Saudi Arabia takes Iran's threat seriously, but does the US?

Saudi Arabia takes Iran's threat seriously, but does the US?
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In the spring the U.S. and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) held an important summit to put together an informal coalition of allied states including Israel and Egypt.

The aim?

To counter Iranian aggression in the region and stop its support for terrorist groups from al Qaeda to Hamas to Hezbollah and to the Houthis while also keeping in check Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Months later the KSA has moved quickly and almost in a revolutionary way to complete that spring initiative.

The catalyst?

The aggressions of the Iranian terror regime that propelled the KSA to act included continued missile attacks from the Houthis, an Iranian proxy rebel group in Yemen.

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The KSA was alarmed by an early November missile strike against the Riyadh airport, part of over 150 rocket attacks over the past two years by the Iranian armed Houthis. Luckily, the KSA has been able to successfully intercept over 100 rockets with the Patriot missile defense system including the attempted strike near Riyadh.

The reforms pursued by the Saudi Kingdom involved several areas and were  designed to put the country in a better position to challenge Iran. That surprised many observers but columnist Charles Krauthammer had predicted this spring that key changes in the Middle East would be initiated by the KSA consistent with U.S. goals and objectives to stop Iran’s hegemonic objectives.

Krauthammer wrote that the incoming Trump administration was finally jettisoning the pro-Iranian policy of its predecessor and thus a new beginning in the Gulf looked possible.

What did the Saudi Kingdom do?

First, the Saudi Kingdom moved to stop the endemic corruption of extended members of the royal family. In September, corruption charges also caught up two top members of the Wahhabi clerical class, known for their support of terrorism.

Second, this complemented previous action by the neighboring United Arab Emirates which had put 82 Islamic organizations on the terrorist list including CAIR and the Muslim American Society. Both actions were consistent with the Saudi pledge at the spring summit to help curtail support for terrorism from all sources.

Third, the Kingdom also convened an emergency session of the Arab League in Cairo where a nearly united Arab bloc condemned Iran for its recent serial aggression.

Of concern in Cairo were two issues. One was the multiple missiles supplied by Iran and launched at Saudi Arabia by Houthi rebels. The KSA foreign minister described these attacks as blatant Iranian state aggression. The second was Qatar’s close relationship with Iran. The Arab countries in Cairo listed 13 demands to be met by Qatar, including severing ties with terrorist groups, closing down the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera satellite channel, downgrading ties with arch-rival Iran and the closure of the Turkish air base.

Fourth, the Saudi’s highlighted Iranian aggression including Iranian militias in Iran and in Syria, as well as ongoing Hezbollah terrorism in Lebanon, (which prompted the Lebanese Prime Minister  to resign).

Fifth, the Kingdom drew attention to the continued Houthi rebel terrorist attacks in Yemen as well as over 150 Iranian supplied missiles launched by the Houthi at numerous key targets in the Kingdom over the past two years, potentially putting at risk the oil production facilities in the Gulf.

Sixth, the Saudi’s and their allies the UAE  noted the critical nature of missile defenses which were able to intercept such attacks.  The Saudi’s emphasized the Patriot missile defense batteries were from the United States, arms purchases for which the Kingdom had been sharply criticized, but now were more than justified.

In short, the Kingdom was trying to move its allies in the Gulf and the Middle East to see Iran as in the “business of mayhem,” the apt description used by U.S. Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisMattis defends Pentagon IG removed by Trump House Armed Services chairman expresses confidence in Esper amid aircraft carrier coronavirus crisis Is coronavirus the final Trump crisis? MORE.

But critically important was the KSA announcement that it would be getting the country out of the business of supporting Islamic Sunni terror groups, largely funded historically by the clerical class and shadowy foundations.

If true, this gave the KSA extra credibility and in turn enabled the Kingdom to call for countries such as Qatar to stop providing sanctuary to terror groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.  

Further work is needed to also end Qatar’s cooperative relationships with Iran, its neighbor across the Persian Gulf thus the Saudi push in Cairo to move that process along.

Although not formally pursued with the United States, these KSA moves are certainly consistent with U.S. goals and objectives in the Gulf region and Middle East.

Despite the nuclear agreement with Iran — which remains weak and full of loopholes — Iran has shown no movement toward moderating its behavior in the region. In fact, if anything Iran’s terrorist behavior has accelerated since the 2015 nuclear agreement, including increasing its support for Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran also plotted to kill the KSA ambassador to the U.S., continued their armed militia activity in Iraq and sent weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

On top of which documents released by the CIA captured in the Pakistani raid that killed Osama bin Laden revealed that Iran was continuing to provide critical support to al Qaeda and had for many years.  

The KSA thus deserves praise for its initiatives that accurately acknowledged the threat from Iran.

Despite the obvious need to challenge Iran, however, too many European nations are using the Iran nuclear deal not to reign in Iranian threats but to use the deal as a shield to hide behind while justifying greater trade and investment with Iran.

Unfortunately, cynics are warning that the KSA and its allies within the U.S. government will endanger the nuclear agreement if they challenge Iranian aggression.

For example, Paul Pillar has argued that Iran’s behavior has to be effectively viewed in a wider perspective (whatever that means).

Pillar has also complained the Saudi government is somehow upsetting “the status quo” and “stoking rebellion.”  He warned the KSA is going to drag the United States into a war with Iran.

Pillar encouraged the United States to move away from confrontation, echoing a New Yorker piece that seemed horrified that when it came to Iran, Mattis wanted the U.S. to win  

Well, KSA is indeed upsetting the status quo. I would say it’s about time. As the threat from Iran is deadly serious it’s a good sign the KSA realizes this. At some point so will all its allies. Let’s hope that doesn't come too late.

As Reagan said about the Cold War, our goal was “We win, they lose.” That is the kind of strategy the United States now needs in the Middle East.

Here is hoping the latest moves of the KSA can help fulfill that vision.

Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association. He is also the president of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm.