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.

  • amir

    tnx man….im Iranian we don’t like war…all Iranian don’t……but when they force us there

  • pismopal

    There is a piece of your puzzle missing and that is Israel and Iran knows it all too well.

  • Russia’s Evil

    whatever Russian slug.

  • Daniel

    There is an important issue which is the Shiite population of Eastern Saudi Arabia, These people have much more sympathy with Iran than Saudi Arabia as a result of deep sectarianism inside Saudi. The oil rich eastern Saudi is in the hearth of the Shiite territories, Beside that there is big population of Hothie Shiites in the South, just bordering Yemen where they are killing poor Yemenis. This may collapse Saudi regime in a long all out war or at least ease Persians operation in the Saudi lands.

  • Joe Collins

    No Scott, Saudi Arabia is no match for Iran. Your understanding of military strategy and abilities is limited. With Iran’s huge missile forces in action against Saudi Arabia, the Saudis would be constantly on the back foot. In an all out war, Iran would pummel Saudi air and military bases with a “shock and awe” effect. Saudi Arabia would struggle to get its air force off the ground as medium range missiles hammer control towers and runways. Military bases would be struggling just to survive the onslaught, let alone mount a concerted attack. By the time Saudi aircraft reached the coasts of Iran, they would be faced with one of the most intense, integrated air defense systems in the ME. Stragglers that made it further into the Iranian interior would then face air to air attacks by the Iranian air force. Then after hitting targets in Iran, the Saudi war planes would head home through the same missile defense gauntlet, then have to find a way to land their planes in open desert areas as their air bases would be totally smashed from continuous missile attacks. Saudi naval forces would be extremely vulnerable to Iranian submarines and shore based anti-ship missiles. The Saudi oil industry would also be relegated to ashes and they would be forced to sue for peace on terms favorable to the Iranians. Saudi Arabia simply could not take on Iran, unless, of course, they had the backing and support of their allies, Israel and the United States. . .

  • kal

    I am not Saudi but I wish Saudi win .Iran is an evil Satan .