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Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions
Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions
A Huthi Missile, a Saudi Purge and a Lebanese Resignation Shake the Middle East
A Huthi Missile, a Saudi Purge and a Lebanese Resignation Shake the Middle East
People gather in Ahvaz for the funeral of those killed during an attack on a military parade in the city, on 24 September, 2018. ATTA KENARE / AFP

Iran’s Ahvaz Attack Worsens Gulf Tensions

An attack on a military parade in Iran is raising tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Four Crisis Group analysts give a 360-degree view of perspectives in Tehran, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington and warn that a single attack can trigger further escalation.

An attack on a military parade in the Iranian city of Ahvaz on 22 September, which killed 29 people, dangerously raised tensions in an already volatile Gulf region. Iran accused a local insurgent group (which claimed responsibility), but also pointed to what it said were the group’s enablers in the Gulf and in Washington. The U.S. State Department issued a muted condemnation while proceeding with its otherwise openly hostile rhetoric toward Tehran. And key Arab Gulf states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, stayed mostly silent, failing to condemn the attack or express sorrow for its victims. A tragedy can create opportunities for diplomacy and eventually a new accommodation, but instead, after Ahvaz, all sides are feeding the risk of further escalation.

One Shock Away from Conflagration
By Joost Hiltermann

Iran’s Strategic Patience Stretched to the Breaking Point
By Ali Vaez

More Gunfire Expected Without a New Accommodation in the Gulf
By Elizabeth Dickinson

No Change to Washington’s Confrontational Approach to Iran
By Daniel Schneiderman

I. One Shock Away from Conflagration

The attack on a military parade in Ahvaz comes at a moment of heightening tensions throughout the Middle East following the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in May. A local group called the Ahvaz National Resistance Front promptly claimed responsibility, as did the Islamic State. Iran lent credence to the Front’s claim, accusing the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark of harbouring members of the group and providing them with a media platform. But it also pointed a finger at unspecified Gulf states and the U.S. for sponsoring the attack. The truth may eventually out, but well before that a dangerous escalation could occur in the Gulf on the basis of suspicions alone.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa Program Director

While even the U.S. State Department issued a condemnation of the attack – albeit a muted one – despite the Trump administration’s strong animus toward the Iranian regime, Saudi Arabia remained silent. It may be reckoning that even an expression of sympathy would not absolve it in Iranian eyes, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has barely disguised his hostility toward Tehran. But condolences could help reduce tensions. Tehran is likely to interpret silence as a tacit admission of guilt and this could raise tensions when there is also an opportunity to lower them.

In withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump administration made clear that it deemed the nuclear deal not only inherently flawed but also insufficient in that it failed to cover Iran’s missile program and regional activism through the use of proxy militias. In this latter concern, it found allies in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Israel, which either had mixed views about, or openly opposed, the JCPOA but adamantly opposed any accommodation with Iran as a result of signing the deal. This partly explains enthusiasm with which they greeted an American president sensitive to their primary concerns and willing to counter Iran, at least rhetorically.

The situation in the Gulf therefore is increasingly fragile: one reckless move [...] could set the region aflame.

Like his predecessor, Trump appears wary of being drawn into a war in the region. At the same time, his regional allies are becoming impatient, seeing Iran’s hand in political struggles and violent conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. They want U.S. help in pushing back Iran’s influence in the region because they cannot confront Iran’s missiles or militias alone and walk away unscathed. So far, they have benefitted from Tehran’s decision to ignore provocations while it tries to save the JCPOA by waiting out the Trump administration. Iran has remained restrained in response to repeated Israeli attacks on its assets and personnel in Syria and continued to abide by the nuclear deal despite Washington’s withdrawal. The notoriously volatile Strait of Hormuz has been calmer than even during the Obama administration after the signing of the JCPOA.

But Iran’s patience could wear thin. Attacks on the guardians of a regime born in the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), may be too much to bear for its hardliners, now likely itching for revenge. The situation in the Gulf therefore is increasingly fragile: one reckless move borne of overconfidence, a misread signal, or a misinterpreted or misattributed event could set the region aflame.

II. Iran’s Strategic Patience Stretched to the Breaking Point

Iran’s border provinces, where the majority of the country’s ethnic and sectarian minorities reside, have been historically restive – be it the Kurds in the west, Azeris in the north east, Arabs in the south west or Balochis in the south east. Like in other frontier provinces, the Ahvazis have legitimate grievances against the central government. Sitting on Iran’s vast oil and gas richness, Khuzestan province remains impoverished and underdeveloped. Discrimination against the region’s majority-Arab population and Sunni minorities dates to the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in the early twentieth century. Severe environmental degradation and relentless dust storms have transformed the province from a “wetland to a wasteland”. These issues have repeatedly stirred protests over the years, including most recently in July, with locals angry about a lack of access to clean water. These local problems have fuelled more radical separatist movements and are exploited by regional and extra-regional powers hostile to the Islamic Republic.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran

The Ahvaz National Resistance Front is an umbrella organisation for several separatist groups, one of which, Nezal ( حركة النضال العربي لتحرير الأحواز or Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Al-Ahwaz ), launched a satellite TV channel seven months ago. It broadcasts a media campaign against the central government in Tehran, inviting the locals to resist its rule through sabotaging oil pipelines and destroying public and private property. The group’s increased activism in recent months points to new resources, which Iranian authorities allege are coming from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with encouragement from Washington.

Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman threatened that “we won’t wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. Instead, we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran”. Such declarations play into the Iranian narrative and fears. So does a 2017 memo by John Bolton, currently the U.S. national security advisor, that advocated “providing assistance” to Khuzestan Arabs and other minorities in Iran as a means of building pressure on the country and containing its regional influence. That neither Riyadh, Abu Dhabi or the White House condemned the attack in Ahvaz (the U.S. State Department did, however) further confirms Iran’s suspicions. These are compounded by commentary from prominent Emiratis that “moving the battle to the Iranian side is a declared option” and that attacks of this kind “will increase during the next phase”.

Regardless of who instigated it – if this wasn’t an independent operation by the Ahvaz National Resistance Front – the attack demonstrates Iran’s vulnerability to the same pathologies that have torn the region apart. Iranian grievances caused by internal mismanagement and shortsightedness could be exploited by regional actors and exacerbated by global powers, further deepening internal fault lines and fuelling tensions. Iran has been largely shielded from this plague so far; if that changes, regional turmoil will doubtless escalate further.

The attack demonstrates Iran’s vulnerability to the same pathologies that have torn the region apart.

The Ahvaz attack, however, could also play in the Iranian leaders’ favour. They have been warning for a while that the hostile administration in the U.S. is not targeting the Islamic Republic, but Iran as a polity. The discourse revolves around the concept of Iran’s “Syria-cisation” – an alleged ploy by the U.S. and its allies to fragment Iran along its ethnic and sectarian fault lines. Propagating a siege mentality could help change the subject domestically from complaints over mounting economic troubles to a nationalistic rallying around the flag to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, which requires a strong central government.

The attack could also play into the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which despite a series of recent missteps (failing to foil ISIS’s twin strikes in Tehran last year, Israel’s January 2018 coup in removing the country’s nuclear secrets from the heart of the capital and now the targeting of the Ahvaz parade on the Iranian equivalent of Memorial Day in the U.S.) is likely to receive more government support to crack down on separatist groups and fix security breaches. It is also likely to have more manoeuvring space to flex its muscles in the region, either by pushing back against Iranian armed dissidents – as the recent missile attacks on the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran in Iraqi Kurdistan demonstrated – or imposing a cost on the U.S. and its allies by indirectly targeting their assets.

There will be tensions between the urge to retaliate and the imperative of sticking to Iran’s “strategic patience” strategy, which the leadership deems expedient for surviving a rough patch. Iran’s response ultimately depends on a broad range of elements, from dynamics within the region to what the remaining parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) can do to preserve some of its economic dividends for Tehran.

III. More Gunfire Expected Without a New Accommodation in the Gulf

The attack in Ahvaz is likely to ratchet up regional tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia while reinforcing widely held, if questionable, suspicions among many in Riyadh and its Gulf allies that the Iranian regime is on the verge of crumbling from within. Calmer actors on both sides would see this moment as a sign that détente between Riyadh and Tehran is more necessary than ever. More likely, however, the incident will embolden those in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Washington who argue for ever-stronger economic sanctions and more direct military pressure against Iran. To at least some of these hawks, the goal is not just to roll back Iran’s regional footprint but to encourage political change in Tehran.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Elizabeth Dickinson, Senior Analyst, Arabian Peninsula

There was a deafening silence from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the hours after the assault. Neither Riyadh, nor Abu Dhabi nor Manama issued statements. The Qatari and Kuwaiti foreign ministries decried the incident in statements that only further deepened splits within the Gulf Cooperation Council. Among Saudi grievances with Qatar is Doha’s warmer relationship with Tehran. (After the United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s chargé was summoned in Tehran the day after the attack, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash tweeted a denial of UAE support for the Ahvaz militants.)

Their silence is illustrative of an increasingly mainstream view in the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini security apparatuses that the region’s ills all link to Iran. While not new, this reading has taken on a new intensity and urgency. Gulf powers sense a regional power vacuum and are engaged in a zero-sum competition to fill space. And unrest is moving ever closer to home, as Yemen’s Iranian-allied Huthi rebels fire ballistic missiles at the kingdom. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are also keen to keep the Trump administration’s attention focused on Iran, realising they may not always have a sympathetic ear in the White House.

There was a deafening silence from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies in the hours after the assault.

In this context, it is tempting for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular to wish for and even anticipate regime change in Tehran. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi viewed economic protests in Iran earlier this year as the first crack in stability. To some Saudi and Emirati commentators, the Ahvaz attack is further evidence of an Islamic Republic whose citizens are losing patience. While they do not expect a full-scale popular uprising tomorrow, they see change on the horizon, provided sanctions can continue squeezing the Iranian economy.

Ahvaz is a particularly sensitive area for the Gulf’s relations with Iran. Home to an Arab minority as well as an important military base, Khuzestan province, of which Ahvaz is the capital, has long been a point of contention between them. It was the area of Iran which Iraqi forces invaded in 1980, hoping to be welcomed by the local population and push on from there to Tehran in a swift motion. Sunnis in the Gulf have often pointed to Iran’s treatment of its Arab Sunni minority (a subset of Khuzestan’s Arab population) as evidence of a sectarian regime that deserves censure. Solidarity with Iran’s Sunni community, in particular, is widespread in the Saudi media and society. Saudi and Emirati commentators pointed to Saturday’s attack as a sign that Iran’s beleaguered minorities are finally fed up.  Tehran is in fact to blame, they argue; Sunnis and other minorities have faced repression for too long. Ahvaz is the inevitable explosion from keeping the lid on a boiling kettle.

In the coming days, some in the Gulf expect that the events in Ahvaz could give Iran an “excuse” to play the regional victim – and offer justification for both a further crackdown on its Sunni minority and an attempt to retaliate in the region. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) “may try to do anything anywhere” in response to the attack, a Saudi analyst close to the government told Crisis Group. 

All this bodes terribly for Iran-Saudi tensions, and in turn, stability in the half-dozen countries where the two powers are competing by proxy. Saudi Arabia and Iran may trade insults, but in Yemen, Iraq and even distant theatres from Afghanistan to West Africa, their respective allies will trade gunfire until the two states find a new accommodation in the Gulf.

IV. No Change to Washington’s Confrontational Approach to Iran

Heading into the coming “high level week” of the UN General Assembly, any U.S. counterpart hoping to see a more dovish side of the U.S. when it comes to Iran policy is likely to be disappointed.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Daniel Schneiderman, Deputy U.S. Program Director

True, the State Department condemned the attack, saying: “We stand with the Iranian people against the scourge of radical Islamic terrorism and express our sympathy to them at this terrible time”. In another context, a statement like this might be seen as a subtle olive branch to Iran. After all, last year the administration blamed Iran’s government for a series of jihadist attacks that took place on a single day in June 2017 against Iran’s Parliament building and Khomeini’s tomb. That yesterday’s milder statement was made under the watch of the highly hawkish current National Security Adviser John Bolton (a lead architect of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran deal) rather than his more measured predecessor, H.R. McMaster, made the discrepancy all the more interesting.

Yet there is no reason to believe U.S. policy is diverting from its confrontational track. The U.S. has made clear since May (when it pulled out of the Iran deal) that it would pressure the Iranian regime to end its destabilising regional activities and reinstate a tough sanctions regime. It followed up by creating the Iran Action Group at State, led by new Special Representative Brian Hook, charged with implementing that policy. More than the Ahvaz statement, the correct bellwether of U.S. posture toward Iran is likely what U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on 21 September (in an interview with CNN’s Elise Labott): “We have told the Islamic Republic of Iran that using a proxy force to attack an American interest will not prevent us from responding against the prime actor”. This referred to the U.S. perception that Iranian proxy forces in Iraq are responsible for attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Consulate in Basra – and was a none too subtle hint that such proxy action could trigger a direct U.S. attack on Iran itself.

Houthi fighters walk at the site of an air strike on a parade square in Sanaa, Yemen on November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A Huthi Missile, a Saudi Purge and a Lebanese Resignation Shake the Middle East

Volatility is rising across the Middle East as local, regional and international conflicts increasingly intertwine and amplify each other. Four Crisis Group analysts give a 360-degree view of the new risks of overlapping conflicts that involve Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon and Israel.

On 4 November 2017, Huthi/Saleh forces in Yemen fired a Burkan 2-H long-range ballistic missile at the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It was intercepted and destroyed before reaching its target. The attack occurred during a profound political shakeup in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to consolidate power, and amid dramatic Saudi political manoeuvrings in the region which led to the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri. Adding to the volatility, Israel has been making veiled – and not so veiled – threats about its intent to prevent Hizbollah from developing an indigenous capacity to build sophisticated precision missiles.

The Yemen War Is a Trigger Point for Wider Conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran – By April Longley Alley

The Potential Cost to Iran of Its Expanding Rivalry with Saudi Arabia – By Ali Vaez

Saudi Arabia’s Counter-productive Show of Strength in Lebanon – By Heiko Wimmen

Israel Faces New Risks in Enforcing Its Red Lines against Hizbollah – By Ofer Zalzberg


The Yemen War Is a Trigger Point for Wider Conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran

By April Longley Alley, Project Director, Arabian Peninsula

Although the Huthi/Saleh alliance has fired dozens of rockets into Saudi territory this year, this missile launch is the farthest on record and the closest they have come to hitting a major population centre. The fact that they have the capability to strike Riyadh raises the political stakes as well as the cost of war for Saudi Arabia. It also means that other Gulf cities may soon be in target range; on 8 November, the Huthis threatened further attacks on Saudi and Emirati ports and airports. Given growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the U.S. administration’s eagerness to push back against Tehran, missile strikes by the Huthis in Gulf countries or in the Red Sea arguably are the single most dangerous trigger points for widening the conflict beyond Yemen to a regional confrontation.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by April Longley Alley, Project Director, Arabian Peninsula CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Yet lost amid the regional dynamics is the Yemeni political context. The Huthi/Saleh alliance didn’t fire the missile as part of the Iranian-Saudi conflict; rather, they did so for domestic reasons. They view their missile program, rightly or wrongly, as the best way to retaliate against Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, which have devastated parts of north Yemen over the past two and a half years, and also as the best bargaining chip in future negotiations. Tellingly, the missile attack came on the heels of two Saudi airstrikes in the Huthis’ home governorate of Saada, which reportedly killed 38 people, eight of them children.

Intra-Huthi dynamics also could be at play. The strike came at a time of behind-the-scenes efforts to restart stalled negotiations to end the war, and thus may have been an indication that the Huthi bloc’s harder-line military wing may be out of step with its political negotiators and is acting to pre-empt talks. In this context, the most effective way to minimise the risk of future missile attacks would be to reduce coalition airstrikes, especially those with the potential to result in civilian casualties, and quickly revive meaningful negotiations so that would-be Huthi dealmakers acquire leverage over hardliners deeply sceptical of a political compromise. Since the missile launch, however, the coalition has done precisely the opposite.

Driven by local factors, the strike nonetheless risks having dangerous regional and even international ramifications. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. directly linked the strikes to both Iran and Hizbollah, on the plausible basis that the Huthis’ mastery of missile technology benefited strongly from their assistance. A Saudi-led coalition spokesman went so far as to warn that the latest attack on Riyadh could be considered “an act of war”, with fingers clearly pointed to Tehran and Beirut.

Driven by local factors, the strike nonetheless risks having dangerous regional and even international ramifications.

Should the Saudis choose to retaliate, they would have only limited options inside Yemen, and these would come with significant risks. They could tighten the noose on Huthi/Saleh-controlled territories through an enlarged and more tightly enforced blockade. They already are doing this. On 6 November, they announced the temporary closure of all of Yemen’s land, air and seaports, ostensibly to prevent the flow of weapons from Iran to the Huthis.

But this approach is fraught with problems. First, whatever weapons are being smuggled into Yemen are unlikely to be passing through the main entry points currently closed off, namely the Huthi-controlled port of Hodeida as well as the Saudi-led coalition-controlled ports of Aden and Mukalla and airports in Aden and Saiyoun (Hadramout). More probably, they are entering Yemen through smaller ports along the Red Sea and Arabian Sea coasts, or through land crossings via Oman – vast areas that are nearly impossible for the coalition to seal.

Second, the Saudis are shooting themselves in the foot by closing off access to areas nominally under the Hadi government’s control in the south. They are punishing the people with whom they are politically aligned and whose support they need to maintain.

Yemen represents the most severe hunger crisis in the world, with an estimated seventeen million people who are food-insecure.

Third and most important are the humanitarian consequences. Supplies to Huthi/Saleh-controlled areas already have been sharply reduced due to coalition restrictions. As imports from Hodeida have declined, the Saudi border crossing of al-Wadi’a and Aden port have picked up the slack. If these vital access points are closed down, civilians will suffer the most, and Huthi/Saleh fighters will be the last and least affected. Already, Yemen represents the most severe hunger crisis in the world, with an estimated seventeen million people who are food-insecure. The coalition’s promise that the embargo will not affect humanitarian assistance is nice rhetoric but of virtually no practical impact. Aid cannot possibly address the food needs of all 27-28 million Yemenis. Sanaa is experiencing severe fuel shortages as a result of the announced closures, and these will further reduce the volume of food reaching markets. They will also affect the water supply, as water must be pumped from deep underground.

So far, the economic strangulation of the north has empowered the Huthi military wing, which has privileged control over and access to limited resources flowing into their areas. There is little reason to believe that more of the same will produce a different outcome.

Military options also are limited. By this point, the coalition has exhausted legitimate military targets from the air. Immediately after the missile strike, coalition bombers unleashed a barrage of airstrikes on Sanaa, repeatedly hitting military targets previously struck, and adding new but largely symbolic ones, such as the city’s parade ground. The coalition could expand its target list to include civilian infrastructure, government buildings and the homes of Huthi/Saleh leaders, as it has done in the past. But this would bring international scrutiny and condemnation as a result of inevitable civilian casualties, while also feeding the deep and growing resentment toward Saudi Arabia in the north.

The coalition also could put more troops on the ground to try to capture territory in north Yemen. One problem it would face is where to find such troops. Saudi-trained and supplied Yemeni forces consistently have failed to register military successes. Saudi Arabia has not been willing to put its own troops on the ground and is probably less likely to do so now, given developments inside the country. In contrast, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has committed troops in southern Yemen and has proven quite capable, but it remains unclear how much further they can or will go, given that a fight in the Huthi/Saleh northern heartland doubtless would result in significant casualties.

The U.S. conceivably could step in to help the coalition capture Hodeida and other areas. While this may produce gains, it likely would rally additional northern fighters to the fronts, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. The battle would become increasingly prolonged if it subsequently moved into the highlands.

In short, what can be done from the air in Yemen has already been done. What territory could be taken in the south with the strong backing of local populations has already been taken. Additional gains on the ground would be costly for all sides involved. Given that they are fighting on their home turf, Huthi/Saleh fighters almost certainly have a higher tolerance for escalation than their adversaries.

What is more, the attack on Riyadh temporarily brought the Huthis and Saleh’s forces closer together. Their cooperation had been fraying and their incipient divisions had opened up a small window for negotiations, as Crisis Group argued in a recent briefing. Yet today, both view the missile launch as a resounding success. Absent the resumption of political talks, the prospects for which have suffered a clear setback, we should expect more missiles headed toward Riyadh, and sooner or later a Saudi/U.S. response, whose target could be Yemen, Iran or Hizbollah. By all accounts, the current trajectory bodes poorly for a return to stability in Yemen, and may presage an ominous escalation in the region.


The Potential Cost to Iran of Its Expanding Rivalry with Saudi Arabia

By Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran

U.S. as well as Saudi officials have claimed that Tehran plays a substantial role in arming the Yemeni movement, particularly through the provision of missile parts and training. While there is evidence of Iranian weapons supplies to the Huthis, including the transfer of drone technology, as well as of Iranian advisory and training support to the Huthis, notably via Hizbollah, the same cannot be said regarding any ongoing provision of significant amounts of military hardware.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Likewise, although Iran sees real benefit in a Saudi Arabia caught in the Yemeni quagmire at very low cost to Tehran, it is unclear whether Iran exerts the kind of influence over the Huthis that would enable it to order or prevent such an attack. Indeed, the Huthis are known to have ignored Iran’s advice on consequential decisions in the past, for example when they entered Sanaa and subsequently moved south to Aden. In other words, Iran ultimately might pay a price for actions by an allied group it does not control.

Against this backdrop, Iran’s ties with the Huthis are a subject of debate among Tehran policymakers. One view, prevalent in the military and security establishment, appears to consider the Huthis a natural, potentially long-term ally, and accordingly argues for strengthening the group in order to keep Saudi Arabia off-balance. The second is the perspective of the elected government of President Hassan Rouhani, which sees Iran’s ties with the Huthis as useful, but only as long as the group’s actions do not harm Iran’s strategic interests.

Iran ultimately might pay a price for actions by an allied group it does not control.

For now, some in Tehran seem to be sensing the risks. The hard-line Kayhan newspaper explicitly welcomed the missile strike on Riyadh as an apt retaliation for the devastation the Saudis have inflicted on Yemen, and speculated that Dubai could be the Huthis’ next target. In response, the country’s Supreme National Security Council suspended the powerful outlet for two days for undermining national security. This was virtually unprecedented, given Kayhan’s position on the political spectrum, and reflects sensitivity at the highest levels against handing Iran’s foes a good pretext to retaliate. Even generally hard-line politicians say they see Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel colluding to heat up the region’s conflicts, including by destabilising Lebanon, in order to push the U.S. and Iran into a military confrontation.

This development also should be seen in the broader context of Iran’s rivalry with the U.S. and its regional allies. Friction between them is rising in eastern Syria as both sides rush to seize territory from a rapidly diminishing Islamic State (ISIS). This also comes at a time when the Trump administration has launched a broad campaign to demonise Iran as the source of all the region’s troubles and as acting in collusion with al-Qaeda, while refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement, thereby casting doubt on the accord’s sustainability. All of this has heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and none of which has been accompanied – let alone mollified – by diplomatic engagement between the two countries.

In the eyes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, not responding to U.S. aggression only would invite more of it.

If the U.S. were to take military action against Iranian facilities in reaction to the Huthi missile strike, Iran’s response likely would depend on circumstances. If the strike originated from the territory of a regional country, Iran arguably could directly retaliate against it. Conversely, if the strike originated from a U.S. warship, a direct response would be far less probable given U.S. escalation dominance. In either case, the more plausible reaction would be indirect and asymmetric, using Iran’s proxies or partners to target U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. Iran’s leaders likely know that they could lose control of such a dynamic and they do not seem hungry for a direct military confrontation. Still, in the eyes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, not responding to U.S. aggression only would invite more of it.


Saudi Arabia’s Counter-productive Show of Strength in Lebanon

By Heiko Wimmen, Project Director, Iraq/Syria/Lebanon

That Prime Minister Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh clearly made him look like he was acting on Saudi orders. That impression was reinforced by what had happened both prior to and after that event. Immediately preceding the announcement, strongly worded anti-Hizbollah statements had come from prominent Saudi officials, including Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer Sabhan. Later, none of Hariri’s advisors in Lebanon could fully explain what happened, where he was going, and whether he was free to return. Under the circumstances, most Lebanese political leaders assumed Hariri was being held against his will. If Riyadh wanted to show the world that it was in charge of Hariri’s fate, it succeeded.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Heiko Wimmen, Project Director, Iraq/Syria/Lebanon CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The question is why Riyadh made this decision now. Saudi Arabia implicitly blessed the deal Hariri struck with Hizbollah and that allowed him to gain the premiership nearly a year ago. That the Saudi leadership ever could have seriously entertained the notion that Hariri could “rein in” Hizbollah appears fanciful if one takes even a cursory look at the group’s relationship to previous Lebanese governments since 2005, which it either dominated, defied or toppled at will.

Nor is it plausible to assume that Hariri’s resignation would compel Hizbollah to change its ways. With the party and its allies effectively monopolising the vote of the Shiite community – roughly a third of the Lebanese population – no government can be formed without its consent. The most likely near-term scenario is therefore that Lebanon once again will be stuck without a functional government, a situation that arguably serves Hizbollah more than harms it. Indeed, rather than being portrayed as the source of the problem, Hizbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, now can cast his party as a proponent of “safety and stability for Lebanon” – as he did in a televised speech the day after Hariri’s announcement – whose partner walked out on him at the behest of a foreign power. Finally, being out of government does nothing to restrain Hizbollah’s regional activities.

The most likely near-term scenario is therefore that Lebanon once again will be stuck without a functional government

That leaves other possible motives for Riyadh to have made its move now. With the U.S. adopting a harder line against Iran and slapping new sanctions on Hizbollah, Saudi Arabia may have sensed an opportunity to reinforce that trend in order to isolate and pressure its regional rival. Hariri’s resignation as prime minister on the grounds of excessive Iranian and Hizbollah meddling furthers that goal by bolstering the case that those two actors need to be restrained and that coexistence with either one is impossible. It also paves the way for possible punitive action against Lebanon and the Shiite movement, again with the goal of weakening both it and its Iranian ally.

For now, Hariri’s resignation on its own is unlikely to have a major impact on the political situation in Lebanon. It will not destabilise the country in the near future, and he could theoretically remain in a caretaker position until elections in 2018. Likewise, while regional pressure on Hizbollah could rise, no domestic actor is in a position to mount a credible military challenge to the Shiite movement. And the manner of Hariri’s departure is unlikely to galvanise an already weakened Sunni community to mobilise on his behalf.

The most immediate cause for worry is of an economic nature. With the Qatari precedent in mind, and in light of Saudi statements casting the Lebanese government as an enemy, Lebanese officials and members of the business community are bracing for Riyadh’s and its Gulf allies’ potential punitive measures. Already, several Gulf countries have ordered their citizens to depart Lebanon. Should they either cut off imports from the country or, worse, expel some of the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese living in the Gulf – thereby affecting billions of dollars in remittances – the impact on an already fragile economy could be dramatic. What Qatar could cushion thanks to its vast wealth and reserves, Lebanon would have a far harder time to survive. Saudi Arabia’s Western allies in particular ought to urge it to refrain from such a devastating step.

What Qatar could cushion thanks to its vast wealth and reserves, Lebanon would have a far harder time to survive.

The other question on Lebanese minds has less to do with Saudi Arabia or their own domestic actors than with Israel. It remains the only force that could seriously degrade Hizbollah’s military capability, which would have a devastating effect on the rest of the country. Israeli officials have drawn an implicit red line regarding the transfer of production facilities for the domestic manufacturing of precision-guided missiles. A serious build-up of Hizbollah and other pro-Iranian forces on Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights also could become a casus belli. Hariri’s resignation and Saudi Arabia’s assertion that Lebanon is now in the hands of a terrorist entity arguably facilitates an Israeli assault. But the Shiite movement and many others in Lebanon seek reassurance in what they call the “balance of terror”: the prospect that an Israeli attack could provoke Hizbollah to rely on its massive stock of short-to-mid-range missiles to strike Israeli civilian areas.

Lebanon in the Crosshairs

Crisis Group's Project Director for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq Heiko Wimmen explains from Beirut what might have driven the Lebanese Prime Minister to resign and the effects that the Saudi confrontation with Iran might have on Lebanon's stability. CRISIS GROUP/JGL


Israel Faces New Risks in Enforcing Its Red Lines against Hizbollah

By Ofer Zalzberg, Senior Analyst, Israel/Palestine

Israel is concerned about Hizbollah’s growing strength in both Lebanon and Syria because of the severity of damage their next war would cause on the Israeli home-front – damage so severe that the prospect of such a war could curb to a degree Israel’s freedom of manoeuvre for fear of triggering one.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Ofer Zalzberg, Senior Analyst, Israel/Palestine CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

In particular, Israeli officials say they will do their best diplomatically and militarily to prevent Hizbollah from setting up offensive infrastructure in south-west Syria because its defence establishment assesses that Israel’s deterrence doctrine would likely fail to effectively prevent its use should that occur. If Hizbollah were to move into the area, it could fire across the border at Israeli civilians while Israel would be limited to targeting Hizbollah fighters in retaliation; these, as Israeli sees it, can easily be replaced. (By contrast, in Lebanon, Israel’s ability to harm civil infrastructure has restrained Hizbollah). Indeed, Israel’s only way to exact a real cost from Hizbollah in Syria in such a scenario would be by attacking targets in Beirut, Damascus or Tehran. This easily could provoke a broader conflagration that Israel might well rather avoid.

Israel is concerned about Hizbollah’s growing strength in both Lebanon and Syria because of the severity of damage their next war would cause on the Israeli home-front.

Moreover, Israel specifically marked provision of high-precision long-range missiles to Hizbollah as a red line, and has attacked dozens of convoys crossing Syria to enforce it. These actions have not stemmed the tide of long- and short-range missiles and rockets, of which Hizbollah now reportedly has over 130,000 in its arsenal, as compared to roughly 15,000 in 2006, prior to their last war. But they did limit the number of high-precision long-range missiles that came through Syria, the kind that can deliver a 400kg warhead on a tall residential building in downtown Tel Aviv and generally threaten Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s strategic maritime gas rigs.

Reports since July have suggested that Hizbollah is trying to establish underground long-range missile factories in Lebanon with Iranian support. Israel relayed messages to the U.S. and others that it would take military action to prevent this, a warning that, according to Israeli officials, induced Hizbollah to freeze construction. The dominant official view in Israel is that it can afford to take out any such facility should construction resume, because any Hizbollah retaliation to such a targeted strike likely would itself be narrowly focused and thus fall short of triggering a full-fledged war.

The Israeli establishment also expects Russia to restrain Hizbollah, just as it has restrained President Bashar Assad when Israeli strikes took out Syrian military targets over the past few months. They believe Iran is similarly not keen to see Hizbollah’s military arsenal destroyed over this: it has armed Hizbollah, in part, as a second-strike capacity to deter Israel from striking Iran itself, a threat Tehran obviously would want to maintain. Hizbollah itself has more pressing priorities as its fighters continue to fight in Syria. In short, Israel views a limited Hizbollah counter-attack as the more likely reaction and a risk that would be worth taking to prevent Hizbollah from acquiring the indigenous ability to produce high-precision long-range missiles. In turn, Israeli plans assume a purposefully limited reaction to any such Hizbollah retaliation.

A large-scale military confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah is an unlikely direct or immediate result of Hariri’s resignation

This situation imposes certain limits on Israel. As noted, its army leadership knows it needs to restrict its military objectives in order to reduce chances of all-out war. It also will need a compelling legitimising narrative to secure broad international backing – possibly coupled, unfamiliarly, with explicit regional support given the recent upswing of Iran-Saudi tensions – and domestic public support in the event that a strike and counter-strike scenario leads to full-scale war.

A large-scale military confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah is an unlikely direct or immediate result of Hariri’s resignation if only because – as far as Israeli officialdom is concerned – not much has changed. It has long argued that Hizbollah effectively controls Lebanon. Yet, his stepping down provides grist for the public relations mill, since it reveals to the world Israel’s contention about the power balance in Lebanon. Netanyahu seems keen to use this in order to further mobilise international pressures against Hizbollah.


Former Deputy Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
Senior Adviser to the President & Project Director, Iran
Project Director, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon
Former Senior Analyst, Arab-Israeli Conflict