Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias welcomed his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud to Athens last week. It’s the second time the two ministers have met in less than a month. According to Dendias, the two countries are working together as two responsible guarantors of regional stability. This is a rather ill-advised statement, considering that the scope of the current Greek diplomacy and foreign policy does not qualify for such a role and simultaneously considering that Riyadh’s international attitude proves that the kingdom is more of a cause of regional tension than it is a responsible power that promotes peace and stability.
The Greek-Saudi Patriot Missile Deal
Besides their aligning interests in the Libyan front, as both countries are supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the LNA, the specific reason for the Greek-Saudi meeting and the issue on the top of the agenda was the so-called Patriot deal. A drone attack against Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities took place in September 2019. Considering the impact on the main pillar of the Saudi economy—the energy industry—Riyadh sought to enhance air defense capabilities both domestically and through international partnerships. Their priority is to stop potential attacks from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels or any other affiliated groups.
The Greek government responded promptly to the Saudi call and has agreed to provide Patriot Surface to Air missiles (SAMs) from the arsenal of the Hellenic Airforce. At this point, it would be worth looking more into the rationale of the deal, as one might reasonably wonder why the Saudis had to take this missile system from Greece rather than directly from the United States.
Why Does Riyadh Want To Buy Patriot Systems From Athens And Not Washington?
Riyadh has traditionally secured major deals with the US defense industry. Considering the economic wealth and importance of the kingdom, these deals could be interpreted as a significant diplomatic means that ensured the stable and prosper bilateral relations between the two countries and the continuous US support for KSA in terms of defense and security. So, what is the point in having Greece deploying the missiles instead of a direct deal between Riyadh and Washington?
If US-Saudi economic relations can be understood as a foreign policy tool, this is where the latest agreement with Greece also fits in. After the recent visit of the Greek PM to the White House, Athens has been advised to satisfy the Saudi request in order to support the ongoing US confrontation with Iran. The long-lasting dispute between the two major players in the Middle East—Riyadh and Tehran—could stop being perceived as a regional clash through proxy actors in neighboring countries like Yemen and Lebanon, while the participation of an EU country in the air defense system of Saudi Arabia with personnel on the ground boosts the narrative of a multinational anti-Iran force standing up to Iranian aggression. It also sets the ground for other US-affiliated countries to join. But what could be the consequences of such a move for Greece?
Greek-Saudi Deal Is A Dubious Move Amidst Greek-Turkish Escalation
In order to understand the size of the force, the SAM batteries to be deployed to Riyadh account for almost 16 percent of the—probably—most sophisticated Hellenic SAM air defense system available. Combined with the specialized personnel that accompany the system—over 100 servicemen—that will be transferred to Saudi Arabia to support the mission, it is obvious that there is a severe impact on Greek capabilities and readiness, especially when taking into account the current escalation between Ankara and Athens and the continuous Turkish breaches of Hellenic airspace.
Even though the aforementioned numbers have not been confirmed by governmental officials yet, it is highly likely that they are accurate. After a—rather insufficient and unsuitable, as usual—criticism from the opposition parties, sources of the Hellenic Government have tried to downplay the consequences of this agreement, suggesting that a Patriot battery has been inactive until recently so the agreement with Riyadh would make no difference to Greek defense capabilities. Even if this claim is accurate, it is totally unacceptable for the current administration to admit that a critical weapons system has been out of service for an unspecified period of time, and it is equally unreasonable to suggest that when eventually it has been put back into service, it would shortly be shipped to Saudi Arabia in order to support operations irrelevant to the Greek interests. There are some rumors about a technical update from the US on the remaining Patriot systems in Greece on beneficial terms in return for the deal with KSA, but—while possible—those rumors are too generic and still remain unconfirmed.
Two-Fold Impact On Greek-Iranian Relations
At the same time, this move will certainly deteriorate the long-term bilateral relations between Athens and Tehran. Iran has traditionally been an important partner to Greece, with significant commercial and cultural ties having long been established between the two countries. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in a diplomatic blunder was urged to declare support for the US administration after Soleimani’s killing. This move has been heavily criticized, considering that all the other EU leaders have tried to be as neutral as possible in order to contribute to the de-escalation of the tension and not provoke Tehran further; not surprisingly the Greek reaction has pushed Iran to officially lodge a demarche through diplomatic channels. Among others matters, the statement mentioned any facilitation from a third country to US Forces deployed and ordered to operate against the Islamic Republic would be perceived as a hostile act.
Even if the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, alongside the major in-country media outlets, tried to downgrade the incident, indicating that the Greek-Iranian relations remain well-tempered, Athens is now making a controversial deal with one of Tehran’s worst enemies. Criticism within Greece has focused on the impact of this development on the commercial ties between the two countries, with many voices mistakenly suggesting that Iran is still one of the major oil providers for Greece, although there has been a tremendous downturn on Iranian oil imports to Greece since Trump started abandoning JCPOA. Of course, we don’t doubt that Tehran is an important trade partner for Athens and the last moves would have a negative impact, but the most vital and concerning aspect for Greece has been once again internally neglected.
This is the impact on the internal security of the state and the perception of the terrorist threat in Greece. A statement from the Greek PM would hardly trigger a violent reaction from Tehran, however, a substantial engagement of Greek forces on Saudi ground might be a step too far for the Iranian leadership. We have previously discussed how insufficient Greek infrastructure is, in controlling Middle East-originated individuals entering the country; we have also explained the heightened risk ensuing from this situation, from a security perspective, explaining that the perpetrators of some of the most high profile attacks in European metropolitan cities have entered Europe through Greece.
The risk perception could remain manageable as long as Greece is adopting a responsible neutral and balanced stance in the region. But the surprising decision of the Patriot deployment to Saudi Arabia might well provoke an unprecedented Iranian reaction. We have seen several times in the past that the triggering of dormant proxy cells in third countries as a means of Iranian retaliation is a possibility even if Tehran hardly ever takes the credit for such actions—at least officially. Athens should have already secured the appropriate countermeasures before proceeding to such controversial diplomatic maneuvers. At this point, we seriously doubt if any countermeasures were taken.