- - Sunday, November 12, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A wide variety of threats, ranging from intensifying proxy wars and hostile neighbors to the purge of prominent individuals, seems to be destabilizing the House of Saud.

Last week Saudi Arabia’s government accused Lebanon of declaring war because of the acts of the Iranian-backed terrorist network Hezbollah. The Saudis reportedly intend to impose financial and other sanctions on Lebanon to punish Hezbollah.

When Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, having fled to Saudi Arabia, resigned suddenly on November 4, he blamed Hezbollah and Iran, saying that he feared for his own safety. That fear is entirely reasonable because Hezbollah assassinated his father, in 2005 when the father was Lebanese prime minister.

The following day, Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a missile into Saudi Arabia aimed at the Saudi capital city of Riyadh. Saudi forces, using an American-supplied Patriot missile, shot the Houthi missile out of the sky.

All of this is occurring at the time that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, in what is advertised as a move against government corruption, is arresting Saudi royals and other political opponents. So far the purge has led to the detention of about 60 prominent Saudis including 11 princes and dozens of businessmen.

Regardless of whether the purge is creating instability, the crown prince would not have instigated it unless he had confidence in his own power to sustain it.

President Trump expressed “great confidence” in the Saudi purge, saying they knew exactly what they were doing. They do, but does Mr. Trump?

Crown Prince bin Salman’s goals certainly include the reduction of corruption, but his aim is also to push uncharacteristically aggressive (for the Saudis) foreign and domestic agendas.

The Saudis are squeezed between hostile neighbors dominated by Iran. They include Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, and all share one thing in common: they are dominated by Shiite Iran.

The Saudis fear, perhaps more than anything else, that Iran will ignite a rebellion among the Shiite majority population in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces. That would threaten the Saudi government’s ability to govern a significant part of its own territory.

Syria’s Assad regime has allied itself with Iran and hosts a significant number of Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops. Earlier this year, Iran signed a treaty with Russia and Turkey agreeing to protect the Assad regime in Syria.

Prince bin Salman has accused Iran of an act of war in supplying Yemeni Houthis with the missile fired into his kingdom. Iran, of course, denied having done so. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif countered by accusing Saudi Arabia of waging wars of aggression.

Saudi forces, leading a coalition of Sunni nations against the Shiite Houthis, have been fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen for two years. About 10 thousand people have been killed in the fighting but Iranian aid, including supplying the missiles fired into Saudi Arabia, has prevented Saudi coalition forces from defeating the Houthis. Houthi rebels had fired missiles into Saudi Arabia before the latest incident and undoubtedly will do so again.

The Saudis are now trying to a total blockade of Yemen. If they forcibly block Iranian aircraft, ships or trucks from entering Yemen, war could erupt between the two nations.

The bellicose rhetoric issuing from Crown Prince bin Salman and Mr. Zarif means that the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran will grow hotter. It’s highly unlikely that the two nations will soon wage war against each other directly but the Saudis will feel even greater pressure from Iranian-backed forces to their north and south. Iraq, which has become an Iranian satrapy, may be the next to sponsor militia forces to launch missiles into Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian-Saudi conflict will continue. It will result in more casualties on both sides but won’t resolve the conflict between the two nations. American influence in the region was reduced to near zero during the Obama years of retreats in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Saudis were one of the most vocal opponents of Mr. Obama’s nuclear weapons deal with Iran which they viewed, correctly, as a betrayal of their security.

Some analysts characterize the Saudi-Iranian proxy wars as a new version of the “great game.” It’s not. The Saudi-Iranian conflict is a continuation of the Sunni-Shiite religious wars that have gone on for about 1400 years.

Though we can’t end the Iranian-Saudi wars they do present Mr. Trump with an opportunity to begin rebuilding our influence in the Middle East. He took a small step toward doing so by refusing to recertify that Iran was complying with its obligations under Mr. Obama’s nuclear weapons deal.

In January, Mr. Trump will again have to confirm or deny Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. In October, he denied recertification but stopped short of calling on congress to re-impose sanctions. If he were to — as he should — then revoke the deal and call for sanctions to be re-imposed he could reduce Iran’s threat to Saudi Arabia and strengthen our position in the Middle East.

The president has to walk a fine line. Saudi Arabia is still a principal financial sponsor of a great many Sunni terrorist groups. A call from him to Crown Prince bin Salman demanding that he end Saudi support for terrorism as the price for further American support could directly benefit our national security.

Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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