Saudi Arabia vs. Iran: A regional spat with global implications

Map of Saudi Arabia

On Sept. 14, a wave of drone attacks struck a state-owned Saudi Arabian oil facility, a major blow to the desert nation’s petroleum production. Yemen rebels claimed responsibility, but the Saudis insist the Iranian government was behind the attack and have encouraged the international community to punish Tehran. 

President Trump, who walked to the brink of airstrikes on Iran last spring but pulled back at the last minute, recently announced the U.S. government will send roughly 200 troops and some military equipment to Saudi Arabia, a major ally. It’s unclear, however, whether a more robust display of military muscle is coming. 

Penn Today asked political scientist Michael Horowitz, who specializes in international relations and military decision-making, to explain the situation and outline what might happen next. 

How did we get here? What’s the back story?

Iran and Saudi Arabia have competed for influence in the Persian Gulf region and the Middle East for decades. The competition includes the involvement of both countries in the ongoing war in Yemen. Iran backs Houthi rebel groups, while Saudi Arabia and other Arab states (mostly Sunni) have supported military action in favor of the Hadi government. 

Tensions spilled over recently, as Iran allegedly launched a combination of drones and missiles to hit oil facilities in Saudi Arabia run by Aramco. Iran has denied responsibility, but the United States and its allies and partners are convinced that Iran is responsible. The damage to Saudi oil production capacity was significant, though short-term. Saudi oil production capacity is already being restored.

President Trump is sending a small number of troops to Saudi Arabia, and there is talk among a swath of international allies about getting involved too. Do you see this becoming a bigger military presence?

Saudi Arabia is traditionally very sensitive about large troop deployments on its territory, so it is likely that any military presence will be small. However, the United States already has a number of significant military facilities in the Persian Gulf region. The Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and the United States also has a military presence in Kuwait, Qatar, and elsewhere. Thus, it is likely that any deployment to Saudi Arabia, absent a war, will stay limited.

What’s the worst case scenario here? What’s the face-saving scenario for all sides?

The worst case scenario, a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that would also involve the United States, is very unlikely. None of the actors involved seems to want war. And political science research suggests that countries are pretty good at finding off-ramps away from conflict when they do not wish to escalate. 

Elizabeth Saunders and I wrote a piece on this back in June, about how war is unlikely. I think all of the points we made are still true.

There’s been a fair amount of speculation that Trump’s decision to pull back from air strikes on Iran earlier this year has emboldened the Iranian government. Do you think that’s true? 

It is hard to say. Iran is reportedly struggling a great deal under U.S. and international economic sanctions. The attacks may have been an attempt to signal to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other countries that Iran has the ability to strike them and do damage despite sanctions. 

It is also possible, in theory, that Iran was emboldened by the Trump administration’s decision to not strike Iran in June. The challenge is that good information on the mindset of Iran’s leaders at this moment is limited, which makes it difficult to draw good inferences about what really motivated Iran’s leaders in ordering the strike, presuming, of course, that the publicly reported intelligence information is correct and Iran’s government is responsible. 

Whatever the motivation, the attack did clearly demonstrate Iran’s ability to threaten important targets in Saudi Arabia, at least in the short-term.

Do you think Iran will attempt to restart its nuclear program? Or will there be a new deal, as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested?

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are complicated. On the one hand, acquiring nuclear weapons can serve as a form of invasion insurance, as North Korea has demonstrated. To the extent Iran’s leaders believe they need nuclear weapons to provide for their security, it is not surprising that they have shown interest in acquiring nuclear weapons. 

On the other hand, acquiring nuclear weapons would further isolate Iran from the international community, and Iran relies on oil exports for wealth and has ambitions of furthering its economic development.  

Michael Horowitz is a professor in the Department of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the interim director of Penn’s Perry World House.