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Will Riyadh, Manama be Iran’s next targets?

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

It has been seven years since an Iranian member of parliament, who reportedly was close to the Supreme Leader, claimed Iran already controlled four Arab capitals. This occurred after Iranian supported Shia rebels, the Houthis, conquered the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. So what are Iran’s next targeted Arab capitals? 

Iran is more patient than the West, willing to wait years for the right opportunity to pounce. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the capital of the desert Kingdom, is undoubtedly high on the theocratic Islamist Republic’s list, especially as the holiest cities in the Islamic world, Mecca and Medina, are ruled by their rival, the Sunni Saudis. American policy makers underestimate Iran’s desire to export its revolutionary message; rejoining the JCPOA will do nothing to moderate their determination to change the face of the Islamic world by in effect conquering the region.

Today, Iran effectively controls Beirut, Lebanon through its Hezbollah division. Baghdad, Iraq is under Iranian influence through control of the Iraqi Parliament’s pro-Iranian majority, and their affiliated Iraqi militias under the Iranian Republican Guards Corps’ authority. Damascus, Syria is in the Iranian camp because Syrian President Assad acquiesces in Iranian control throughout southern Syria being grateful for them saving his despicable regime, and also powerless to resist their entrenchment there anyway. 

And in Sanaa, Yemen, the Iranian proxy Houthis are on the march again, looking to permanently control the vital Bab El Mandeb passage between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This strategic choke point connects the Mediterranean Sea with South Asia and the Far East through the Suez Canal. 

The Iranians next Arab capital to target could be Manama, Bahrain. Iran considers Shiite majority Bahrain its own. If the Iranians feel empowered by American weakness over time, Bahrain may be targeted by Iran to test America’s resolve to curb Iran’s imperialist ambitions. If this occurred and America did not back Saudi efforts to fight an Iranian incursion on the western bank of the Persian Gulf, a stone’s throw from Saudi territory, it would be a major destabilizing development for the region. The JCPOA’s sanction relief fuels the fire.

The Biden administration is gaining a reputation for itself in the Middle East as willing to talk the tough talk against adversaries, but America’s Sunni Arab allies don’t believe Biden’s crew are willing to walk the walk of tangible actions that match their rhetoric. Timothy Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen said the US is “not going to allow Saudi Arabia to be target practice,” reacting to the recent increase in missile and drone attacks against the kingdom. Yet White House spokesperson Jen Psaki undermined the credibility of that support by saying, “We’ve made clear from the beginning that we are going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia.” The Iranians are loving it.

Noting more contradictory messages, according to AP, the State Department warned Houthi rebels to stop killing civilians, “just 48 hours after moving to strike the group from a terrorism blacklist.” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, We urge the Houthis to refrain from destabilizing actions.” I am sure they and their Iranian patrons are shaking in their boots. 

The message is clear to Iran: rejoin the JCPOA, and we will only challenge you rhetorically. In reality, we will turn a blind eye on your missile development, attacks on US allies, undermining Iraq, and your human rights behavior, from targeting gays and women who don’t toe the line, to assassinating your political opponents. Empty rhetorical warnings. Sounds like the Obama administration all over again. 

Just think of the chemical weapons red-line that Syria crossed and Obama blinked, undermining American credibility throughout the world. Biden’s resurrection of the Obama administration’s Middle East team sends at best mixed signals to Israel, while making our Gulf allies feel more vulnerable to abandonment. 

As the former director general of the Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs General Yossi Kuperwasser said, Iran doesn’t believe President Biden would put all military operations on the table. Iran is a good poker player and they know the current administration is bluffing.

BUT THE most prized Iranian Arab capital is Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Supreme Leader and his Shiite revolutionary regime’s primary desire is the Arabian peninsula where Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in Islam are located, and it galls them that are under Sunni control. Shiite Iran believes, and with some justification, that Shiism has been delegitimized by Sunnis over the centuries. The Islamic Republic of Iran believes its destiny is to control the Middle East and beyond, based on a dangerous mix of modern political Islamism with ancient Persian imperialism.

Last year’s devastating cruise missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, emanating from Iranian-controlled proxies in Iraq and Yemen, exposed the soft underbelly of Saudi defenses. Despite its size and strategic depth, Saudi Arabia’s vastness is also a vulnerability where anti-missile and drone defense is a more complex challenge than in Israel, whose Achilles heel is the opposite, having too little strategic depth. 

The message Iran hears from America is that the US is distancing if not abandoning Saudi Arabia. Based on this assessment Iran is going to test American limits to see how far it can go before the US is forced to act and support its Sunni allies. Nothing makes this more explicit then when the administration repeatedly says the nuclear agreement is entirely separate from all of Iran’s other malevolent activity, and sanctions will be rescinded by simply returning to the JCPOA. 

Iran’s strategy is to increase their provocative behavior as a bargaining chip to gain leverage in negotiations with America. For example, Iran will be rewarded in negotiations for stopping Iranian-controlled attacks against Saudi Arabia, knowing that billions of dollars are on their way into the Supreme Leader’s and the Republican Guards’ coffers. They can always return to their aggressive behavior at a more opportune time when America is distracted with other foreign policy challenges. 

Saudi Arabia is a flawed ally seen by the Biden administration as murderers in light of the Khashoggi assassination. In the words of President Biden, it is a “pariah” nation. Yet its strategic location and the free flow of oil is still a Western priority for the stability of the world economy. 

The best way to change the Saudis’ human rights behavior and curb its nuclear ambitions in response to the JCPOA is to quietly pressure the Kingdom behind the scenes, with an implied threat of a distancing of relations if it doesn’t improve its behavior. However, the Biden administration’s public chastisements and public abandonment threats only embolden the Iranians, destabilizing the region by inviting Iran to take more risks against Saudi Arabia through their proxy network. And it will force Saudi Arabia to turn to China as their superpower friend, something not in America’s national security interest. The Chinese are already binding many of the region’s players through their Belt and Road economic initiative.                                                                                                                                                 
It was music to the Iranian Supreme Leaders’ ears when Biden said he “would make it very clear we were not going to … sell more weapons” to Saudi Arabia.” 

Biden has already snubbed the Crown Prince (MbS), stating that he will not speak with him directly, only his ailing father. But MbS is the de facto leader and will likely control Saudi Arabia for the next 50 years.  

But just as I would recommend that Biden speak to MbS, I even more strongly recommend that he talk directly to the only real power in Iran, the Supreme Leader. The claim that the Iranian President has independent decision-making power is ludicrous. It plays into their negotiating strategy, which they used brilliantly to their advantage from 2012-2015 with John Kerry, Robert Malley and Wendy Sherman. 

America’s goal for the Middle East is stability, not the virtually impossible resolution of it many age-old conflicts. The best path for American, Israeli, and allied national security interests is to encourage and nurture the Abraham Accords, which are the most effective non-kinetic counterweight to Iran at this time. 

Desperately trying to revive the current form of the JCPOA without concurrently prioritizing the normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia sends the wrong message to Iran. American weakness increases the chance for Iran to take aggressive actions and the possibility of Shiite control of Saudi Arabia in this generation. That is something not in American national security interests, unless we want to be pulled back into another Middle Eastern conflict.

The writer is the senior editor for security at The Jerusalem Report. He is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House of Representatives, and their foreign policy advisers. His work appears in The Hill, RealClearWorld, Defense News, JNS, Thinc., JTA, the Forward, Israel-Gulf Report, and Israel Hayom among others.