Streetwise Professor

January 7, 2016

Be Ready For Praying Mantis II: Other Than That, Stay the Hell Out

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:35 pm

There is no good guy and no bad guy in the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia (and its GCC allies). In its essentials, it is a struggle for regional dominance between two benighted and malign powers.

The theater of the conflict is Iraq and Syria. Iran has some advantages, most notably, it is allied with the government of Syria (now supported by Russia), and for sectarian and geographical reasons has advantages in Iraq. In Syria, Saudi Arabia and its allies must resort to funding and arming the opposition. Its options in Iraq are more limited, but it is likely objectively pro-ISIS.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia can pose a conventional military threat to the other. Iran’s air force is a collection of museum pieces (F-4s, F-14s and F-5s!) seized from the Shah and kept together with bubble gum an duct tape, and some Russian aircraft gifted to them by a desperate Saddam 25 years ago. Iran’s ground forces have no power projection capability. Its units have struggled in Syria and Iraq, and were noted during the Iran-Iraq war mainly for their ability to absorb appalling casualties. Iran’s navy also lacks any power projection capability. Logistics would also render impossible any Iranian attack on KSA.

Saudi Arabia has a very well-equipped air force, with 70 F-15E strike aircraft, 86 F-15C and D air superiority fighters, 72 Eurofighter Typhoon multirole aircraft, and 80 Tornado ground attack planes. This is more than adequate to defend KSA against anything that Iran could throw against it on air, sea, and land. But KSA’s ground forces are, like most Arab armies, woefully ineffective, and mainly intended for regime protection. The Saudis are bogged down in neighboring Yemen, and could not hope to project any force into Iraq, let alone Iran.

Even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, it will have little effect on the balance of power. The Saudis will almost certainly obtain one as well, and a nuclear weapon is more of a regime protection weapon than an instrument of power projection.

Iran’s main weapon is subversion, but this is difficult to employ against a police state like KSA. Indeed, the execution of Nimr Nimr that precipitated the latest crisis was no doubt a signal to Iran that the Saudis were willing to use extreme measures to crush any uprising in the Shia population in the eastern provinces. Also look at the brutal crackdown in Bahrain to see how the KSA and its allies deal with Iran-fomented Shia internal dissent.

So there will be an intensified shadow war between KSA and Iran, fought mainly in Syria and Iraq. Things have intensified now because the Iran deal and the Russian intervention in Syria disturbed the previous equilibrium in the region: this was one of the main reasons the Iran deal, and the administration’s subsequently fecklessness in responding to Iranian provocations, was so ill-advised. The most likely outcome is an intensified struggle resulting in a renewed stalemate.

In terms of oil, the most likely outcome is that the Saudis will figure that Iran suffers from lower oil prices more than they do, so they will not cut output. The Iranians have every incentive to produce as much as they can.

There are loud calls from some quarters that we intervene on behalf of our Saudi “allies.” With allies like this, we need no enemies, given lavish Saudi support for Islamism (and terrorist groups) around the world: indeed, I consider the Iranians’ in-your-face chants of “Death to America” more palatable than the Saudis’ two-faced duplicity. The relationship between the US and KSA is transactional, at best, and is unfortunately suborned by Saudi money which greases far too many palms in DC and Europe.

Stalemate is probably a good outcome from the US perspective. Getting in the middle means we will get it from both sides.

Our main interest is continued flow of oil through the Persian/Arab Gulf. A policy similar to that adopted by the Reagan Administration during the Iran-Iraq War, which largely took a hands-off approach to the conflict on the ground, and focused on assuring the free navigation of the Gulf, is a prudent one. If either side tries to escalate by attacking shipping or laying mines, like during the Tanker War, the US can intervene and smack them down as it did in Operation Praying Mantis.

We have no interest in a civilizational and sectarian war, and probably couldn’t intervene effectively even if we decided to. Neither country is capable of achieving a decisive victory over the other. The main stakes are who gets to rule (albeit indirectly) over a ruined Syria and a dysfunctional Iraq. So limit our involvement to keeping the oil flowing and deterring and preventing terrorist spillover. And definitely don’t take the side of Wahhabi freaks, or think that they are allies worthy of the name.

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  1. Not being a Theologian it appears to me that one of the fundamental differences between Wahhabi and Sunni doctrine is that Wahhabis do not believe in the divinity of Mohammed while the Sunnis do so believe. This is similar to the difference between Judaism and Christianity with respect to Jesus Christ. ISIS destruction of historical sites again seems to me to be fro Wahhabi doctrines with respect to idolatry.

    Comment by pahoben — January 9, 2016 @ 6:57 am

  2. Much better now if Sayyid Qutb had enjoyed his school days in the US. Knowing little about it I don’t understand the strong distinction he made between the US and Europe with respect to Islam.

    Comment by pahoben — January 9, 2016 @ 7:08 am

  3. Ummmm, Bennie… Wahabis are Sunni, a subset of the smallest of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, fostered globally by Saudi Arabia. In 1744, Mohammed Ibn Abt al Wahab made a covenant with the House of Saud. The present Grand Mufti of Riyadh, is a descendent of Wahab. And for four decades the Saudis have been funding radical Wahabi mosques & preachers throughout Europe & worldwide.

    Hence the Islamic State and the significant number of its fighters from Europe…

    Wahabis are unpopular even with other Sunnis. The main victims of the Islamic State in Syria/Iraq are other Sunnis. The Syrian Army fighting them is mostly Sunni.

    Comment by rkka — January 9, 2016 @ 6:26 pm

  4. But we have to stand by them—and not just because they have oil—because they don’t actively work against us like the Iranians do despite the negotiated nuclear “deal” between Tehran and Washington earlier this year.

    So: good on the Saudis for kicking the Iranians out even though the Saudis instigated the recent unpleasantness with their usual appalling behavior.

    Comment by Anders — January 9, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

  5. @Anders
    During the last 20 years all Islamic related attacks on US embassies and on US soil were conducted by Wahhabi related groups that enjoyed some support directly or indirectly from the House of Saud. I agree that prior to these years most attacks were by Shia related groups. The House of Saud is concerned only with the interests of the House of Saud that requires them whether by choice or by necessity to support Wahhabism. Wahhabism is in not compatible with the peaceful practice of any other religion nor other system of beliefs.

    Comment by pahoben — January 10, 2016 @ 5:17 am

  6. Bennie has it exactly. Wahabis are quick to point the finger even at other Sunnis, howl “Apostate!!!” and start chopping heads…

    Comment by rkka — January 10, 2016 @ 7:20 am

  7. In Pakistan’s first transparent nuclear threat to Iran, its chief of army staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, vowed Sunday to wipe Iran off the face of the earth if any harm came to Saudi Arabia. He gave this pledge to Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, who was on a visit to a military base in Rawalpindi.

    Comment by Anders — January 10, 2016 @ 4:47 pm

  8. I think that logic is a bit too simple. Iran (and Russia alongside) might be playing to split Saudi Arabia. Have the Shiites in the eastern province take over and bring the control of the majority of oil production in the world under the control of the new OPEC: Russia, Iran and the Gulf oil producers under the thumb of Iran. In some sense, that’s the only chance Putin has for his regime to survive long-term. Crude prices have to go way up. Notice, a good war in the persian gulf would be a tremendous boon for Russia.

    Comment by Krzys — January 10, 2016 @ 11:08 pm

  9. @Katya
    Yes kind of like a hybrid of Robespierre and the Wesrboro Baptist Church.

    Perfect opportunity for the US to take the Saudi fields and hold against all comers.

    Comment by pahoben — January 11, 2016 @ 1:51 am

  10. …Westboro Baptist Church…

    Comment by pahoben — January 11, 2016 @ 4:19 am

  11. My prediction at start of the first term od the hell years is coming to fruition- BO reportedly scheming for Secretary General of UN. If this progresses the citizenship issue will be very interesting since he is legally a citizen of one of the five permanent members.

    Comment by pahoben — January 11, 2016 @ 5:46 am

  12. Sunnis do not believe in the divinity of the Prophet Mohammed. Islam is very clear on that – Mohammed is not God, Mohammed is not divine. Neither is anyone else. Muslims actually revere Jesus as a Prophet, but are clear that he is not God and God is unitarian, not trinitarian.

    However, there are lots of folk traditions where Sufi saints, or tombs of certain revered imams, and similar have become objects of reverence that cause stricter Muslims some issues, and some of these Wahhabist/Salafist groups have attacked and destroyed them because they feel people have become idolaters.

    The correct analogy would probably be comparing the Wahhabists to some of the crazier Protestant sects who engaged in violence and vandalism to establish an uncorrupted Church by getting rid of all the things they believed were wrongfully added/changed from the original Church. The Iconoclasm controversy in Byzantium would be similar. The analogy here wouldn’t be Theological, but the desire by a minority of people within the religion to re-establish what they believe is a pure form of the original religion and by violently destroying people and things that prevent that. The only difference is that none of these Christian groups were supported by a sovereign country with tremendous oil wealth that allowed them to propagate their ideology around the world and fund terrorism.

    Comment by Chris — January 11, 2016 @ 11:56 am

  13. @Chris
    Thanks and you clearly know more about this. What does Nur mean with respect to Muhammad. Don’t the Wahhabis consider Muhammad just a man whil Sunni’s consider him Nur. My understanding was that this implied Sunni’s consider Muhammad had a special relationship with Allah while Wahhabis consider this not to be the case and so shirk.

    Comment by pahoben — January 12, 2016 @ 5:05 am

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