Riyadh, 05:40 a.m: It’s the first day of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. It is a time of intense prayer and introspection for Saudis and more than 1.8 billion Muslims around the world.
A Houthi, Scud-type ballistic missile aimed at a military camp in Riyadh Province shatters the early morning peace and lands erringly in the Saudi capital, killing 34 people and injuring dozens more. It is unclear why Saudi missile defenses, supplied by the United States, fail to intercept the Burqan-2 missile.
Awake and at work since 4:30 that morning, Mohamad bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler of the Kingdom (also known as MbS), hears the sound of the massive explosion, even though it was many kilometers from his office in the Ministry of Defense.
Like a cat on a hot tin roof, he’s thinking of worst-case scenarios, frantically moving from one room to another trying to process in his mind what might have just happened. Twelve minutes later, as he begins to receive information from his security services and the Governor of Riyadh, his worst fears materialize: Saudi Arabia has been attacked.
MbS has seen this movie before, in fact twice: A few months ago when the Houthis launched a missile at Riyadh’s international airport (the Saudis claimed that the missile didn’t hit its target because it was intercepted in air by a Patriot battery); and more recently when they reportedly lobbed seven missiles at Riyadh, killing one person and wounding several others. This time, however, there appears to be significant damage and multiple Saudi civilian casualties.
The attack has put Riyadh on high alert, causing the drums of war to pound in the entire Middle East.
By 6.30 a.m. MbS has carefully reviewed the status reports and made multiple calls to Saudi government personnel nearest to the blast. But he wants to personally inspect the scene. He alerts his security guards that he’s heading to King Saud Medical City hospital, where doctors are attending to the injured. His mind is racing faster than his armored, black Suburban Chevrolet and the huge convoy following him. “How dare the ayatollahs act so rashly and brazenly?”, he’s thinking to himself.
After checking on and trying to comfort the wounded, he drives to the targeted area to assess the damage. There, he finds a nine-story apartment complex almost completely demolished. It was a lucky but direct hit, right in the middle of the building. He stands there for at least ten minutes scanning the scene with piercing eyes, immobile, speechless. He makes no press statement. He gets in his SUV and zooms to the Al-Yamamah Royal Palace, where he immediately convenes the Council of Political and Security Affairs (CPSA), which he has led since 2017 following the ousting of Mohammed Bin Nayef, his elder cousin and the former CPSA chair and heir to the Saudi throne.
King Salman, MbS’s ailing, 82 year-old father, attends the meeting but soon departs to take calls from foreign leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump. After saying a few prayers, MbS asks for the latest updates. As he reads them uninterrupted, silence in the room descends, creating an unbearable tension. His first words set the tone of the discussion: “My brothers, we’ve been attacked, and we all know who’s responsible.” MbS doesn’t explicitly mention Iran, but everybody knows who he’s referring to.
MbS then orders his generals to provide him with strike options against Iran. Meanwhile, a young assistant enters the room and shares with MbS data of the preliminary inspection of missile debris, showing that it is Iranian-made. This is enough for MbS to confirm his suspicions of Iranian complicity.
A little after midnight in Washington, after he hangs up with King Salman, President Trump goes on Twitter to announce that Iran should be punished for its “naked aggression against our Saudi ally!” U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is at the very same moment on the line with the young Saudi prince, reassuring him of America’s security commitment to the Kingdom. But Secretary Mattis also deftly urges him not to over-interpret his boss’s tweet, and so to exercise restraint, at least until hard evidence of an Iranian role is in hand.
MbS thanks Mattis for his call and concern, but explains to him the strategic need and domestic political logic behind acting sooner rather than later. He leaves it to Washington to decide whether it wants to intervene, but his mind is set: Saudi Arabia has to respond rapidly in order to send a firm message to the Iranians. The alternative is political suicide at the hands of his vexed and alienated cousins in the Al-Saud family, and the weakening of Saudi Arabia in relation to its arch-nemesis. “I can’t let this happen on my watch,” MbS tells Mattis.
Later that day, a little before midnight Saudi local time, six Saudi F-15SA Strike Eagle aircraft—the most advanced variant of the American F-15 planes, specially designed for the Saudis—take off from Prince Sultan Air Base with a mission to bomb an Iranian missile plant in Shiraz in the southwest of Iran. The force is split into two squadrons, with three fighters each. To the surprise of many in the Pentagon, the planes succeed in destroying their target and manage to return to base safely. Saudi pilots use standoff munitions to avoid Iranian air defenses and the technical challenges of air refueling. They also luckily avoid a dogfight with the Iranian air force because Tehran, caught completely off guard, could not scramble interceptor aircraft in time.
A few minutes later, Tehran receives the news of the attack. Iranian citizens, known for staying up late at night, are starting to learn about the incident and sharing news with each other via social media. Street agitation quickly surfaces in major cities across Iran. Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander, has the unenviable task of waking up Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the middle of the night to brief him about what just transpired.
Khamenei vividly remembers Saddam’s invasion on September 22, 1980, and the chaos and panic it created. He specifically remembers the debate that raged in the government about how to respond to Iraq’s aggression. In the end, Ruhollah Khomeini, the godfather of the Iranian revolution, decided to fight back hard and go after Saddam. The rest is well documented by historians. Eight years and more than a million dead Iranians later, the Iran-Iraq War ended in virtual military stalemate, but with a political edge favoring Iraq, for Tehran had failed to depose Saddam.
This attack by Riyadh doesn’t seem as threatening as Iraq’s aggression in 1980, but Khamenei doesn’t know if this is a one-off attack or the beginning of a major campaign. In any event, the fact that it was launched by an old nemesis, who helped bankroll Saddam’s war effort, has a special meaning for Khamenei and his colleagues. He calls a late-night meeting with members of his supreme national security council. There’s some disagreement about how Iran should respond, but there’s an overwhelming consensus on the need to retaliate.
Conventional escalation could lead to general war with the Saudis and likely with the United States and other Gulf partners, an outcome the Iranians want to avoid. A mere slap on the wrist, on the other hand, will signal Iranian weakness, undermine Iranian deterrence, and incur political costs at home. Would the Iranians de-escalate after a retaliation so as to use the incident as an opportunity to ramp up their proxy warfare and augment their gains in the region; or would the hot heads calling for more serious punishment prevail? How does Khamenei achieve the right balance?
This hypothetical scenario is only one example among many of a potential war dynamic between Saudi Arabia and Iran. At every stage of this scenario, critical decisions by Iranian and Saudi leaders, who harbor deep animosities toward each other, have to be made quickly under conditions of tremendous domestic and international pressure. Such decisions are always attended by an avalanche of cognitive distortions owing to small group dynamics and other variables, yet it is those decisions that make the difference between war and peace.
In any war dynamic between Iran and Saudi Arabia, U.S. military intervention or support would be the ultimate exogenous factor for both Riyadh and Tehran. Every American President since Franklin Roosevelt has committed to ensuring the safety and security of Saudi Arabia. Even Barack Obama, who lacked any affinity toward the Saudis, reaffirmed “the policy of the United States to use all elements of our power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and our partners.” When Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, Washington assembled the most powerful coalition in history to act decisively against Saddam and thus protect the Kingdom. There is no compelling reason why the United States wouldn’t do the same today if Iran overtly attacks Saudi Arabia—which was, let us remember, the first destination of President Trump’s first international trip. That’s precisely why CENTCOM is stationed in the region: to act quickly and authoritatively against threats to U.S. interests and the security of America’s partners.
But given that Khamenei most probably won’t be rolling tanks into Saudi Arabia and seeking to capture territory (there is no land frontier between the two countries), how would Washington react to Iranian violence against the Kingdom that falls short of outright, conventional aggression? If the Iranians play their cards right and manage to avoid conventional escalation following a Saudi attack, could Riyadh still count on Washington to intervene?
When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell following Cairo’s popular uprising in 2011, the optic in the region was that Washington did not save its longstanding partner. This was inaccurate; Mubarak’s own military colleagues dumped him after determining that he was long since past his sell-by date, and there was nothing U.S. policy could reasonably have done at that point to “save” him. Nevertheless, Arab Gulf political elites, and especially the Saudis, felt the earth move uncomfortably beneath their feet and heavily criticized Obama. The optic remains, so that in a potential confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or should the stability of the Saudi regime be threatened covertly by Iran, these elites are uncertain whether Washington would remain on the sidelines or come to their rescue.
On the one hand, the United States prefers to avoid war with Iran, assuming that Tehran does not blatantly cross red lines concerning its nuclear program, the safety of American troops in the region, freedom of navigation in the Gulf, and the regime survival of U.S. regional partners. On the other hand, to what extent can Washington tolerate subtle Iranian aggression against the Kingdom that falls below the threshold of conventional warfare but that could still upend Saudi stability? There are no easy answers to this question.
But the search for answers doesn’t have to be purely an American conversation. Indeed, it shouldn’t. Nonetheless, the reality is that Washington does not consult with its Arab partners on scenarios and contingencies that might lead to crisis and war. All talk and strategy is centered on deterrence, but should deterrence fail, what happens next? There is no joint planning when it comes to mutual threats beyond transnational terrorism.
U.S. and Saudi interests would be well served by a meaningful and broad dialogue that touches on some of these difficult matters from both perspectives. Needless to say, it’s better to have that kind of conversation before a military crisis with Iran erupts.
During the Washington portion of his recently concluded U.S. tour, it’s highly doubtful that MbS or any of his attending colleagues conducted a conversation with American officials about joint planning against Iran in Yemen or elsewhere. Instead, Trump’s explanation to his support base about how much Saudi Arabia was going to spend on U.S. arms and, as a result, how many American jobs it was going to create, gives a strong hint of the principal topic of conversation. If leaders in Tehran watched that press conference in the Oval Office, they probably laughed, or at least breathed a sigh of relief, that nothing serious came out of U.S.-Saudi talks.
NATO might not be the best model for partner consultation, but the types of interactions that happen regularly between American and European officials and militaries within the alliance are more meaningful and predictable than the ones that take place between American and Arab Gulf officials and militaries. The more open and multidimensional the dialogue between the United States and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners becomes, the more efficient the collective force posture, and the stronger the collective deterrent. If the United States were ever to draw down in the Middle East—and that day may come sooner than later—forming closer political and military relationships with partners, which goes way beyond selling hardware, becomes a must.
President Trump will have an important decision to make before May 12: to stay committed to or withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran. If Washington leaves and reapplies sanctions on Tehran, U.S.-Iran tensions will skyrocket, especially if Iran itself withdraws and resumes its nuclear enrichment work. That scenario takes us back to square one, which under current circumstances is a formula for war. And it is a prospective war that could drag in the Saudis and other Gulf partners. The time to consult with Riyadh on these contingencies is now.