Despite the pledge by Iranian authorities to be committed to the principle ofvahdat-e Eslami (Islamic Unity), their perspective on Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief Sunni rival, has always been one of religious suspicion and regional competition. To be fair to the Islamic Republic’s leaders, Iran’s troubles with the Saudis predate them by some time. Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been geopolitical rivals in the Persian Gulf, including during the reign of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979). The establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 only exacerbated tensions and in particular heightened sectarian differences. Tehran was busy seeking to export its revolutionary Shia ideology while the Saudis were increasingly bankrolling anti-Shia Sunni radical movements from the Indian subcontinent to the Levant.
When the United States removed Saddam Hussein, paving the way for the Shia to seize political power in Baghdad, the Saudis were both indignant and increasingly committed to stopping Iran and its Shia regional allies. This is where we are today. The most recent chapter in the Iranian-Saudi race for influence is unfolding on Riyadh’s doorsteps in Yemen, where the anti-Saudi Shia Houthi movement has seized the capital, Sana’a.
In the context of Iranian-Saudi competition, perceptions matter a lot, and help shape countermoves. While Tehran probably had very little to do with the latest events in Yemen, the Saudis are bound to see Iranian machinations at work. As the Saudis contemplate their next move against Tehran, here are four Iranian capabilities they should keep in mind.
In December, the Iranian defense minister declared that Iran is now the fourth largest missile power in the world after the United States, Russia and China. This was rather boastful and no doubt an exaggeration but the fact that Iran has amassed a formidable offensive missile inventory is widely recognized. From the days of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), when Iran suddenly found itself unable to purchase American spare parts for the largely U.S.-made military it had inherited from the Shah, planners in Tehran looked to missile production as a way of compensating for a dwindling air force and a shortage of strategic weapons.
To compensate, Tehran turned to the likes of China, North Korea, Syria and Libya, and thanks to years of reverse-engineering, a respectable missile production line was born. All of Saudi Arabia is today within range of Iranian ballistic missiles. Tehran has made it clear that if the Gulf Arab states ever provide the United States or Israel a platform from which to attack Iran, they would retaliate with a missile barrage on Gulf Arab cities.
The Iranian claim that the Sejjil – Iran’s first long-range solid-propellant missile – has a range of 2,000-2,500 kilometers is evidently not an exaggeration. Meanwhile, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), the body in charge of the missile industry, continues to send mixed signals. At times, the IRGC pledges to continue its efforts to build missiles with ever-greater ranges. At other times, IRGC commanders have said that Iran’s strategic missile deterrence needs have been met and that the making of new intercontinental ballistic missiles is not on the agenda. Still, the IRGC and other Iranian leaders have fiercely insisted that Iran’s missile industry never come under international inspection as part of the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1.
Saudi Arabia was arguably Iran’s first major cyber attack victim. In August 2012, Saudi Aramco came under a massive cyber attack that left a great number of the company’s computers destroyed. That was presumed to be an Iranian retaliation for a similar attack on Iran’s oil industry at hands of Iran’s foes, most likely the United States or Israel.
But the Saudis were apparently deemed a fitting target for Tehran’s retaliation. In the last decade, Iran’s cyber offensive capabilities have developed at a rapid rate and made pro-regime Iranian cyber warriors a key weapon of the Islamic Republic. The significance of cyberspace was elevated so much that in March 2012, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a decree that established the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC).
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