Time is up for Iran’s foray in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and allies are backing their talk with actions by first conducting a “house cleaning” of the GCC of Iranian influence. The Riyadh Triple Summit helped to establish a new baseline in the region for unity against the threats posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and extremists of various sects.
Events in Bahrain rightfully point in this direction. The laser-beam focus on Qatar, Iran’s enabler, is part of a process to get Doha to self-reflect on its actions in support of Tehran in the Levant and in Yemen and for Qatar to halt that course immediately.
The Saudis and their allies want Iran to stop its expansionist activities into Arab lands, halt militaristic behavior with missile production and launches, and cease supporting Shiite extremists groups.
Earlier this month, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave an extraordinary interview where he argued in theological terms that Tehran’s ultimate aim is to wrest control of Islam’s holiest site in Mecca: “We won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia.”
That is exactly what the Kingdom intends to do since, according to Mohammed Bin Salman, “How do you have a dialogue with a regime built on an extremist ideology … which [says] they must control the land of Muslims and spread their Twelver Jaafari sect in the Muslim world?”
While in Saudi Arabia, US President Donald Trump also drove home the point about Iran’s perfidy. Iran, in turn, slammed Saudi Arabia and its allies including the United States repeatedly for hypocrisy ever since the Triple Summit.
Tehran is upping its game in Arab lands, unleashing its militias, making trouble in maritime sea-lanes, and continuing with missile tests and expansion of its technology program. Tehran, of course, learned this stunt from Pyongyang.
Riyadh is encircling Iran through a variety of soft and hard power networks that are in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. This is a space to watch as Riyadh puts pressure points on the Islamic Republic from outside especially to Iran’s north and eastDr. Theodore Karasik
Consequently, Saudi Arabia is encircling Iran in a much larger scope than Tehran’s so-called Shiite Crescent in a transregional arc in order to choke Iran into behavioral changes to force retreat or a “withdrawal of the tentacles” according to one GCC interlocutor.
First, it is important to recall that a major focus of King Salman’s visit to East Asia sought Asian assurances to reduce and break ties with Iran in order to re-enforce support for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. King Salman and his delegation may be delivering the same message to Asian hosts that relations with Iran are going to be under Saudi scrutiny.
Iran’s links to East Asia are part of the strategic and tactical competition. Although Saudi Arabia is in a strategic relationship with China, Beijing’s support for Iran is not serving Riyadh’s interest now. This is the outer ring of states Riyadh sees being part of a pincher move against Iran’s ability to transact in East Asia.
Second is Saudi Arabia’s outreach to Iraq in order to swing Baghdad away from Tehran. Visits by high-ranking Saudi officials including Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir earlier this year is an attempt to entice Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s government closer to Riyadh’s position, especially on a Sunni security arch.
Iraq’s participation in the Eager Lion maneuvers, an annual military exercise, launched earlier this month in Jordan with the participation of more than 7,000 soldiers from over 20 countries, is part of the attempt to bring Iraq into the axis.
Soft and hard power
In addition, Riyadh wants Abadi to reign the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a coalition of mostly Shiite militias in Iraq, after the Battle for Mosul concludes. To be sure, Riyadh is newly charged in fixing the Iraq file: Saudi Arabia’s disgust with Qatar’s negotiations with Al-Nusra and Iran on the “Four Cities” deal and subsequent payment of a huge ransom to Kataib Hezbollah for the release of kidnapped Qatari royals, which ended up in Abadi’s hands, is forcing Riyadh into pro-action on Iran’s western flank in a methodical way using power politics and energy as tools.
Third, Saudi Arabia is upping its prowess around Iran that forms a net around the Islamic Republic. Riyadh is encircling Iran through a variety of soft and hard power networks that are in Pakistan (Baluchistan), Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan. This is a space to watch as Riyadh puts pressure points on the Islamic Republic from outside especially to Iran’s north and east.
This encirclement idea is not new – it’s from the Cold War days and used repeatedly – but now has an added twist with a more aggressive and muscular Saudi foreign and security policy augmented by social media to expose issues and themes to tear down Iran’s legitimacy to rule.
Tehran, of course, will lash out but through unity of effort, Saudi Arabia and Sunni allies will be able to succeed with a new “will to power” to force Iran away from Arabia’s heart based on a new sense of identity needed to make the Arab transformation successful.
Further away, Saudi Arabia will be working with African allies who attended the US-Arab-Islamic Summit to shut down Iranian activities in their respective states.
Clearly, we are entering a new page in Saudi-Iran relations. With the multi-level civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, Riyadh and Tehran are likely to battle it out beyond simple rhetoric.
Saudi Arabia and allies are establishing the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) to be a NATO-like organization based on organizational and tactical lessons learned from Operation Inherent Resolve as well as structure on the Global Alliance to Fight ISIS.
This fact, according to the Riyadh Declaration, is an important step to build up a military and constabulary force of 40,000 troops for deployment. Iran, already heavily vested in the Levant and in Yemen, is unlikely to retreat. For now, Saudi Arabia and allies are going to rely on pressure tactics to force changes in Iran’s behavior by starting with Qatar; down the road is going to be a different story that will make Tehran surprised.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Washington DC-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik.