The two countries are competing for dominance.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman sat down with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and offered up some very choice words for Iran’s leader:
Iran’s “supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East,” said M.B.S. “But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.” What matters most, though, is what Saudi Arabia does at home to build its strength and economy.
Bin Salman caught the world’s eye earlier this month when Saudi Arabia performed an “anti-corruption” purge that helped consolidate power for the future leader. He is expected to succeed his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have remained rivals as each one continues to try to become the dominant force in the Middle East. This includes taking different sides in wars, the latest being the war in Yemen:
He insisted that the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, which has been a humanitarian nightmare, was tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there, which, he said is now in control of 85 percent of the country, but given the fact that pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who hold the rest, launched a missile at Riyadh airport, anything less than 100 percent is still problematic.
His general view seemed to be that with the backing of the Trump administration — he praised President Trump as “the right person at the right time” — the Saudis and their Arab allies were slowly building a coalition to stand up to Iran. I am skeptical. The dysfunction and rivalries within the Sunni Arab world generally have prevented forming a unified front up to now, which is why Iran indirectly controls four Arab capitals today — Damascus, Sana, Baghdad and Beirut. That Iranian over-reach is one reason M.B.S. was scathing about Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On the same day as the purge, Saudi Arabia said that the missile that came from Yemen to the kingdom’s capital of Riyadh was an act of war by Iran. The kingdom said “experts in military technology” discovered that the missile, along with one from July, “had come from Iran ‘for the purpose of attacking the kingdom.'”
The rivalry also spreads into Lebanon. Before the purge occurred, Lebanese Prince Minister Saad Hariri traveled to Saudi Arabia and announced his resignation. But since he returned to Beirut, he has taken back that resignation.
Bin Salman told Friedman “that the bottom line of the whole affair is that Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, is not going to continue providing political cover for a Lebanese government that is essentially controlled by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia, which is essentially controlled by Tehran.”
Saudi Arabia, a Sunni kingdom, considers Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, a terrorist organization. Due to the dominance of Hezbollah in Lebanon, one Saudi official said Lebanon is “in a state of war with the kingdom.”
The kingdom has become more aggressive towards Hezbollah, even launching a war in Yemen to stop Houthi rebels, which Saudi officials claim receive “weapons and aid from Iran.”
A few days after the purge, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates asked their citizens to leave Lebanon and restricted travel. Some experts believe that war will not happen:
While analysts said a war was unlikely — because Saudi Arabia was not capable of waging one and Israel did not want one now — they worried that with so many active conflicts in the region, any Saudi actions that raised the temperature increased the risk of an accidental conflagration.
“There are so many fuses, so little communication, so many risks of something exploding, that there’s little chance of something not going wrong,” said Robert Malley, the former director of Middle East policy in the Obama White House and now vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group. “Everything needs to go right to maintain calm.”
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