A ballistic missile was fired over the Saudi Arabian capital on Nov. 4, 2017. The Saudi authorities were quick to interpret the attack as a declaration of war by Iran against Saudi Arabia. The question is: Why did Saudis interpret the attack this way? Many analysts viewed this statement of Saudi Arabia as a premature positioning of the young, hawkish and unexperienced Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. However, there must have been something above and beyond this explanation.
Before addressing this question, one would need to retake a look at the Shia political theory (imamate), according to which “the authority” belongs to Imam Mahdi, the twelfth Shia Imam and his true representative, who, by definition, is the Shia religious authority. Based on this idea, all Muslim rulers, whether they are democratic or not, are no more than pretenders, as they are not the representatives of Imam Mahdi.
“Leader of all Muslims”: Operating within the framework of imamate, the Islamic Republic, right from the very beginning of its establishment in 1979, has been trying to project Shiaism as the source of Islamic standards and the symbol of what they refer to as “Pure Mohammadan Islam” (islam-e nab-e muhammadi), and the Supreme Leader of Iran as the leader of the Muslim ummah, that is, all Muslims around the world. The claim for the universal leadership of the Muslim ummah is clearly reflected in the title used for the Supreme Leader, “Leader of the Muslims of the World” (valiyy-e amr-e muslimin e jahan). This claim is also reflected in the Iranian constitution. Article 109 of the constitution mentions, under the qualifications for the supreme leadership, that the candidate should be just and pious “as required for the leadership of the Muslim ummah”.
Exporting the revolution: In line with this premise, Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, came with his doctrine of “exporting the revolution”. Though over the years the doctrine has been subject to different interpretations, in the first decade of the Islamic Republic, it was taken to be a physical export of the revolution. Accordingly, people who received the message of the revolution favorably were invited to Iran and provided with sanctuaries as well. Special offices, known as “Freedom Movements Unit”, were established in the Foreign Ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. A number of conferences were held, attended by people wearing masks, from the Philippines to Palestine and Lebanon to Iraq. Some military adventures, such as the military coup in Bahrain in 1981, were also initiated.
Mosavi’s letter to Khamenei: The Islamic Republic of Iran’s misadventures across the world grew so frequent that they became problematic for the executive branch of the government, and eventually led to the resignation of the then Prime Minister Mir Hussain Mosavi in 1989. In this regard, one would need to re-read his resignation letter, addressed to the then President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is now the Supreme Leader. The letter was made public in 2010, once Mosavi had emerged as the icon of the Green Movement following the 2009 controversial presidential election. It reads:
“In order to not allow the enemies of Islam and the country to misuse the issue, in my resignation sent to the media, I did not mention the reasons.”
He then mentions the “ineffectiveness of the government in foreign policy” as the key reason behind his resignation, and writes: “Today, the affairs of Afghanistan and Iran and Lebanon are in your hand …. Overseas operations are being conducted without the knowledge and instruction of the government. You know better how catastrophic and destructive they have been to the country so far. After that, an airplane is hijacked, we [the executive] hear about it afterwards; when a gun is fired on a Lebanon street, and its sound echoed everywhere, then we come to know about the issue. After the discovery of explosive materials possessed by our pilgrims in Jeddah [Saudi Arabia], I was informed of the affair. Unfortunately, and despite all the negative effects that these activities have born on the country, still such operations can be carried out at any moment and anytime in the name of the government …. I am not able to answer to the Cabinet members and parliamentarians about the operations that they are being conducted without the knowledge of, but in the name of the government.”
These words date back three decades, when Iran had just ended a long war with Iraq, and, of course, the Guardian of the Islamic Revolution (GIR) was not as powerful as it is today.
Difficult years: That said, Saudi Arabia has always had a special place in the doctrine of “exporting the revolution” since the Supreme Leader’s so-called “Muslim world leadership” seems incomplete without having an effective control over the twin Muslim holy cities (Mecca and Medina). As mentioned in Mosavi’s letter, the Islamic Republic prematurely attempted to smuggle weapons into Saudi Arabia in the luggage of Iranian pilgrims as early as 1986. In the years that followed, the Islamic Republic started suffering strategic disadvantages. Afghanistan fell to Taliban, and Saddam was in power in Iraq. Iran was declared as part of the axis of evil and utterly crippling sanctions were imposed on it. Therefore, the destabilization plan for Saudi Arabia had to be postponed.
Iranian advances: But, over the last decade, many things have changed. The Islamic Republic has spent a lot to improve its strategic position through breeding Shia militias across the region.
At the moment, relatively speaking, the Islamic Republic has an upper hand in the Middle East. The morale of the GIR is significantly high. It has succeeded in Syria, despite huge causalities. Iranian proxy wars in Syria and Yemen have already exhausted the Saudis. The Islamic Republic is controlling four Arab capitals: Beirut, Sana’a, Damascus, and Baghdad. To be more specific, the Saudi establishment is under Iranian threat from the north through Iraq and from the south through Yemen. Besides, Oman is closer to Iran, and Qatar has also sided with Iran. One should also add the power-struggle within the Saudi royal family.
On the other hand, the anti-Arab nationalism is growing in Iran albeit at the cost of decreasing the popularity of the theocratic regime. Above all, the relations between the government of Hassan Rouhani and the GIR has been improving since the recent move in the U.S. to declare the GIR as a terrorist organization.
All in all, the situation is very appealing for Iran. After four decades, the Islamic Republic has got a long-sought-after opportunity to go beyond its anti-Saudi rhetoric and actually materialize its aim of destabilizing Saudi Arabia. However, the Islamic Republic is unwilling to shoulder this responsibility directly and enter into a conventional confrontation with Saudis; it is rather aiming to do it through its proxies.
Therefore, like Syria, the human resources of this war will be outsourced from non-Iranian Shia sympathizers from Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, etc. Iran only takes care of the financial side, and as such, does not stand to lose too much because any conflict with Saudi Arabia would definitely cause oil prices to go up, so that Iran can compensate its expenditures. At worst, Iran gets some blame, and that is the cost Iran is ready to pay. After all, the Iranian foreign minister is active on social media, and with his strong English language skills, he can counter these blames.
Time for proxy wars over: It seems that Saudis have read this Iranian strategy, which is why they are directly blaming Iran. They are making it clear to the Iranian authorities that in the case of any stabilization, they will not buy Iranian ready-made arguments, such as “the attacks are carried out by Ansarallah in Yemen, and not by Iran”, or “Iran is only providing advisory help to the Houthis”, or “those outsider Shia fighters are volunteers, not sent by Iran”, or “they are there only to protect some holy places in Mecca and Medina”, etc. Saudis are already talking in terms of “balance of terror” and “mutual destruction”. They are conveying the message that they will take the battle inside Iran, should Iran attempt to destabilize Saudi Arabia.
To be specific, Saudis are effectively telling Iran that the time for proxy wars is over and they have to decide between a ‘conventional war’ and ‘no war’. After all, a Persian proverb says: “marg yik bar, shivan ham yik bar” (one time death, one time mourn [better than cry everyday]). However, it is difficult to measure to what extent Saudis would succeed since they do not have significant war experience. War is more than having money and modern weapons.