Key points

  • An Iran-Saudi Arabia war is unlikely, but it is now more likely than ever before.
  • A military confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran should command respect and inspire concern because it could cause tremendous harm to an already volatile Middle East and possibly to the global economy.
  • Iran seems to have an upper hand in a direct military confrontation with Saudi Arabia because of its combat experience, geography, manpower, strategic depth, and greater cost tolerance. However, none of these attributes give Iran any decisive advantages in a contest with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is neither helpless nor without military options.
  • While it is easy to start a war with Iran, it is anything but to finish it. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would have to think hard about the capabilities of the Saudi military and the resilience of Saudi society before embarking on such a risky course.
  • In any war dynamic between Iran and Saudi Arabia, U.S. military intervention or support would be the most decisive exogenous factor for both Riyadh and Tehran.
  • The United States has a security commitment to Saudi Arabia, but the extent to which Washington can tolerate subtle Iranian aggression against the kingdom that falls below the threshold of conventional warfare, while potentially upending Saudi stability, is unclear.

Read full paper here.

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