By Justin McCauley
As the power contest between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran intensifies, an important factor is Iran’s advantage in the area of asymmetric warfare, particularly with regard to Yemen and Syria. A major driver in the rise of the so-called “Shi’ite Crescent” has been Iran’s ability to spread its influence through a combination of well-placed and robustly supported proxies (both state and non-state), as well as a nuanced capacity to leverage parochial ethnic and sectarian conflicts to Tehran’s strategic benefit. Saudi Arabia has not even sought to acquire this skill set.
Over the years Riyadh has consistently invested in the kingdom’s military capabilities, but such efforts have focused on building a well-equipped conventional force – one geared largely toward territorial defense. While Saudi Arabia has prepared itself well for an interstate conflict, it has failed to establish the kind of asymmetric capabilities that Iran has used so effectively to build Geo-strategic alliances and influence battlefields and political systems alike.
These capabilities could prove to be a strategic game-changer as the Saudi-Iranian rivalry further intensifies. Why has Tehran been so successful? Why has Riyadh faltered?
The Iranian Advantage
Iran has excelled at asymmetric warfare since the inception of the Islamic Republic. The foundation of the Sepa-e-Pasdaran – the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – and within it the Quds Force, alongside its regular armed forces, created in 1979 a military formation dedicated to nontraditional warfare and strategically indispensable expeditionary operations. The Quds Force specializes in what the U.S. military calls ‘Unconventional Warfare’ (UW), ‘Foreign Internal Defense’ (FID), and ‘Information Operations,’ i.e. organizing and leading guerrilla groups, assisting allied governments against insurgencies and revolutionary movements, engaging in psychological warfare, and carrying out “hearts and minds” operations.
The best example of the Pasdaran’s strategic efficacy is of course Hezbollah. The Iranian hand in the creation of Lebanon’s Party of God is well-known. A few dozen Quds Force officers infiltrated Lebanon, commandeered a barracks in the Beka’a Valley, recruited top-notch talent such as the infamous Imad Mughniyah (a.k.a. Hajj Radwan), and produced the inchoate Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO).
In a few short years the IJO, before its metamorphosis into Hezbollah in 1985, drove the U.S. from Lebanon and forced the Israelis into what became an 18-year quagmire. Now, as the most powerful force in Lebanon’s political arena, with an armed wing larger than the entire Lebanese Army, Hezbollah remains beholden to Tehran. The Quds Force currently runs blended UW-FID operations in Iraq and Syria. IRGC battalions augment government forces and Pasdaran officers direct Shi’ite militias such as the Hashd al-Shaabi and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq on the battlefields of both countries.
In Iraq, deep ties with powerful Shi’ite leaders, including Hadi al-Amiri (head of the Badr Organization) now pay major dividends for Tehran. These relationships are the fruit of the Quds Force’s dedicated covert support for both Shi’ite and Kurdish opposition groups throughout the Saddam era. “In Iraq, deep ties with powerful Shi’ite leaders, including Hadi al-Amiri (head of the Badr Organization) now pay major dividends for Tehran. These relationships are the fruit of the Quds Force’s dedicated covert support for both Shi’ite and Kurdish opposition groups throughout the Saddam era”
The Pasdaran is on the ground in Yemen with significant numbers of operatives involved in training and arming the Houthi rebels. It is likely that the Iranians want to draw Riyadh into an open-ended conflict that they can neither decisively win nor lose, but which will be sure to sap money, manpower, and prestige from the kingdom.
The Iranian model’s success stems partly from the advantageous structure and discipline of Shi’ite jihadist groups writ large. Unlike the apocalyptic and divisive takfiri extremism, that to varying degrees characterizes almost all consequential Sunni militant groups (except for some Palestinian groups), Shi’ite extremist organizations, while doubtless violent, are also observably disciplined, exercising strategic restraint and pragmatic foresight. The Pasdaran both instills and capitalizes on this characteristic.
In practical terms, this rationality has made the components of the “Shi’ite Crescent” somewhat more manageable in terms of Iran’s grand strategy. It has allowed for a coherent and consistent regional strategy, as well as the creation of an axis aligning Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. Moreover, Hamas, a Sunni Islamist group, is one of Iran’s benefactors. This cross-sectarian alliance is in stark contrast to Daesh (“Islamic State”), Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda and other major takfiri groups, who would not only be loath to ally with Shi’ite actors, but who also seem to be detrimentally preoccupied with slaughtering their co-religionist rivals.
Part of this formula is self-evident in Shi’ism, which, relative to Sunnism, has a hierarchical structure and a respect for codified religious authority (as evidenced in the Iranian ideology of Wilayat al-Faqih). But it also derives heavily from Iran’s revolutionary positioning as, first and foremost, a bulwark of “Islamic resistance”.
While the Wahhabi-Salafi arc has grown increasingly nihilistic, messianic, and apocalyptic, Shi’ite extremist groups remain steeped in the language of “resistance”, nomenclature borrowed from Cold Warera Leftism, which also carries a powerful implicit link to the Palestinian cause, a key Arab unifier.
By invoking Third-Worldism, Iran has successfully positioned its ‘brand’ as a regional liberation movement, not as an irrational sectarian cult. Hezbollah’s military successes against Israel and Iran’s rhetorical and operational support for the Palestinians have also garnered immense goodwill on the Arab street, where the Israel-Palestine conflict remains a pan-Arab political issue. It is also crucial to understand that the Quds Force’s long-standing relationships with Palestinian and Kurdish groups – both stateless Sunni Muslims – seem to confirm Iran’s status as primarily a resister of colonialism and imperialism (as opposed to a narrowly Shi’ite fundamentalist force).
The Saudi Deficit
Saudi Arabia has no counterpart to the Quds Force. The kingdom’s military is geared almost entirely toward national defense and conventional warfare. Saudi special operations units focus on tactical counterterrorism, but have no UW or FID capability to speak of. Unlike the Iranians, the Saudis have spent the last 35 years looking largely inward.
After the 1979 revolution in Iran, major Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan engaged in “Islamization” – efforts to reinvigorate Sunnism in the face of fundamentalist Shi’ite expansionism. This did result is some increased foreign activity. The Saudis matched the financial commitment of the U.S. to the Afghan mujahideen during the 1980s. For many years Riyadh officials have been intentionally lax in combating terrorist financing from within the kingdom’s borders.
Also, the Saudis have allowed convicts and other undesirables to leave the country to wage jihad across the Middle East and Central Asia. But unlike the Quds Force, Saudi forces are not on the ground with allies, building rapport and offering tutelage. Compared to the committed patronage of Pasdaran efforts in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the Saudis apply a “fire and forget” policy that leaves them little if any strategic control and opens them (and the region) up to unintended secondary and tertiary consequences.
The most crucial difference between Iran and its Shi’ite reservoir and the Saudi kingdom’s relationship with its potential proxies is credibility.
Unlike the Islamic Republic, which remains popular with Shi’ite Islamists of varying stripes as well as with some Sunnis in the wider Middle East, the Al Saud are viewed by many on the Arab Street as decadent and corrupt. In the eyes of many Salafists, the Saudi rulers are apostates allied with the West and unfit to serve as the guardians of Mecca and Medina.
Hence, while most Shi’ite (and some Sunni) organizations view the Islamic Republic as the father of the anti-Western and anti-Zionist resistance, the spawns of Wahhabism view the House of Saud as occupants of the Dar al-Harb, or territory outside Muslim rule. From the Saudi perspective, it is an issue of reliability.
As stated above, in spite of the kingdom’s state-promoted brand of Wahhabism, Sunni takfiri groups do not feel beholden to Riyadh, nor do they view the kingdom as a paternalistic, ideological big brother. This translates into limited prospects for dependable allies who will obey the House of Saud’s strategic guidance. The result has been Saudi Arabia having to manage support for conservative Wahhabis within the kingdom for over 35 years, while attempting to deflect the worst elements who demand the House of Saud’s overthrow.
Maintaining this delicate balance has somewhat tied Riyadh’s hands with regard to entrepreneurial operations abroad vis-à-vis Iran. Perhaps a more fundamental point lies at the heart of Riyadh’s lack of asymmetric adventurism. Saudi Arabia, as an illiberal and undemocratic dynastic monarchy, is by definition a reactionary and anti-revolutionary state. To venture abroad and actively foment insurgency and the overthrow of governments would be to incite exactly what Riyadh most fears for itself.
While the Saudis have proven willing at times to meddle in the internal affairs of weak states, they will not enact a systematic policy against a foe that can respond in kind. The sanctity of the state is inseparable from the Saudi political leadership’s survival.
The military parity of Iran and Saudi Arabia is such that it will likely preclude a direct confrontation. While Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are much better equipped than Iran’s (the Saudi military budget is roughly eight times that of Tehran), the Islamic Republic compensates by possessing a much larger force in terms of manpower and by maintaining an ability to take a defensively asymmetric posture.
The geostrategic reality is that Iran has the ability to attack major centers of oil production in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province (EP) in response to any Saudi and/ or Western aggression. A single effective rocket strike on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq facility, for instance, would send the international oil trade into complete disarray. The power of this Iranian deterrent is likely not lost on Saudi strategic thinking.
Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive – some would say impetuous – war policy in Yemen will continue to be met with Iranian asymmetric efforts. The same will be true in the case of Syria if Riyadh takes a more direct role there, as has been suggested. The Saudi war in Yemen already has significant potential to become an open-ended quagmire, which would ultimately benefit Iran. The kingdom’s best weapon against Iran at the moment is the economic strategy of keeping oil prices low to retard Iranian growth as sanctions lift. Riyadh’s status as a swing producer gives it immense power in this regard, but with major powers like Russia and China looking to invest long-term in Iran’s energy sector, Saudi market manipulation will only delay the inevitable.
The Iranians have honed their skills in asymmetric conflicts. Their influence in Iraq is largely attributable to Tehran’s investment in groups such as Badr, Dawa, and SCIRI over the span of decades. Iran’s premier proxy, Hezbollah, twice humiliated Israel on the battlefield – in 2000 and 2006. Given the Israeli military’s extremely high levels of experience and effectiveness, Hezbollah’s achievements were significant.
If the Houthis can achieve a similar result against the Saudis in Yemen, Iran’s strategic position in the Gulf will grow exponentially. Although Ansar Allah (the dominant Houthi militia in Yemen) is not Hezbollah, the Saudi military is not the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) either. In spite of its robust defense budget, the Saudi military’s lack of experience has led to embarrassing operational struggles in Yemen.
Many view the emergence of Iran as a hegemon to be inevitable. History, geography, and Iran’s status as a reemerging petro-state support this prediction. Over the last 35 years, Iran’s asymmetric warfare capabilities have allowed it to rapidly expand its geopolitical influence and strategic position in the Middle East. It remains to be seen the extent to which Iran’s efforts will further transform the region’s strategic landscape. However, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to fight fire with fire. Asymmetric warfare is often not only the tool of the weak, but also a means of affecting transformational change, which the nascent Iranian hegemon seeks. As a status quo power, that is the last thing which the Al Saud rulers want in the Gulf or anywhere else.
Justin McCauley is an independent analyst based in Dubai specializing in terrorism, geopolitics and security affairs in the greater Middle East and the post-Soviet space
A version of this article also appeared in Gulf State Analytics, an affiliate of POLITACT.