Emboldened by the misconceived policies of ex-US President Obama, Iran has become positively confrontational under President Donald Trump. Iran and the US always backed different sides of the wars in Syria and Yemen, but now they stand ideologically opposed on most issues involving the region.
Early in February Iran tested a ballistic missile, claiming that to do so was not in contravention of its nuclear deal, but the new US ambassador to the United Nations called the test “unacceptable”. Washington put the Islamic Republic “on notice” and imposed sanctions on more than two dozen individuals and companies involved in procuring ballistic missile technology for the country.
No sooner were the new sanctions announced than Tehran, defiant, held a full-scale military exercise. Three types of missiles, radar systems and cyber warfare technology were tested. The aim of the exercise, according to the website of Iran’s élite Revolutionary Guards, was to “showcase the power of Iran’s revolution and to dismiss the sanctions.”
Then, although not widely reported at the time, on the evening of Sunday 5 February 2017 a surface-to-surface missile was fired by Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthis into Saudi Arabia itself. It struck a military base at al-Mazahimiyah, about 40 kilometers west of Riyadh. The missile was a variant of a Russian Scud known as the “Borkan”. Although the attack was never confirmed or denied by the Saudi authorities or the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen, confirmation came from several Saudi citizens via postings on Twitter. Some reports suggested that subsequently a state of emergency had been declared in the city.
Yemen’s “alternative” Houthi government, backed as it is by Iran, was quick to announce its victory. Yemen’s SABA news agency quoted a Houthi spokesman describing the attack as a “successful test-firing of a precision long-distance ballistic missile… the capital of [expletive] Saudi Arabia is now in the range of our missiles and, God willing, what is coming will be greater.”
This is not the first such attack – on 31 January a Borkan-1 missile reportedly killed 80 coalition soldiers on a Saudi-UAE military base on Zuqar Island in the Red Sea. But it is the first Iranian-inspired military strike into Saudi Arabia’s heartland and, if the usually reliable Debkafile website is to be believed, it is the first test of a newly-enhanced Iranian Scud – a dress rehearsal for a real military onslaught currently in the planning stage.
Early in February Debkafile reported that Iranian engineers were working round the clock on a project dubbed “Riyadh First.” The objective was to add 100 kilometers to the range of Iran’s Scud surface missiles, to enable them to explode in the center of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The report claimed that the project, sited at the Al Ghadi base in Big Ganesh, 48 kilometers west of Tehran, was ordered by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and president Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Revolutionary Guard air force commander, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, who is in charge of the missile testing site, was reported to have ordered all other work halted in order to concentrate on the fast-track “Riyadh First” Scud development project.
This project, it was claimed, was what lay behind the threat made by Hajizadeh on 11 February: “Should the enemy make a mistake, our roaring missiles will rain down on them.”
All the indications are that Iran, boosted by its nuclear deal struck with the US and other world powers, by a massive financial donation from the US, the lifting of sanctions and the eagerness of the western world to forge commercial links, has been emboldened to pursue its ambition of achieving political and religious hegemony in the Middle East. Just as Iran’s leaders have used Hezbollah as a proxy fighting force in Syria, so, it appears, they are preparing to use the Houthis as their instrument in launching direct military action against Saudi Arabia.
Given these circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the director of Saudi Arabia’s general intelligence agency, Khalid Bin Ali al-Humaidan, paid unannounced and unreported visits to both Ramallah and Jerusalem on 21 and 22 February.
One matter of concern to the Saudi leadership must be the reports that Iran is fostering closer ties with both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Hamas fell out with Shia Iran, once one of the group’s main backers, after Tehran backed President Bashar al-Assad against Sunni Syrian rebels. Ties were renewed in February 2016, when Hamas, after a visit to Iran, announced a “new page of cooperation”. At the end of January 2017 senior Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri declared, during a trip to Algeria, that “efforts and contacts are under way to boost relations with Iran.”
As for the PA, reports are abroad of a secret meeting in Brussels on 15 February between Palestinian and Iranian officials as part of a new diplomatic initiative. Jibril Rajoub, a member of the Fatah central committee, was said to be in charge of the Palestinian side.
During his visit to Jerusalem, al-Humaidan may have explored security issues related to the idea of a US-Israeli-Arab regional conference endorsed by Trump and Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu when they met in Washington on February 15. The Arab Peace Initiative, originally proposed in 2002 by Saudi’s then Crown Prince Abdullah, and subsequently confirmed more than once by the Arab League, is the best basis for any Arab-backed effort at resolving the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Given the active security, intelligence and military cooperation that has developed between Israel and a number of Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, active Arab involvement in a new peace initiative is not impossible.
Saudi Arabia, in line with both the US and Israel, is desperately anxious to discourage any further boost to Iran’s power and influence in the Middle East, and actively seeks to downgrade it. Iran, of course, is not part of the Arab world – a further cause of resentment at its ambitions for regional hegemony, both political and religious. In cocking a snook at the Trump administration, the West generally and much of Sunni Islam, Iran is at last in danger of over-reaching itself.