Saudis Count Heavily on Pakistan in Expected Showdown with Iran
The reciprocal burning of embassies appears to presage the next level of confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Riyadh is preparing for the worst by strengthening its fences. This week, Riyadh sent out two top Saudi officials to make sure that Pakistani backing was solid: King Salman’s son, Mohammad, the powerful defense minister and deputy crown prince, paid a visit to the garrison city of Rawalpindi, Sunday, Jan. 10, the day after the kingdom’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, held talks in Islamabad.
From Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, the prince secured a promise of a forceful response for any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity.
The execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the ransacking of the Saudi embassy by a Tehran mob touched off the threat of a military clash between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is still looming, DEBKA Weekly’s Middle East experts find, due to additional incendiary elements:
1. Iran’s rulers are convinced that the execution was a deliberate Saudi provocation for raising tensions.
2. Tehran shot back with a favorite tactic for venting its fury on foreign governments. A mob was raised to burn an embassy. The Revolutionary Republic of Iran used it first against the US in 1979, and most recently against the British embassy on Nov. 29, 2011.
3. Five days later, on January 7, the Saudis dropped bombs and missiles on the Iranian embassy in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, partly destroying the building and killing or injuring diplomats and Revolutionary Guards officers.
4. In most cases, an attack on a government’s embassy in a foreign capital is a casus belli.
Iran hasn’t formally declared war on Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh is acting as though it has, in the knowledge that Tehran will not stand still for the affront to its diplomatic mission in Sanaa, and will feel bound to recover its honor in the eyes of the Persian Gulf region.
5. The question now is where, when and how Iran proposes to retaliate.
Saudi strategists see a wide range of locations: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, the Persian Gulf, Lebanon or Syria.
Iran runs terrorist cells across the Middle East, including inside Saudi Arabia itself. In the past, Tehran has had no qualms about outsourcing terror. Al Qaeda was employed for a series of attacks in Riyadh in 2003, and local Shiite cells were used to bomb the US military complex at Khobar Towers in June 1996.
Shiite cells in Bahrain could strike the Saudi military forces shoring up the throne there, while, at sea, the Revolutionary Guards air force and fleet, based on the Strait of Hormuz islands of Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb, could instigate a clash with the Saudi fleet.
Tehran is nursing a severe grievance against the Saudi Navy for blocking the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea to Iranian warships last year.
There are also countless Saudi-backed targets in Syria and Lebanon within reach of the pro-Iranian Shiite militias, as well as the estimated 3,000 Revolutionary Guards officers and men and even Hizballah, all of which are fighting for Bashar Assad in the Syria.
To counter this all-encompassing menace, Riyadh sought three things from Islamabad, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report:
a) A specific report on Pakistan’s middleman efforts in Tehran to defuse the tensions.
b) An assurance that this time, Riyadh won’t again be let down by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who last year reneged on his pledge of troops to back Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen..
c) A deal on Pakistani assistance for building a Saudi nuclear arms program comparable to Iran’s.