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Saudi Arabia tells the US that Iran may attack the kingdom to distract the world’s attention from the ongoing protest in Iran. The official, however, did not provide any details or evidence about the intelligence shared. In response to the warning, the militaries of Saudi Arabia, the US, and other countries in the Middle East have raised the alert levels. The United States says threats are concerning, and that it will defend Saudi Arabia and other Middle East allies. Whereas, Iran denies planning attacks on Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Foreign ministry calls accusation baseless, even as supreme leader lashes out at foreign powers. Iran has blamed the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel for instigating the ongoing protests in the country. The commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps publicly warned Saudi Arabia to rein in the coverage of protests in Iran. Iran has for the past six weeks been rocked by protests of a scale and nature unprecedented since the 1979 Islamic revolution, sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in September, for not wearing hijab. Since then, thousands of women have come out on roads without covering their heads or faces, challenging the Iranian government. The authorities have warned protesters it is time to leave the streets but the demonstrations have shown no sign of abating, taking place in residential areas, major avenues and universities nationwide. Thousands of people have been arrested nationwide in the crackdown on the protests, according to rights activists, while Iran’s judiciary has said 1,000 people have already been charged in connection with riots. Recently, the Biden administration has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials for the crackdown on demonstrators after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September after her arrest by Iran’s morality police. The administration has also hit Iran with sanctions for supplying drones to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine. At least 288 people have been killed and 14,160 arrested during the protests, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Demonstrations have continued, even as the feared paramilitary Revolutionary Guard has warned Iranians to stop.
The timing of the Saudi claim is remarkably convenient for Riyadh after relations with the United States soured following the OPEC plus oil production cut that the Saudi government pushed through.
US F-22 fighter jets already in Saudi Arabia are available to counter any threats. In US military protection levels in the region, the US military is not believed to be a target. Previously, Iran-backed Houthi has also attacked oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in recent years, raising concerns that energy infrastructure could be a target for any Iranian provocations in the region. Saudi and Iranian officials have met quietly in recent months to discuss security issues, including the war in Yemen between the Houthis and a Saudi-backed military coalition. But a fragile truce between the parties expired last month, leading to newly increased tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran in 2019 for being behind a big attack in eastern Saudi Arabia, which halved the oil-rich kingdom’s production and caused energy prices to spike. The Iranians denied they were behind the attack. The heightened concerns about a potential attack on Riyadh come as the Biden administration criticizes Tehran for its crackdown on the protests and condemned it for sending hundreds of drones – as well as technical support – to Russia for use in its war in Ukraine. Interestingly, no US embassy or consulate in the region has issued alerts or guidance to Americans in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East based on the intelligence. The confrontation between the two bitter rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia has engulfed several Middle Eastern countries and many regional and international Islamic organizations, such as the League of Arab States, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Remarkably, the OIC—the largest international body after the UN, comprising 57 Muslim states—backed Saudi Arabia in its diplomatic spat with Iran in a harsh anti-Iranian resolution issued on January 21, 2016. The resolution accused Tehran of supporting terrorism and meddling in other countries’ affairs. The OIC had remained silent, however, on Riyadh’s execution of a prominent Shi’a cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, which triggered a deepening rift between the two regional rivals. On September 28, a U.S. fighter jet shot down an Iranian Mohajer-6 drone that was reportedly approaching Erbil, Iraq; according to U.S. Central Command, the drone appeared as a threat to CENTCOM forces in the area. The next day, the chairman of Iran’s Armed Forces General Staff, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri warned Washington that any further action against Iranian drones conducting military activities over Iraq would result in retaliation against U.S. facilities at the Harir, Erbil, and Duhok military bases at a time of Tehran’s choosing. Perhaps not coincidentally, Iran’s Houthi militia partners in Yemen announced on October 2 that they were ending their truce with the Saudi-led coalition. Warning foreign oil and shipping companies to leave the region, they threatened to resume attacks on airports, seaports, and energy facilities. Although Tehran may take precautionary measures to avoid the escalator step of hitting Americans, the chances of mistaken targeting have increased in recent years. Given these threats and the attendant, if remote, risks of regional escalation, it is imperative that Washington increase its vigilance on this front, in part by deploying suitable surveillance, detection, and interception assets to the region.
But, in the other-side, possibly all the threats cited by Saudi and US, maybe a proxy threat or an attempt to control Saudi Arabia under the US desire, which is unrealistic and unlikely to materialize. A sudden security scare involving Iran is exactly what pro-Saudi hawks in the U.S. need to distract attention from the diverging interests of the United States and Saudi Arabia. It should go without saying that the Saudi claims should not be taken at face value. The Saudi government may be trying to tie the hands of its critics in Washington, and it may be trying to box in the Biden administration to stop them from slowing or halting military aid. The question of whether and when any attempted rollback will succeed is uncertain, in part because the protest movement is self-organizing, decentralized, leaderless, and therefore more difficult to target. Remarkably, the latest concerns come at a time of strained relations between Riyadh and Washington after the Saudi-led OPEC plus alliance decided to cut oil output targets, which raised fears of a gasoline price spike in the US. The White House may instead choose to take a much less significant, face-saving measure. What’s next for the troubled, decades-long U.S.-Saudi partnership, and how have shifts in the global order changed each side’s stake in it? What are Biden’s policy options moving forward? The Biden administration is elevating this tension for political gains, and it is dangerously short-sighted. It makes the relationship solely about oil when all along the administration had tried to make it about something larger and more historic. There’s a reason why this relationship has been uninterrupted since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, it’s a relationship based on interests, and the interests remain unchanged. The US alliance with Saudi Arabia is transactional, not a deep relationship, but mutual interests are enough to keep it going. The relationship looks a little bit unstable, but always it comes back to the reality that there are, despite everything, shared interests, and that’s what sustains it.
On the other way, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his Iranian counterpart that Western media had launched a campaign that could trigger an escalation in the Gulf. For one thing, there have been no attacks on Saudi territory attributed to Iranian forces since the 2019 drone strikes on the Aramco facilities at Abqaiq, and since then Iran and Saudi Arabia have been seeking to repair their frayed ties through negotiations mediated by the Iraqi government. This engagement has continued under the new Raisi government, and Iran and the UAE have also restored ties since Raisi took office. It would be an abrupt change for Iranian forces to lash out directly against Saudi Arabia after the last few years of diplomacy. The timing of the Saudi claim is remarkably convenient for Riyadh after relations with the United States soured following the OPEC+ oil production cut that the Saudi government pushed through. This is the same Saudi government that the administration says committed a hostile act with its support for an oil production cut, so the idea that the U.S. might even consider coming to their aid militarily should be a non-starter. U.S. interests are not served by the current status quo with Saudi Arabia, and those interests certainly won’t be served by fighting their battles for them.
Negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nonproliferation agreement with Iran, have been stalled for months, and since the start of the protests in Iran, the Biden administration has become even less interested in pursuing further talks. Any Iranian military action against a neighboring country would make it that much harder to salvage a diplomatic solution to the impasse. It seems unlikely that the nuclear deal will be restored in any case, but anyone interested in heading off a potential nuclear crisis and the attendant drumbeat for war has to hope that the U.S. and Iran find a way to resume productive talks in the new year. The Saudi claims raise the specter of a new crisis with Iran and the escalation of regional tensions. The Biden administration must be on guard against being manipulated by the Saudis to extract more U.S. military support, and under no circumstances should it allow the U.S. to be drawn into a new Middle Eastern conflict.