Rarely does the slow-burn regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran erupt into violence as it has in Yemen, and rarely with such a lack of strategic impact.
After a month of airstrikes against Iranian-allied Houthi rebels that have left nearly 1,000 people dead, Saudi leaders – under pressure from their US and Yemen allies – abruptly declared victory Tuesday and said the thrust of their ongoing efforts would be political, not military.
Many in Saudi Arabia have lauded the air campaign as a kinetic and decisive step to reverse “Iranian expansionism” in the Middle East, but Iran has been dismissive, warning that Saudi “noses will be rubbed in dirt.”
Riyadh said its airstrikes had destroyed the heavy weapons and ballistic missiles captured by the Houthis, but despite heavy casualties, the rebels’ advance barely slowed. The airstrikes are ongoing.
Analysts are interpreting the sudden Saudi assertiveness in Yemen as evidence that Riyadh sees Iran as having the upper hand now in the regional rivalry and feels increasingly incapable of countering its rival in proxy arenas across the Middle East. This perception, the analysts say, also led the Saudis to overestimate both the Iranian-Houthi relationship and Yemen’s importance to Iran.
Fueling this Saudi mindset are Iran’s dominant role in Iraq and its thawing of ties – through ongoing nuclear negotiations – with Saudi Arabia’s historic ally, Washington.
Iranian setback in Syria
How deserved a Saudi inferiority complex may be is another question. In Syria, to be sure, President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian allies have suffered significant recent losses at the hands of rebel forces backed by Saudi Arabia, its regional allies, and the US.
And Washington bolstered its armada in the region this week by sending the USS Roosevelt aircraft carrier and a destroyer closer to Yemeni shores as a message to Iran. The US has also provided intelligence for the Saudi airstrikes.
In defense spending, too, Saudi Arabia spent $80 billion last year on high-tech US and Western hardware – eight times more than Iran’s military budget, according to the SIPRI Military Expenditure Database and Iranian budget data.
But in other proxy battlefields from Iraq to Lebanon – and indeed in Yemen – Iran’s influence is widely perceived as dominant.
“I think [the Saudis] are genuinely convinced that Iranian support to the Houthis is substantial and decisive, and that that has put Saudi security in considerable jeopardy,” says Shashank Joshi, a military analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
By contrast, Western diplomats say privately that Iran's support has been "modest, slight, indecisive and very limited," Mr. Joshi says.
“As indecisive and incoherent as [the air campaign] may be, I think it is a very significant show of strength,” says Joshi, adding that the Iranians were taken by surprise. “If you were sitting in Tehran, I think you would have to ask … ‘Does this herald a new kind of Saudi activism on Syria and Iraq as well?’"
That question remains open.
Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University, characterizes the Saudi action in Yemen as an emotional overreaction.
The Saudis “know that Iran’s influence in Yemen – unlike in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria – is very limited, and the importance of Yemen to Iran is far, far less than Iraq, for instance,” he says.
“To me, they did it very emotionally, and tried to mobilize their resources to blame Iran for what is happening there. They know that is not the case,” he says.
Mr. Hadian-Jazy blames “myths” of the Persian Empire and Shiite Crescent that have been used by Sunni leaders concerned by the spread of Iranian influence, but also played upon by some gloating Iranian officials.
“If there was any signal to Iran, it was that [Saudi Arabia] did not have a strategic thinker who calculated these things,” he says. “They should have had much better intelligence, much better analysis, and they did not.”
The official response in Tehran has also been withering, focused on the high death toll – a result of airstrikes deemed indiscriminate by some international aid groups – and lack of an apparent endgame.
It also focused on the new leadership in Saudi Arabia, where a new king, Salman, was enthroned in January following the death of his half-brother Abdullah. Salman’s son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, believed to be in his 30s, was appointed as defense minister.
Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament, told lawmakers Wednesday that Saudi Arabia suffered a “downright defeat” and that the country’s “wise men” should examine their own behavior, their loss of “Islamic honor,” and recognize that Saudi Arabia “does not have the necessary power to solve regional crises.”
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, this week repeated his April 9 comparison of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen to Israel’s destructive battle in Gaza last summer.
“Despite disputes, #Saudis used to display composure with us but now inexperienced #youngsters have come to power and replaced composure with barbarism,” Mr. Khamenei had tweeted two weeks ago.
The hard-line newspaper Kayhan said the airstrikes mean Saudi Arabia “will have a serious enemy on its borders from now on,” a result of the monarchy “starting a war to show its hegemonic authority in the region.”
Both sides convinced they're losing
At the same time, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took a conciliatory tone in an op-ed in The New York Times, calling for a “collective forum for dialogue” in the Persian Gulf.
“We cannot be indifferent to the unfathomable destruction around us, because chaos does not recognize border,” wrote Mr. Zarif on April 20.
“It’s a two-fold strategy,” says Joshi, the military analyst in London. “On the one side is Kayhan, gloating. On the other side is Zarif with these clever little two-point, three-point plans, New York Times op-eds, with statements of mediation and resolution. And those two go together: Iran wants to be at the table.”
“You have this strange situation where both sides are just convinced that they are losing,” says Joshi, noting a “sense of weakness” felt by Saudi Arabia in Iraq, to give one example, where the US has not taken a tough line against the rising influence of Iran-backed Shiite militias.
But in Syria “Assad is in his weakest position in two years…. And yet, that does not really give any consolation to Saudi Arabia,” adds Joshi. “There is this pervasive sense of mutual vulnerability, from both Saudi Arabia and from Iran.”