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Could Saudi Arabia and Iran really go to war?

Key Points
  • Saudi Arabia and Iran's ongoing battle for power and influence rages on in the Middle East but analysts aren't convinced that an all-out war will happen, yet.
  • Many neighboring countries have been drawn into the conflict with Qatar, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon becoming proxy battlegrounds in the fight for regional dominance.
Saudi army officers walk past F-15 fighter jets, GBU bombs and missiles.

Saudi Arabia and Iran's ongoing battle for power and influence rages on in the Middle East but analysts aren't convinced that an all-out war will happen, yet.

Many neighboring countries have been drawn into the conflict with Qatar, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon becoming proxy battlegrounds in the fight for regional dominance.

Relations between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran have deteriorated to a new low recently, particularly over the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the political crisis engulfing Lebanon which has seen its Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resign over what he called Iranian meddling. This has led to speculation that all-out war could be declared by one or another of the Middle Eastern superpowers.

A source in the Iranian government, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the situation, told CNBC last week that Iran was a "peaceful nation" but that it was prepared for conflict if that was the only option left to it.

"We love peace, we're not looking for war but sometimes you should be prepared for war," the source said.

'Pursuing divisions and creating differences'

At the weekend Saudi Arabia convened its Arab League allies in Cairo for an emergency meeting to discuss what it said were "violations" in the region. The group criticized Iran and its Lebanese Shi'ite ally Hezbollah and also called for a united front to counter Iranian interference, Reuters reported.

"The kingdom will not stand by and will not hesitate to defend its security," Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir told the assembly, according to Reuters, adding, "We must stand together." Iran's foreign minister responded to the meeting by saying Saudi Arabia and its allies were "pursuing divisions and creating differences."

Pat Thaker, regional director for the Middle East and Africa at the Economist Intelligence Unit, told CNBC that against a backdrop of "historic intense rivalry" between the two countries, it "doesn't take much for tensions to flare up."

Middle East politics are becoming even more complex: researcher

If there was a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, however, Thaker said "it would be the most dangerous times for the Middle East and the world. But neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran want war." Thaker also characterized the tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a struggle for religious authority in the Middle East, saying that Saudi Arabia was prepared to go to extreme lengths to stop any spread of Iranian influence.

"Saudi Arabia will fight tooth and nail to retain that position as the head of Islam and the Middle East. It will even go to bed with Israel to stop Iran," she said, alluding to the fact that the Jewish state is hardly a natural ally for the Islamic kingdom although they both fear and resent the rise of Iran.

On Sunday, Israel's energy minister confirmed that there had been what he called "covert" contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel amid concerns over Iran but suggested that Saudi Arabia had wanted to keep "the ties quiet," Reuters reported.

Proxy wars

Saudi Arabia and Iran have rival interests and alliances across the Middle East, from Syria to Lebanon, Yemen to Qatar. Regional conflicts in these countries often see Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia and Shia-majority Iran supporting different factions that are often split down religious lines.

With Yemen's civil war, for example, Saudi Arabia backs the Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, a Sunni. Meanwhile, Iran backs the Shia Houthi rebels loyal to the country's former President Ali Abdulla Saleh.

Tensions ratcheted up a notch several weeks ago when Saudi Arabia accused Iran of being behind a ballistic missile attack carried out by Houthi militias. The missiles were intercepted as they headed to the Saudi capital Riyadh, Saudi Arabia said, adding that it perceived the attack as a "declaration of war" by Iran. Iran described the allegations as "unfounded."

Meanwhile, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar — already high due to Saudi-led economic blockade on the country — have also risen because Qatar restored diplomatic ties with Iran.

Attentions have also turned to Lebanon after the surprise resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri due to what he said was Iran's meddling in his country and his fears of an assignation plot. There has been speculation that Hariri's resignation — made when he was in the Saudi capital of Riyadh — was orchestrated by the country's leadership and that he was held against his will, claims which he has denied.

Amid continuing confusion over the resignation, Hariri has since traveled to Paris at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron, before returning to Beirut in time for the country's Independence Day celebrations on Wednesday where he suspended his resignation.

Cold War

Marcus Chevenix, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) analyst at TS Lombard, told CNBC Monday that Saudi Arabia's foreign policies, under the aegis of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are hard to understand.

"Domestically his (Mohammed bin Salman's) actions are radical but comprehensible, but on a foreign stage they're very hard to make sense of at all," Chevenix said.

Hard to understand Saudi crown prince's policy on Lebanon: TS Lombard

"His intervention in Yemen was rash yet we could at least see what he was trying to do. His intervention in Qatar was, yet again, maybe a little reckless maybe a little quick but it was certainly effective against Qatar. But in Lebanon it's really hard to see what this does for him at all."

The analyst believes that it might have been a "reactive move" aimed at bringing down the coalition government of Lebanon to somehow destabilize the position of Hezbollah. He perceived it as a pushback against Iran by whatever means available, but suggested that war was not currently a possibility.

"It's hard to see where Saudi Arabia could get to a position where its actions were intolerable to the Iranians. Iranian actions are already intolerable to Saudi Arabia, we know that, but the Saudi Arabians struggle to really find a way to aggravate Iran, that's why we're not looking at a hot war situation right now," he told CNBC.