Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran on Sunday, responding to the storming of its embassy in Tehran in an escalating row between the rival Middle East powers over Riyadh's execution of a Shi'ite Muslim cleric.
Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh that the envoy of Shi'ite Iran had been asked to quit Saudi Arabia within 48 hours. The kingdom, he said, would not allow the Islamic republic to undermine its security.
The Saudis apparently don't believe that the mob that attacked their embassy in Tehran was anything other than an attack by Iran.
What does this mean? I've long wondered about the Saudi effort to weaken Iran by lowering oil prices with stepped up production. I read that Saudi Arabia can keep this up for a couple years. But why would they go down that path if at the end of that period Saudi Arabia has to lower production to avoid bankruptcy--and thus help Iran, too?
If the Saudis truly want to fight Iran, they need to defeat Iran before the oil weapon runs out.
And given the Iran nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia may have to knock Iran down a peg before Iran gets nukes.
And remember that the deal will also end arms embargoes and economic sanctions against Iran.
What could Saudi Arabia do to defeat Iran?
Well, defeat Iran in Syria and Yemen, for one.
Prying Iraq from Iran would help, too, but that is a tougher objective. But at least Iraq's conventional military power is too weak to threaten Saudi Arabia as Iraq could in 1990.
A land invasion of Iran is out. Saudi Arabia's ground forces aren't up to moving through Kuwait and Iraq into Iran. Nor could Saudi Arabia cross the Gulf and land and army.
On the bright side, the Saudi ground forces could hold their borders against Iran.
But Saudi Arabia does have superior sea and air power. With 7 destroyers and frigates and 30 smaller warships (as of 2012), backed by nearly 300 F-15s, Tornadoes, and Typhoons, Saudi Arabia could hammer Iran's 150 smaller warships and masses of tiny boats plus a fleet of antique and poorly maintained warplanes.
I honestly doubt Iran's submarine force is terribly capable--or even capable of submerging with much hope of coming up for air again.
And if Iran looked like it would win in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, America would have to intervene in a new Tanker War (as we did in 1987-1988 during the Iran-Iraq War). So the Saudis have a safety net even if America is furious with Saudi Arabia.
With Saudi Arabia handling Yemen rebel missile launches with their own anti-missile Patriots, Saudi Arabia may feel confident it can parry attacks on itself across the Gulf, especially if the Saudis use their aircraft and precision missiles--also shown to work in Yemen--to hit the missile launchers to hinder volley attacks that could overwhelm missile defenses.
The real fight could be striking Iranian oil export facilities starting with oil fields on land, heading south to turn Kharg Island oil export facilities into burning rubble, and sinking tankers and blowing up storage facilities all the way down to the Strait of Hormuz.
Using Saudi marines to take Iranian islands in the Gulf might be part of this effort to strangle Iran.
Iran might react wildly enough to such a Saudi campaign to prevent the West from easing sanctions based on the Iran nuclear deal.
With any luck, the Saudis cripple Iranian finances by denying Iran the ability to export enough oil and not just deny Iran higher prices.
With some more luck, the Saudis do enough damage to inspire a revolt against Iran's mullahs somewhere down the line.
Would this work? I don't know. I don't even know if the Saudis would risk this kind of fight.
The Saudis are usually pretty cautious. But perhaps the Saudis feel on their own right now.
But I think I know that simply choking Iran for a couple more years with lower oil prices as Western sanctions disappear and undermine that effort--with an angered Iran that already claims it would do better at governing the holy sites at Mecca and Medina--won't work. And then the Saudis will see Iran getting stronger militarily, economically, and on the path to nuclear weapons.
But this is fanciful. The Saudis probably just think they need their own nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Feel better now?
But right now, it is probably just a good idea to clear out the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
UPDATE: It heats up:
Saudi Arabia widened its rift with Iran on Monday, saying it would end air traffic and trade links with the Islamic republic and demanding that Tehran must "act like a normal country" before it would restore severed diplomatic relations. ...
Insisting Riyadh would react to "Iranian aggression", [Saudi Foreign Minister] Jubeir accused Tehran of despatching fighters to Arab countries and plotting attacks inside the kingdom and its Gulf neighbours.
Remember, Iran has an interest in stoking tension in the region to drive up oil prices. Even if Iran doesn't want war, raising tensions could lead to miscalculations and incidents.
And then a shooting war. And the last time Iran went to war with an Arab oil-producing state, both sides went after oil exports.
Seriously, what is Saudi Arabia's end game? Or is their any plan at all?
UPDATE: It occurs to me (and it should have occurred to me earlier) that if Saudi Arabia is determined to take Iran down, then a joint attack with Israel on Iran would make the most sense.
Of course, this is probably just a flare up without any particular plan involved. I'm just saying "if" the Saudis want to hammer Iran.
UPDATE: Here's some background on the rivalry. Will it remain a cold war?
UPDATE: I suspect this diplomatic outreach is more to pressure America to help Saudi Arabia because I'm not sure what Russia could do for Saudi Arabia to satisfy the Saudis concerning Iran:
Saudi Arabia is openly calling on Russia to act as a peacemaker in the ongoing (and escalating) conflict between the Saudi led Sunni Moslems and the Iran led Shia. The Saudis make it clear that successful peacemaking efforts will be rewarded with large investments in the Russian economy and Saudi efforts to boost the price of oil. The falling (now under $40 a barrel) price of oil and its devastating impact on the Russian economy is largely the work of Saudi Arabia and meant to weaken Iran.
This is what happens when allies suspect we aren't much of an ally.
UPDATE: Nearly a week later, the Saudis say they don't want war:
Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said a war between his country and Iran would be the beginning of a catastrophe and Riyadh would not allow it, the Economist reported on Thursday.
Which begs the question of just what is Saudi Arabia's objective here?