The relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been deteriorating for several years now, but has reached crisis point over the first weeks of 2016. Given that both sides are actively participating in proxy wars in Syria, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Iraq, there is a large fear that this ‘Cold War’ between the two countries could turn into something more. But would either country really go to war with the other?
Many of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East revolve around sectarian splits between Shia and Sunni Muslims. While to say these wars are 100% sectarian in nature and completely influenced by international power plays is a gross oversimplification, these sectarian narratives do go some way to explaining the current enmity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Each country represents the leader of their respective faction. Saudi Arabia leads a grouping of Sunni countries including the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Sudan, Somalia and to a lesser extent Egypt. As well, Saudi Arabia sponsors a number of Sunni non-state actors in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Meanwhile Iran leads a group of Shia actors including the Syrian Regime, Hezbollah, Ansar Allah (Houthis), and a vast array of militia groups in Iraq contained with the ‘Popular Mobilisation Units’.
These sides became very apparent following the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi cleric from the country’s Shia minority on sedition charges. The Iran-controlled Shia axis widely condemned the execution, which it viewed as a killing motivated by sectarianism. In the wake of these official condemnations, protesters in a number of the Iranian cities attacked Saudi diplomatic missions, causing significant fire damage to the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
Following this, first Saudi Arabia and then a number of its allied Sunni states cut or downgraded diplomatic ties with Iran in protest. Additionally, the Saudi-led coalition intensified its airstrikes against alleged Houthi targets in Yemen, particularly around the country’s capital, Sana’a. This bombardment, as well as killing many civilians, also damaged Iran’s embassy in Sana’a according to claims made by the country’s state media apparatus. While outlying buildings in this complex may have been hit, it is unclear just how much damage the embassy sustained or if any Iranian diplomatic staff were injured.
What these escalating events show is that small provocations can have wide ranging effects for both sides, especially within the proxy wars being fought between the Sunni and Shia powers in Yemen and Syria. Nonetheless, the fact that these countries have not yet responded in a more belligerent manner in the time since shows that neither particularly wants a direct military confrontation.
The primary reason for this is that the two sides are reasonably balanced in terms of military capabilities. While on paper, Saudi Arabia and its allies possess large amounts of expensive foreign military systems, these countries militaries are crippled by deep corruption and a lack of adequate training for their soldiers, resulting in poor real-world performance, which has been demonstrated throughout their intervention in Yemen. Iran, on the other hand, has a more professional military with a larger amount of experience than that of the Gulf States. In addition, it boasts a domestic arms industry able to produce a large number of indigenous weapons systems, as well as designs reverse engineered from US, Chinese and Russian weapons. Despite this, Iran lacks modern aircraft and armoured vehicles, meaning its ability to project power beyond its borders is mostly limited to ballistic missiles.
Within this balance of power, neither side would stand to gain from a war. Indeed within the first days (or even hours) of a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both sides would be able to cause immense economic damage to each other through destruction of oil refining and distribution hubs. This economic damage would likely be furthered through efforts to mine the Strait of Hormuz in order to further prevent oil exports.
Given this economic mutually assured destruction, it is unlikely that either state would knowingly start an armed conflict with the opposing side even if provocations and proxy wars continue to escalate. Of course such an assumption does not include the possibilities that the leaders of each respective country as well as their militaries are not rational actors or that a weakening of either state could encourage opportunities to attempt to engineer a war. This being said, should current dynamics continue, a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would seem unlikely at best.