    Kirill Vysokolov — After Saudi Arabia and Iran broke off diplomatic relations on Sunday, the prospect of war between the two countries has become a new concern.

    The two countries are already said to be involved in proxy wars against each other in Yemen and Syria. The new escalation with the killing of a prominent Shiite preacher draws parallels to the 1980s, which led to a conflict that threatened to engulf the whole region.

    A war between the two countries would not be in the interest of any major power, as such a conflict would both spread regional instability and create shocks in the global oil supply. However, Saudi Arabia has apparently already said that it would not obey orders from Washington.

    "Every time the Iranians do something, the U.S. backs off. In the meantime, Saudi (Arabia) is actually doing something about it in Syria, in Iran and in Yemen. The Saudis really don't care if they anger the White House," an "insider" source simultaneously told AP and Reuters on Sunday.

    The source later told Reuters that the Saudis do "care" about the White House position, "But it's an instance in which the Saudis [feel they] need to forge ahead on their own in their own best interests in terms of dealing with Iran in the region."

    Historic Precedent

    Internal tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, together with overlapping economic and political interests already led to the highly destructive Iran-Iraq war, which lasted between 1980 and 1988. The initial Iran-Iraq standoff in 1980 also involved the execution of a key Shiite cleric, Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr by Saddam Hussein's government amid increasing unrest amid Iraq's majority-Shiite population.

    Unlike the Shiite unrest occasionally witnessed in Saudi Arabia as part of what has become known as the Arab Spring, the Shia unrest in Iraq was in part influenced by Iran's Islamic Revolution, which sought to overthrow both monarchies and secular republics across the Middle East.

    Iraq's influential Shiite political leader Nouri al-Maliki referenced the killing of al-Sadr when he pledged that Saudi Arabia would be toppled following its killing of preacher Nimr al-Nimr.

    "As we condemn this disgusting terrorist act and these detestable sectarian practices, we reaffirm that the crime of executing Sheikh al-Nimr will topple the Saudi regime, just as the crime of executing the martyr al-Sadr toppled the Saddam regime," al-Maliki said on Saturday.

    Outside of the al-Nimr killing, Saudi-Iranian relations are at their worst since 1987, when Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Iran following an apparent massacre of Iranian pilgrims in Mecca during a Hajj. That massacre led to a storming of the Saudi embassy in Iran by angry youths and the death of a Saudi diplomat. Saudi Arabia severed relations with Iran for four years in response.

    Economic Interest

    Besides the ethnic and religious conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the lifting of sanctions as a result of the Iranian nuclear deal would create competition for both Saudi Arabia's oil production and its ally Qatar's natural gas production at a time when hydrocarbon prices are already at historic lows.

    Iran has expressed discontent with Saudi Arabia's standing in the OPEC oil cartel in recent months, which refuses to reduce its own production quotas amid a global supply glut. The differences led to a dispute at the cartel's meeting in December, which saw the practical lifting of production quotas ahead of Iran's re-emergence in the organization, apparently masterminded by the Saudis.

    "The fact that Iranian-backed Houthi militants are squaring off against Saudi-led troops in Yemen is not helpful, as increased Iranian oil revenues are likely to find their way to Iranian military interests in Yemen, Iraq and Syria," investment strategist Robert Minter told Reuters at the time.

    Conflict in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq already led to a confrontation in which the two sides bombed each other's supertankers in 1987. At the time, Iraq attacked Iranian oil shipping, hoping that Iran would blockade all oil through the Strait of Hormuz, bringing in US military intervention.

    Iran and Iraq targeted each other's oil facilities during the Iran-Iraq War.
    Iran and Iraq targeted each other's oil facilities during the Iran-Iraq War.

    Instead, Iran attacked Iraqi and later Kuwaiti shipping, after Kuwait took over Iraq's oil exports. The United States and Soviet Union then protected Kuwaiti shipping from Iranian attacks. The operations led to several high-profile incidents, involving the "accidental" Iraqi bombing of a US Navy frigate, killing 37 US Navy personnel and the negligent US downing of an Iranian airliner, killing 290 civilians.

    The Iran-Iraq conflict itself nearly grew into a confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, though Iranian plans to attack Saudi and Kuwaiti oil facilities were apparently foiled.

    Military Capability

    The two sides have also been growing their military capabilities, despite having achieved warm relations as recently as 2005. Iran's military is considerably larger in terms of manpower and militia units such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which played a pivotal role in the Iran-Iraq War.

    However, Saudi Arabia's military budget is nearly eight times bigger than Iran's. The country spends 11.4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) compared to Iran's 2.8 percent, which is roughly the average for most countries around the world.

    Saudi Arabia does have an advantage in equipment, which it has been purchasing from all large suppliers. Despite historically uneasy relations, Saudi officials visited Russia in 2015 to consider purchasing weapons. The Saudis were most interested in ships and Iskander missile systems, both crucial for warfare in the Persian Gulf, where Iran has used swarms of small boats to attack larger vessels and both sides have acquired ballistic missile technology.

    "Yes, we are interested, that's why we are here, and we are not only talking about the navy. We are interested in frigates, corvettes and guard ships," deputy head of the Saudi Arabian Navy Admiral Ibrahim Nasir said at a Russian military exhibition in June 2015.

    Saudi Arabia is at a disadvantage when it comes to neighbors, as Houthi militias almost regularly attack Saudi territory with troops as well as missiles. At the has allies around the Persian Gulf which it has worked together with in coalitions, such as Bahrain which broke ties with Iran on Monday, it has in recent months practically lost long-time partner Pakistan when it comes to military cooperation.

    Saudi Arabia is rumored to have sponsored Pakistan's nuclear program as a balance against Iran. However, Pakistan, now a major partner of China, has rejected Saudi military initiatives in both Yemen and Syria, refusing to join coalitions.

    Would They Do It?

    Although historic risk factors, competing economic interests and a military buildup appear to converge and determine the inevitability of war, there are also many factors that would delay such a reaction.

    For one, Saudi Arabia and Iran have no long-standing border disputes unlike Iran and Iraq in 1980, and share no common border. Without that, direct military action would be more difficult, and largely confined to naval warfare.

    Additionally, the diplomatic mission attack appears to be a tactic used by Iran to quell internal tension. The fact that Saudi Arabia and Iran have settled such disputes in the past could mean that such experience could be used again.

    Lastly, the two sides have very large but asymmetrical military forces. Iran's poor experience with asymmetrical warfare in the Iran-Iraq War, which killed over a million soldiers and civilians with no territorial gains, together with the Saudi military's inexperience, could also act as a deterring factor for any offensive operations.

    Topic:
    Mass Execution in Saudi Arabia Whips Up Tensions (108)
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    Tags:
    embassy, conflict, Arab Spring, OPEC, Strait of Hormuz, Iran, Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia
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    • businessradiologyadm
      Iran (and Russia) should have the patience of waiting and seeing, despite provocative acts. Time is on their side. Keeping the focus on the strategic aim of not loosing control over the transcaucasian/near eastern arena is crucial. Of course, a major key factor is the forecasted oil price in each scenario, but the equation should keep in account the gas as well.
    • puffinwillow
      go iran
    • jaodernein ilitiofoniate
      This risky move will strengthen Iran's ties with Russia and the Asian partners, and backfire to Riyad.
      Iran won't swallow the bait and will let the Saudi dynasty to sour in the international contempt (like for Turkey's regime)
      I'm wondering if the web rumours that the Saudis bought some nukes from Pakistan could be somewhat founded...I hope not
    • justnfree
      Saudis can barely fight barefeet of Yemen, let alone Iran. They want to create international sectarian conflict and dream of using all Sunnis against Iran which is failed from the beginning. Bahrain and UAE might provide some lip service but that's all. Those who planned this on behalf of Saudis should know it!! Iranians have become quite popular for attacking Saudis embassy. Only ones who might be close to be able to tolerate Saudis are American and British politicians, for obvious reason!!
    • All those genetic defects in the Saudi "Royal" family better remember that as per prediction by the financial wizards that Saudi Arabia will be broke in 5 years with the present oil prices and the spending habits. Their kingdom and every other edifice in the Middle East has been build by Pakistani and others slave labour because they themselves are too lazy, arrogant and incompetent to do it
    • femia91
      Can't think of a better ruse to cheaply push oil prices up veryour quickly
    • Mikhas in reply toJg38691(Show commentHide comment)
      Jg38691, In your dreams, Schlomo.
    • mounir.assi
      Saudia Arabia can not wage a war with Iran, Iranians knows how to blow Saudia from inside.
      Iran will never make the game of Israel, it is Israel behind the killing of Sheikh Nimir, that is to make a Sunni vs Shia war, but this will not happened because Sunnis and Shias are too clever to do so, i hope for them.
      Already the entire world knows that ISis and Al qaeda are Israelo American invention.
      Then Iran is a very good chess player like Mr Putin.
      I will remind to everybody that Saudia will blow from inside the same as Israel.
      When you are fake countries you won't stay long.
      The right and the truth will come out one day.
    • mounir.assiin reply toJg38691(Show commentHide comment)
      Jg38691, i would like to remind you that Israel begged like a dog to stop the war with Hezbollah in 2006, and Hezbollah destroyed your Israeli army.
      Hezbollah a small party blowed your big Israel.
      Let Israel send only one bullet to Iran and see the end of Israel by Hezbollah.
    • Mikhas
      The medieval inbreed monkeys in Saudi Barbaria cant even defeat Yemen and the small Houthi tribesmen it started a war against, and that with direct assistance from the other wahhabi planet-of-the-apes monarchies in the gulf plus USA;Egypt,Pakistan and Sudan.

      The Houthi´s are now occupying parts of SAUDI BARBARIA in retaliation and the chop-chop monkeys are fleeing for their lives.

      Now imagine what a war with Iran would look like? All Saudi oil facilities and infrastructure taken out in an instant, Shia-militias flooding in and the House of Saud will be history.
    • cuttingedge.blacksmith
      The Elements in any Future War in the Region
      - Saudi wars on Iran
      - Iraq wars on Saudi
      - Turkey uses the Smoke to Expand into Northern Iraq
      - EU/NATO Coalition is Confused, destroys Civilian Targets
      - Tel Aviv and Gaza continue to throw things at each other

      Oil Price reaches $50 mark (and possibly $150)

      (meanwhile, Russia secures Eastern Syria and helps rebuild Petroleum Infrastructure)
    • rogertidyin reply tofemia91(Show commentHide comment)
      femia91, But the US doesn't want oil prices to go too high because that would benefit Russia.

      Saudi Arabia also wants to keep oil prices down, at least in the short term, for the same reason. Moreover, high oil prices would boost the shale-oil industry, which could become a major competitor to the Saudi oil industry.
    • Jackov Smirnoff
      War would be great for Big Oil & arms sales.
    • Elsa JV
      The whole Middle East is festering pit of conflict and increasingly so since the so-called Arab spring.

      1. Afghanistan started anew with the insurgence of the Taliban, after everyone thought it is on its way to peace – the Americans almost left.

      2. The Iraq conflict started in 2003 and ever since has only has escalated, especially since the arrival of ISIS.

      3. Syria remains a crock-pot of conflict, ongoing five years, but there is new hope for respite with the entrance of Russian air power.

      4. Libya, thanks to American efforts, started with a civil uprising and remained in perpetual war since 2011, the country is still burning.

      5. Israel and the Palestinians are at each other since inception of the State of Israel on and off—and on currently burning and people dying in the streets.

      6. Turkey’s Erdogan thought it would be smart to add to the regional conflict with shooting down the Russian fighter jet and attacking the local Kurdish people in Turkey and neighboring Iraq and until recently Syria’s Kurdish people—all the while invading Iraq and refusing to leave.

      7. Saudi Arabia on the invitation of Yemen’s leader bomb the daylights of the Yemenis [Houthis] and destroying the country, leaving yet another people desolated. And to exacerbate matters execute a Shiite Cleric over the weekend, stoking yet another fire ready to engulf the larger region.

      8. Tunisia and Egypt are trying to hold onto a fragile peace amid escalating acts of terrorism.

      Anything or anyone I left out? So anyone want to tell me that WWIII has not started in the Middle East and it is only a matter of time before it rippled out to the rest of the world?
    • Elsa JVin reply tojustnfree(Show commentHide comment)
      justnfree, In general I find protest abhorring and believe in cooperation, compromise, and civilized debate but I found myself smiling when I saw the Saudi embassy in Iran burning. I hope the Iranian authorities that arrested the arsonists would bring them hand-cuffed in the front door and let them out at the back door. Good job guys.
    • Tony Rossiniin reply toJg38691(Show commentHide comment)
      Jg38691,
      Those Saudi camel-humpers can't even defeat the Houthi militias who don't have Tanks or Air-Force or Navy.
      The Persians would annihilate the Saudis in quick order
    • hans.schultz
      They have for some time been in a proxy war and i think it will stay at that, though to really stop the madness, certain backers of the house of Saud must stop their pernicious games.
      If the US would get a real american leadership, that would change a lot. Probably a palace revolution with some more clear headed people in Saudi Arabia will be a solution or better that KSA becomes SA the republic!
    • silkwillie
      Here's another very possible the Saudis are trying to provoke Iran to attack them giving Saudis bodyguard the murderous US government the reason they need to justify bombing Iran . I think this is the most likely what is happening
    • silkwilliein reply tosilkwillie(Show commentHide comment)
      silkwillie, correction very possible scenario
    • silkwillie
      The us government has been looking for a reason to bomb Iran for a few years now it looks like the Saudis are being used to try and incite Iran into going to war with them but it won't really be the Saudis who Iran would be at war against it would be the U.S.
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