What War Between Iran and Saudi Arabia Might Look Like

Iran missilesSuspicion continues to swirl over the bizarre plot, allegedly by agents of the Iranian government, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and launch attacks on the Saudi and Israeli embassies in Washington, DC. Most of the speculation focuses on the veracity of the Obama Administration’s claims and the possible responses. Some commentators have also mentioned the alleged “Cold War” in the Middle East, with Iran and its allies on one side, and Saudi Arabia and its allies on the other. Few observers, however, seem to have written of the likely outcomes if the war were to become “hot.”

While much talk focuses on Iran’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon, some analysts point out that Iran’s military accelerated its missile program as a way to compensate for its inability to match the air power of potential rivals. As a result, Iran now possesses various models of various types (ballistic, cruise, et cetera) of missiles, most of which can reach well into Saudi Arabia and some of which are accurate enough to be used against military bases of various types. These missiles could also hit facilities of the Saudi oil and gas industry, as well as desalination plants, potentially dealing severe damage to the Saudi economy.

The Royal Saudi Air Force would have no choice but to eliminate Iran’s many missiles as quickly as possible. The Saudis would not necessarily know which of the missile sites are home to the high-priority missiles of higher accuracy, thus forcing them to attempt to neutralize them all. If the Iranians are smart, they have prepared (or will prepare) dummy missile sites, which can serve as decoys. The Serbs did this to great effect in 1999 during the attacks on their country by NATO. In any case, the Saudi planes will have to make numerous sorties against Iranian targets (real or dummy), exposing themselves to attack from Iran’s fighters and air defenses. All the while, the Iranians would launch as many missiles as possible, potentially eliminating much of the Saudi air force on the ground, and/or at least rendering bases unusable and forcing the Saudis to withdraw to bases further to the west. Saudi Arabia’s ships, leaving port to avoid incoming missiles, would actually be in greater danger than if they remained in port, but at least they might be able to take the fight to the Iranians.

Opinion is divided as to whether or not a war would unite much of the Iranian population in nationalistic enthusiasm, or whether the dissent of recent years would erupt again. If the Saudis struck first, the former scenario is more likely. As for the Saudis, King Abdullah is in his late 80s, Crown Prince Sultan is only slightly younger and in poor health, and the line of succession becomes contentious after that. The Kingdom’s restive Shi’a primarily live in oil-producing regions near Bahrain, and they (like most Saudis, only more so) do not share their government’s enmity towards Iran. Indiscriminate Iranian strikes could change that, and this may or may not figure into Teheran’s calculations. The upshot of all of this is that a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia could be a fairly even contest, one in which interested third parties might want to play a decisive role.

Scott Charney is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.