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The Middle East … Saber-Rattling: Yes. War: No

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Saber-Rattling – Yes. War – No.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran Do Not Appear Headed for War at this time.

While researching material on the Middle East, I regularly encounter an article in which an ‘expert’ argues that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran will go to war. For an explanation of their rivalry see the earlier blog entitled Saudi Arabia and Iran: A Tale of Two Countries.

We live in a time when the world’s geopolitics are constantly changing, and predictions can be dangerous. However, I submit that as things currently stand, these two protagonists will not wage all-out war.

Continuous saber-rattling – yes. Fighting through proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere – yes. War – no.

Neither country can really engage in a shooting war at this time — but for different reasons. Addressing all of them would fill countless blogs, so I can only cover a few of them here.

Iran has serious problems, both at home and abroad, and the two sets of problems certainly overlap. Infighting within the Iran administration increased when United States President Donald Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. The serious economic difficulties that followed do not seem to indicate that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani faces an ouster, but they have eroded his popularity since winning re-election in May 2017. Moreover, the Iranian economy has suffered for several reasons, most notably the American sanctions.

While Rouhani seems safe at the moment, a worsening economic situation could lead to his ouster.

Compounding that, Iran’s relationship with the other signatories to the deal is uncertain at best. European and Asian nations, wary of the Trump administration, want to preserve their access to the American market. Also, Rouhani has faced strong criticism from Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran’s increasing aggressiveness has contributed to a geopolitical surprise that could not have happened five years ago. Saudi Arabia and Israel have forged an alliance, of sorts, due in large part to their mutual concern about Iran. The two countries had been in close contact for a year or more before admitting the rapprochement. The fact that Saudi Arabia would strike up such a relationship with Israel underscores its determination to keep the upper hand in the region over Iran. At the same time, Iran would be asking for trouble by attacking either one.

Related: Saudi Arabia and Iran: A Tale of Two Countries

And in the event of a full shooting war, Saudi Arabia can be expected to get armaments, intelligence backup and perhaps more help from the Trump administration. While the U. S. administration has dialed back its commitment to the Middle East, its preference for Saudi Arabia and its antipathy to Iran have been clearly demonstrated by Trump’s Middle East visit and his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Iran’s willingness — and even its ability — to wage war with Saudi Arabia seems limited, given protests within the country, and forecasts of a drop in its economy for the rest of 2018 and 2019 that have proven serious distractions. Like Saudi Arabia, Iran needs foreign investment and, in fact, it had begun forging international agreements before the Iran nuclear deal had actually been signed. However, with the American withdrawal from the agreement and the failure of European governments to provide financial assurances, as well as the possibility that it might feel forced to pull out of the deal altogether, the very last thing the country needs is another nail in the foreign investment coffin.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia faces a different set of limitations on its capacity to wage war. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman is strongly committed to attracting American investment, which was the purpose behind his recent trip to the U.S.

The economic preoccupation of the Prince and the country is to spur economic diversification and reduce its dependence on oil revenues. A major part of the economic diversification strategy is attracting outside investment, and a war with Iran would certainly hinder that goal. Saudi Arabia also wants to transform the country as outlined in its Vision 2030. It calls for a comprehensive overhaul of many areas of the country; in fact, the plan is so all-encompassing that some analysts see it as somewhat ‘aspirational’ more than achievable. Whether Vision 2030 is ‘aspirational’ or achievable, it is all-important to the Saudi government.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia wants to balance its budget by 2023, a target that depends on some recovery in oil prices and continued exports. A full-scale conflict would threaten the economic diversification plans, investment targets, the balanced budget and oil revenues.

The two protagonists are even on at least two scores: the proxy wars in Yemen and elsewhere are draining huge amounts from their treasuries, and neither one has the kind of large scale expeditionary force that would be necessary for invading the other.

These are only some of the reasons why I consider a full shooting war between Saudi Arabia and Iran unlikely at this time. In a future blog, I will deal with other reasons.

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