Threat Perception in the Gulf

I had an interesting “discussion” on Twitter two days ago with a news anchor from Al Jazeera. Given the 140-character limit of our exchange, “discussion” is too generous a term. But Teymoor Nabili still raised an important question: How can the Saudis possibly feel vulnerable when they spend so much money on military hardware and U.S. forces still surround Iran?

For very good reasons, both the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran feel vulnerable today, mostly because their forces are mismatched. Saudi Arabia enjoys a significant advantage in conventional arms and can expect the U.S. to defend it against outside aggression. Compensating for this reality, Iran relies on unconventional tactics and, if conflict erupted, it could target key infrastructure along the coast instead of taking on superior forces directly.

Let’s start with Iran. Even though the American occupation of Iraq is over, 40,000 servicemen will remain in the greater Gulf region, stationed on ships and bases in places like Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar. (See Al Jazeera’s map of U.S. bases in the Middle East HERE.) The U.S. maintains one or two aircraft carriers in the Gulf at all times. Support ships—like destroyers and guided missile cruisers—are also deployed to complement combat aircraft. To Iran’s east, 80,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, where they will slowly be drawn down by the end of 2014. Iran’s Arab neighbors have invested heavily in their militaries in recent years. They now sport advanced fighter jets and anti-ballistic missile systems.

Moreover, officials in Washington frequently state that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Iran and its controversial nuclear program. Iranian officials dismiss these threats—saying they are only evidence that an election is being held in the U.S. this year—but America’s presence is substantial and muscular. And so Iran is vulnerable, whether its leaders say so or not. It’s safe to assume that some higher officials fear escalation with the U.S. only because they would not be able to dictate the duration or severity of the ensuing fight.

The Gulf Arab states disguise their enmity at times but recent arms purchases and close cooperation with the U.S. make them a threat to Iran as well, albeit a minor one, since American forces would take control of any conflict that threatened Gulf waters. In 2009, however, General David Petraeus (now CIA director) bluntly stated that the Qatari air force could easily destroy Iran’s. This is still true three years later and it will be true three years from now. Saudi Arabia’s air force is equally capable and could strike Iranian targets as well. Tehran may never admit to being vulnerable but many of their systems are outdated and there’s little reason to believe reservists and paramilitary units could resist or repel a sustained bombing campaign.

Iran’s manpower advantage partially explains why the Saudis are spending so much on defense. The country’s active military is twice the size of Saudi Arabia’s and, if you include reservists and paramilitary forces, Iran’s military is fifteen times larger than its rival’s armed forces. This discrepancy is explained by two factors. First, it is a natural consequence of the population gap (Saudi Arabia has 28 million people while Iran has 75 million). Secondly, the posture of these regimes partially explains why one military is so much larger: Iran’s military played a key role in the formation of the state, going back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is not a revolutionary or militarized regime and so their forces remain limited. Saudi spending should also be seen for what it is: completely predictable. The Kingdom can afford new equipment. Unlike Iran, no international sanctions prevent it from acquiring military technology.

Admittedly, Iran cannot project force like Saudi Arabia. In order for hundreds of thousands of ground forces to threaten the Kingdom, they would have to advance through Iraq or Kuwait first before reaching Saudi territory. We can dismiss that danger. But Iran can still project force into the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia is the most vulnerable. In case of conflict, most assessments hold that Iran would rely on asymmetric tactics, which cancel out Saudi Arabia’s advantage. Swarms of smaller boats, mine-laying vessels, attack submarines, and land-based missile systems would presumably be employed. It’s worth mentioning also that Iran has a more disciplined and experienced force.

Most importantly, a tremendous amount of critical infrastructure can be found along the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. Oil depots, export terminals, and desalinization plants are all within striking distance for Iran. There’s simply no guarantee that the U.S. Fifth Fleet could intercept enough missiles or smaller, speedier vessels, if they were tasked with sabotaging these facilities. Repeated threats against the Strait of Hormuz should also be taken seriously. Iran could mine the Gulf, harass shipping—including Saudi tankers—and attempt to close the Strait, the world’s most vital energy chokepoint, through which millions of barrels of Saudi crude pass each day.

Iran also has the largest and most advanced missile program in the Middle East. This is no secret. While some missiles might be intercepted, the short flight times between Iran and Saudi Arabia make short- to mid-range missiles harder to track and take down. Iran could also try to overwhelm anti-missile systems simply by firing more missiles and accepting that some will not reach their targets. In that case, volume would compensate for accuracy and reliability. One might call it the “spray and pray” method of warfare. Iran would pay dearly for going down this path but it could still do grave damage to Saudi infrastructure or American assets.

Although Saudi Arabia can rely on the U.S. and American-made weapons, Iran can still fight on its own terms, and hit the Saudis where it hurts. All it takes is one lucky strike or a surprise attack. Saudi Arabia could spend twice as much on defense and still be vulnerable.

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