Saudi Arabia Flanking Iran

Pakistan’s military leader declared that Pakistan would defend Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity” this weekend.  General Raheel Sharif made this announcement on behalf of his nation, currently the world’s only Islamic-majority nuclear power.  His remarks came during a visit by Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, and were probably meant to be stabilizing.  Salman has been seeking international help in lowering the probability of a hot war between Iran and Saudi Arabia following plausibly deniable attacks on each other’s embassies.

Salman appealed to American President Barack Obama most directly in his public remarks, but the Obama administration is wedded to Iran because Obama’s foreign policy legacy is wholly tied to the success of his deal with Iran.  Thus Salman’s call for America to act like the leader the world expects it to be may fall on deaf ears.  The Obama administration has already walked back its position on Syria, where Iran supports the Assad regime.  Originally the American President said that any use of chemical weapons by Assad against his people would be a “red line.”  After Assad crossed that line, the American administration held that his removal from office was a non-negotiable condition for any peace process.  They began walking that back this autumn in an attempt to gain the support of the Russian-Iranian alliance.  Now the Obama administration has agreed that Assad will remain in office longer than Obama himself.

So, Saudi Arabia has turned to another nuclear power to find the security for its regional position that the United States and Russia are not providing.  Pakistan is like Saudi Arabia in having a large Shi’a minority that is occasionally restive.  Saudi Arabia recently executed a leading Shi’ite cleric, Nimir al-Nimir, who had called for the secession of the eastern part of the country where its Shi’a minority is strong.  Such threats by a plausible Iranian proxy must also worry Pakistan, which has watched Iranian Quds Force mobilizing Shi’a proxy forces for decades.  The declaration of support for Saudi “territorial integrity” should be read in that light.

So must Iran’s entry into competition with Pakistan for control of post-war Afghanistan.  Iran’s arming of the resurgent Taliban is mostly a response to the development of a wing of ISIS within Afghanistan, and a calculated understanding that the Taliban are a much less dangerous form of Sunni Islam to Iran’s own Shi’a revolution.  However, the Taliban have long enjoyed support from Pakistan’s intelligence and military service in spite of its frequent denials.  Iran’s support dilutes Pakistan’s hold upon their client.

Does the Saudi quest for stability mean that they want peace with Iran?  Perhaps only so that they can wage a more effective kind of economic war against Iran, Foreign Policy suggests:

The fact is, Saudi Arabia is at a disadvantage when it comes to a military showdown with Iran…. While the Saudi economy is more heavily reliant on oil than Iran’s, its foreign exchange reserves are far higher and its sovereign wealth fund owns far more assets. It also still has the untapped option of issuing bonds — it has the world’s lowest GDP-to-debt ratio (under 2 percent) and a high credit rating. Most importantly, Riyadh is already taking steps to inject more funds into government coffers…

Iran, on the other hand, does not have as many options. It’s already in the midst of a subsidy reform plan and, unlike Saudi Arabia, already taxes its citizens. Raising taxes is difficult when inflation is high (16.2 percent) and unemployment is in the double digits (10.4 percent). The oil price necessary to balance Iran’s budget is much higher than the price needed to balance the Saudi budget; the Iranian oil sector is in need of development after more than a decade of sanctions.

The search for stability in terms of hot war may be the result of an analysis similar to this by the Saudi government.  A cold war built around the price of oil is much more aligned with its strengths and against Iran’s weaknesses than the hot war it is currently fighting in Yemen against Iranian proxies, or the competition in Syria.