For Iran, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been a troublesome rival.
In his 16 months as heir to the throne and de facto leader of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, he has been the Arab leader most willing to join the Trump administration in its campaign to ratchet up pressure on Tehran and roll back its regional influence.
Yet Iranian leaders have been uncommonly silent about the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the crisis that has engulfed Prince Mohammed in its wake. Iran appears content not to get in the way as an international uproar threatens to weaken Prince Mohammed and undermine the Trump administration’s so-called deal of the century strategy in the Middle East that would bring Israel together with Saudi Arabia in a coalition against their common enemy.
“The ‘deal of the century’ was already under threat,” an Iranian government official said in an interview, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Now, after Khashoggi, it will be even more threatened.”
From the start, Prince Mohammed was a willing ally in America’s anti-Iran campaign. The Iranian official saw what he called “an extremist policy against Iran” as key to the 33-year-old’s rise — first in outmaneuvering his rival to the throne, the more established Mohammed bin Nayef, and then in winning US backing for his efforts to consolidate power. “To create solidarity within Saudi Arabia, he needed an enemy. It’s not going to be the US. It’s not going to be Israel. The best choice for him, for sure, was Iran,” he said. “And it was part of his effort to get support from the Trump administration.”
The official was quick to note that Saudi Arabia and Iran were bitter enemies well before Prince Mohammed emerged. The two countries have been at odds for decades. But Prince Mohammed has upped the ante. He has spearheaded a Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, pushing the country into a humanitarian catastrophe in the name of undermining Iranian allies there. And he has become a key figure for the Trump administration’s plans to exert new pressure on Iran with tough economic sanctions and a more aggressive effort to challenge its regional footprint.
The crisis over Khashoggi threatens the US–Saudi relationship. Iran has appeared content, so far, to sit back and watch it unfold. “First, they have very little credibility given their own record of killing dissidents abroad, and second, why would they get in the way when their adversary is committing an own goal of epic proportions?” said Ali Vaez, the Iran project director at the International Crisis Group.
Prince Mohammed has weathered previous missteps, such as his widely criticized war in Yemen. Yet Khashoggi’s murder, and the international outcry around it, has raised the question of whether he will be able to survive the crisis. “The Iranians are hoping that their relative restraint could help them in either scenario; if MBS weathers the storm, he might be more open to de-escalation with Iran, and if he doesn’t, Tehran could have a chance at reconciling with Riyadh,” Vaez said. “Neither Trump nor MBS are going to relinquish their agenda because of one man’s tragic death. In the medium term, however, MBS might lose his footing in the face of internal opposition to policies that some in the kingdom see as too reckless and costly.”
He added: “This is what the Iranian leadership is banking on — that there will be regime change in Riyadh and Washington before Tehran.”
In the US, the Khashoggi crisis has prompted new questions about the value of the longstanding US–Saudi alliance — and whether it’s wise to partner with the rash young prince on sensitive issues such as Iran, where missteps can bring grave repercussions.
Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) who edits the Long War Journal, noted that Washington’s past partnerships with Saudi Arabia have featured in some of the darker chapters of its involvement in the region — from its recent backing of a Saudi air campaign that has led to thousands of civilian casualties in Yemen to its support for jihadi groups in Afghanistan in the 1980s that later gave rise to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He cautions against partnering with Saudi Arabia to exploit sectarian division in Iran by backing Sunni extremist groups in regions such as Baluchistan and Ahvaz, where separatists have challenged Iran’s Shiite regime.
Joscelyn said he has advised members of the Trump administration “against tilting policy in the direction of enabling Sunni extremism against Iran.”
“The US shouldn’t view Sunni extremists as a bulwark against the Iranians, and the Saudis have a history of exporting Sunni extremism,” he said. “I think the value of Saudi Arabia as a strategic hedge or however you want to put it against Iran is overstated.”
Mark Dubowitz, the FDD’s director, who also has advised the Trump administration, pushing a hardline policy on Iran, said that Saudi antagonism toward Iran would continue no matter who wields power in Riyadh. “If MBS were to be removed tomorrow, I don’t think there would be a fundamental change,” he said. “If anything, you could make the case that by bringing in someone who was more experienced, less petulant, and less impulsive in how they make decisions, it would make the Iranians less capable of taking advantage of some of the mistakes that this crown prince has been making.”