As tensions continue to escalate between Iran and the United States, it is increasingly clear that their competition has implications for the entire power dynamic in the Middle East.
While the US is highlighting Iranian aggression as part of an effort to consolidate existing alliances in the region, the Iranians are leaning into that aggression in order to encourage countries like Saudi Arabia to break away from the US and submit to Iran’s foreign policy aims.
The latter outcome is, of course, very unlikely. But some Iranian officials have been showing signs of unexpected optimism about their prospects for making American backing seem too costly for their regional adversaries. Toward that end, Tehran appears to be portraying last month’s attack on Saudi oil infrastructure as a consequence of current alignment with the US, even while Tehran also denies responsibility for the incident.
Saudi Arabia and the US were quick to hold Iran responsible for the drone and missile attacks that briefly cut Saudi oil production in half. While the Saudis showcased apparently Iranian-made weapons that were recovered from the sites of the attacks, the US announced that satellite imagery had identified the place in southern Iran from which the weapons were launched. This information was later corroborated by the intelligence network of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), which identified the military base, the weapons used, and the chain of command through which the attacks were planned.
Through all this, the Iranian regime has continued to deny staging the attack. Officials seem content to lay the blame at the feet of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are in turn willing to claim it. But this hardly absolves Tehran of responsibility, given that the rebel group is backed by Iran and has received weapons from it throughout the four-year Yemeni civil war.
One might conclude that the purpose of the Iranian regime’s narrative regarding the attacks is not so much to avoid blame or criticism, but to promote confusion about their purpose while giving Riyadh the impression that its current security situation is inadequate. In that sense, the more important aspect of Iran’s public statements since that attack is the emphasis on its own military readiness. These sorts of statements seem to imply that the Islamic Republic is capable of either carrying out more attacks along the lines of the September 14 strikes, or repelling them.
On Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported that Speaker of the Iranian Parliament Ali Larijani had contributed to this message while making overtures to the Saudis. While floating the idea of open dialogue between the two regional adversaries, Larijani said that Saudi Arabia no longer had to rely on the US for its security. He and other Iranian officials have previously made statements asserting that regional powers are best-positioned to safeguard the security of the Middle East, even though Iran’s critics throughout the world have blamed it for the better part of the current instability.
Just during the past several months, the Iranians have apparently staged attacks on six tankers in the Gulf of Oman, shot down a US drone, captured a British-flagged commercial vessel which it then held for two months, and launched the aforementioned strikes on Saudi Arabia. This is to say nothing of the public threats that Iranian officials and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have issued against the US and others. Tehran has long insisted that its forces are capable of shutting down the vitally important Strait of Hormuz if Iran is prevented from selling its petroleum resources abroad.
To confront these threats, the White House has been pushing for tighter security cooperation among regional allies and fellow Western powers that utilize the Strait for regular international trade.
But at the same time, Iranian hardliners continue to push the narrative that they are well-prepared for open conflict with the United States or even for a broader US-led coalition. The Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces recently spoke before a gathering of IRGC officers and said in part, “A sustainable and strong form of deterrence has been created in the face of enemy’s plot to carry out any act of aggression against the Islamic Iran and enemies have understood that the Islamic Iran enjoys the readiness, determination and courage and will not hesitate to defend its ideals, land and people.”
Of course, these claims are unsubstantiated, and Tehran has a long history of exaggerating its military capabilities with boastful statements and deceptive parades of outmoded military equipment that has been dressed up to look like a new domestic innovation. As such, the US is very unlikely to take the IRGC’s warnings very seriously. But there is a somewhat more open question about Saudi Arabia and its regional allies.
Meanwhile, Larijani and others are reaching out to the Saudis with their own proposals, specifically countering the US and hoping to position Iran as the leader of an anti-Western alliance that spans the Muslim world. And as one reporter for Al Jazeera put it, if the Saudis so much as submitted to negotiations over such a proposal, it would be seen as a victory for Tehran and a sign “that Iran's military strategy is working, that Iran is seen as a strong military power and countries that may not necessarily be friends with Iran favor dialogue over military conflict.”
On the other hand, Iran’s effort to break apart American alliances may be undermined by the regime’s apparent emphasis on placing its current regional adversaries in a subservient position. This was on display, for instance, last week when an advisor to the Iranian supreme leader publicly demanded that fellow Gulf countries “come to their senses” regarding their postures toward Iran and the US.
Behind all of Iran’s recent overtures to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others, there is an implicit threat. And this threat was brought closer to the surface on September 20, days after the missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. Then, an influential cleric and Friday prayer leader for the city of Qom, Hashem Hosseini Bushehri, highlighted Iran’s network of paramilitary proxies and said, “Today the resistance movement is mature enough to strike at you and, as you saw, strike it did.”