As more Sunni-majority countries in North Africa and the Middle East—including Sudan, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates—line up to side with Saudi Arabia in its current diplomatic dispute with Iran, tensions continue to mount between the Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and the Shia-led Iran. The flare-up in hostilities is shining a spotlight anew on the mostly clandestine conflict that has simmered between the two countries for years.
The Saudis, for their part, view Iran as engaged in a long-running clandestine targeting effort against Saudi interests, and at times, Saudi government officials themselves. Iran is strongly suspected by the Saudis, as well as some Western security officials, of engaging in attacks on Saudi government officials, and Iran has, at least once—in 2010-2011—tried to assassinate a Saudi ambassador to the United States, according to both a U.S. government official who is intimately familiar with Saudi national security personnel, and the U.S. Justice Department. The Saudi ambassador at that time, Adil al-Jubair, is currently the Saudi foreign minister.
The Iranians have also reportedly attempted to infiltrate unspecified elements of the Saudi kingdom in anticipation of an eventual outbreak of war between the two countries, although at least some of those intelligence rings were disrupted by the Saudi security services. Those Iranian intelligence efforts appear to have been attempts at advance force operations (AFO), though it is unclear to what extent their efforts have been successful.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, has also taken the clandestine fight to the Iranians, primarily in terms of breaking up Iranian spy rings, and through reportedly taking part in some joint intelligence operations with the Israelis against Iran. The Saudis have also been exerting a more muscular foreign policy in the region aimed squarely at Iran, for example, in its military involvement in the Yemeni Civil War, on the side of the government, against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Saudi Defense Minister Muhammad Bin Salman, also the deputy crown prince (third in line to the throne), appears less willing than former King Abdullah or Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef to put up with Iranian anti-Saud overt and clandestine activities. Bin Salman, and the Saudi regime in general, appears to be fed up with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) efforts to target the regime, and the Saudi government is flexing more muscle these days in response.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), made up of Arab states in the region, is also involved in the effort to counter Iran—diplomatically—and is doing its best to neutralize Iran’s regional influence. It, too, has condemned the attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Iran, again illustrating a broad Saudi effort to counter Iran in every possible way, across the whole spectrum of diplomatic and intelligence activities.
It should come as no surprise that in the current absence of strong and deeply involved U.S. diplomatic and security leadership in the region, the Saudis will pick up the slack and take matters into their own hands when it comes to their own security and regional influence. The current flare-up is an illustration of this fact.
While this cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran gets hotter, at least diplomatically, Saudi Arabia’s immediate reaction to Iran in the current crisis, in terms of cutting diplomatic and commercial ties, is probably more a direct response to the Saudi embassy and consulate being overrun and attacked, and less a long-term diplomatic strategy. This author assesses that a cooling off will probably commence in the near future, once Iran has been made to feel sufficiently admonished in Saudi eyes. A re-establishment of diplomatic and economic ties will likely follow, though when this may occur is anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, in a sign that Iran might also be seeking to diffuse the current tensions and lessen the international pressure facing the regime in the wake of the dispute, high-level Iranian military officers have condemned the attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Tehran, calling them “unjustifiable” and “ugly,” according to a New York Times report.
(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)