The painful truth for Saudi Arabia: it needs the Iranian regime to survive

The Guardian | : In a video animation released in December 2017 the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, oversees an invasion of Iran after Iranian boats attack a Saudi humanitarian ship. At the end of the video, Saudi troops storm a military compound where a haggard, trembling Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds force, surrenders on his knees. The video, created by an outfit calling itself Saudi Strike Force, was produced in multiple languages including Mandarin and has been viewed more than 1.5m times.

In real life, Suleimani is now dead, killed not by the Saudis but in a US strike on 3 January outside Baghdad airport, having just returned from Lebanon and Syria on one of his many missions as the architect of Iran’s regional power base.

Saudis on Twitter were gleeful and official Saudi media were jubilant, declaring in al-Riyadh newspaper that a new decade had started for the region as Iran’s dark shadow receded. If Saudi officials celebrated, they did so quietly, relieved Suleimani was dead, and even more relieved they didn’t have to do it themselves, but wary of Iranian retaliation. There were calls for quick de-escalation, and within three days the crown prince’s brother and deputy minister of defence, Khalid bin Salman, travelled to Washington DC for meetings at the White House.

This pattern of clamouring for tough action against Iran and then calling for de-escalation has characterised the Saudi-Iran rivalry since the Iranian revolution of 1979. That year is remembered mostly as the moment when Iran and the US became enemies in the wake of the US embassy hostage crisis in November. But the relationship between Tehran and Riyadh was also transformed. The two countries, once friendly rivals and pillars of US efforts to contain Soviet influence in the region, became enemies when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ultimate leader of the revolution, began to challenge the Saudis in their role as leaders of the Muslim world and custodians of the two holy sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina.

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