Warning of ‘imminent’ Iranian attack in Saudi Arabia raises eyebrows
The Saudi government has reportedly shared intelligence with the Biden administration that there are preparations underway for an “imminent” Iranian attack against their country.
According to The Wall Street Journal’s report on Tuesday, the U.S. and several other states in the region have raised the alert level of their militaries in response to this claim. For the record, Iranian officials have denied the substance of these reports.
The Saudi claims raise the specter of a new crisis with Iran and the escalation of regional tensions. The Biden administration must be on guard against being manipulated by the Saudis to extract more U.S. military support, and under no circumstances should it allow the U.S. to be drawn into a new Middle Eastern conflict.
The reports come at a time when U.S.-Saudi relations have worsened significantly and members of Congress have been floating possible punitive measures, including legislation that would require the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Biden administration has been talking about the need to reevaluate the Saudi relationship, and they have even been considering slowing military assistance to the kingdom.
A sudden security scare involving Iran is exactly what pro-Saudi hawks in the U.S. need to distract attention from the diverging interests of the United States and Saudi Arabia. It should go without saying that the Saudi claims should not be taken at face value. The Saudi government may be trying to tie the hands of its critics in Washington, and it may be trying to box in the Biden administration to stop them from slowing or halting military aid.
It is possible that elements of the Iranian government might launch attacks to divert attention away from the ongoing violent crackdown against anti-government protests that have been roiling the country for the past several weeks. Iranian officials have blamed the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for fomenting the unrest.
Hardliners inside Iran have an incentive to stoke conflict, since they would stand to benefit from a crisis. Even so, there are also some good reasons to be skeptical about the Saudi claims about an “imminent” Iranian threat to their country.
For one thing, there have been no attacks on Saudi territory attributed to Iranian forces since the 2019 drone strikes on the Aramco facilities at Abqaiq, and since then Iran and Saudi Arabia have been seeking to repair their frayed ties through negotiations mediated by the Iraqi government. This engagement has continued under the new Raisi government, and Iran and the UAE have also restored ties since Raisi took office.
It would be an abrupt change for Iranian forces to lash out directly against Saudi Arabia after the last few years of diplomacy. For another, the Iranian government is facing enough internal problems because of the protests that erupted since the government’s morality police caused the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16, so it seems improbable that their government would want to risk a major security crisis at the same time that they are facing significant unrest.
Finally, the timing of the Saudi claim is remarkably convenient for Riyadh after relations with the United States soured following the OPEC+ oil production cut that the Saudi government pushed through.
The Kingdom knows that there are usually few things that get Washington’s immediate attention and support faster than raising the alarm about supposed Iranian threats. It was similar alarmism about Iranian “expansionism” in 2015 that led the Obama administration to make the terrible error of backing the Saudi-led coalition’s military intervention in Yemen. Whenever the Saudi government finds itself in trouble with critics in the U.S. because of its war crimes and human rights abuses, the government and their army of lobbyists are eager to emphasize their hostility to Iran as a reminder of why the U.S. should continue providing them with weapons and protection.
It has worked in the past, but Americans should know by now that it leads to policies that are harmful to both U.S. interests and regional stability.
As for the warning of an “imminent” attack, we should recall how the Trump administration used the false claim of just such an attack on U.S. forces by Iranian proxies as its initial cover story for the January 2020 assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil. If the Saudi government is attempting to goad the U.S. into using force against Iranian targets in the name of “pre-empting” this supposed attack, the Biden administration should rebuff their pleas.
This is the same Saudi government that the administration says committed a “hostile act” with its support for an oil production cut, so the idea that the U.S. might even consider coming to their aid militarily should be a non-starter. U.S. interests are not served by the current status quo with Saudi Arabia, and those interests certainly won’t be served by fighting their battles for them.
Negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nonproliferation agreement with Iran, have been stalled for months, and since the start of the protests in Iran the Biden administration has become even less interested in pursuing further talks. Any Iranian military action against a neighboring country would make it that much harder to salvage a diplomatic solution to the impasse. It seems unlikely that the nuclear deal will be restored in any case, but anyone interested in heading off a potential nuclear crisis and the attendant drumbeat for war has to hope that the U.S. and Iran find a way to resume productive talks in the new year.
The Biden administration should make it clear to Saudi Arabia that the U.S. isn’t going to resort to military action on their behalf. Whether Saudi claims about a planned Iranian attack are true or not, the U.S. needs to show that it will not be roped into providing more weapons and military assistance for a client government that has proven itself so unreliable and untrustworthy. Washington should send the message that Saudi choices to work against U.S. interests will have consequences for the kind and extent of security assistance they can expect to receive.
The U.S. should not be putting its forces in harm’s way to defend Saudi Arabia or the UAE regardless of what Iran does. It is bad enough that U.S. forces are already at risk because of Houthi attacks on Saudi and UAE territory coming from Yemen. If the report of an impending Iranian attack is accurate, that just underscores the urgency of withdrawing those troops before they end up getting caught in the crossfire.
If the Saudis are inventing or exaggerating the threat for their own purposes, that is more confirmation that their government can’t be trusted and doesn’t deserve the protection that the U.S. has been providing them. Any way you slice it, the U.S. should not be taking part in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it should look to extricate itself from the region’s conflicts as soon as possible.