Saudi Arabia and Iran have shared a mutual dislike for one another since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but despite the rhetoric from both sides, there have only been a handful of violent incidences between the two over the past three decades. Although Tehran funds and trains the world’s largest network of proxy militias, it has mostly avoided targeting Riyadh. 

New Low for Saudi-Iranian Relations

However on Sept. 28, the Saudi government announced it recently detained 10 people on terror charges, alleging three were trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. They further claimed that another seven of the individuals were working in partnership with the group. The allegation that Iran-linked terrorists infiltrated Saudi Arabia’s border would mark a significant new lowering of relations between Riyadh and Tehran if true.

The State Security Presidency, Riyadh’s national security agency, said that in addition to apprehending 10 suspects, it also discovered nine improvised explosive devices alongside five kilograms of gunpowder, as the Wall Street Journal reported. Other bomb-making materials such as chemicals, fuses, and electronics, and assault rifles were retrieved from a house and farm that were maintained as a cache for the alleged perpetrators.

Brazen Attempt Could Become New Pattern

Saudi Arabia’s revelation that it foiled a possible terror plot within its borders matches what is shaping up to be a new pattern of behavior from Iran. In September, Bahrain also announced it had stopped an Iran-backed terror plot that was designed to target diplomats and foreigners, the Washington Post reported.

Iran is not typically so brazen, especially against Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both of which are located directly across the Persian Gulf from its shores. Although neither could be considered friendly toward Tehran’s regime, the recent modus operandi of Iran has typically been to act through militias spread across the region, not arm a small group of potential actors.

Furthermore, Iran has frequently opted for other tactics to send economically focused messages. Take the 2019 drone attack on a Saudi Aramco facility, for example, or the numerous attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Through attacks like these, Iran has been able to protest the US sanctions that have crippled its economy by targeting US allies in the region.

When it wants to attack Saudi Arabia, Iran has a convenient option in Yemen. The Yemen Civil War has been prolonged as Riyadh and Tehran use it as a sandbox to openly attack one another. Also, from Yemen, Iran can arm Houthi militants who launch missiles into Saudi Arabia.

Resisting The Urge To Retaliate

With these options available to Iran, it has eschewed the kind of plot that the Saudi government now accuses it of planning. The State Security Presidency said it broke up the “terror cell,” which was using a farm and home as its hideouts. Three of the alleged terrorists were trained in Iran in 2017. Even if that was the case, the early training might not have been initially intended for a terrorist mission in Saudi Arabia. 

Instead, the alleged terrorists could have been repurposed shortly after the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was assassinated via American drone strike in January. Since that time, Iran has vowed to retaliate, but for the most part, has restrained from doing so. Although it did attack a US military base in Iraq, no soldiers were killed and it was largely seen as a weak response in comparison to the US aggression.

Tehran was widely viewed as biding its time until after the US election. If it could possibly have a new president to make a deal with in January, why risk provoking Washington? However, recent American-led ambitions in Middle East designed to bring Arab states closer to Israel have reawakened Iran’s anger. The UAE and Bahrain recently forged alliances with Israel, Iran’s sworn nemesis, and Saudi Arabia rumored to be the next Arab state to fall in line with the Trump administration’s goals.

Iran Calls Charges a ‘Complete Fabrication’

Taking that possibility into consideration, a Tehran-backed terror cell in Saudi Arabia begins to make sense. Perhaps Iran was planning a preemptive strike, or a retaliatory attack should Riyadh cut a deal with Israel. 

Either way, Iran vehemently denied the accusations on Tuesday.

“The repetitive and worthless accusations of the Saudi rulers are not the way for Riyadh to achieve its goals, and our recommendation is that Saudi Arabia choose the path of honesty and wisdom instead of worthless scenarios,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh.

The Saudi claims are a “complete fabrication,” he said, countering that the Saudi monarchy is using Iran to “deflect public opinion and a method to cover up their own failed efforts.”

The latest twist in the Saudi–Iranian saga followed a rare speech at the UN General Assembly by Saudi King Salman. He devoted a large portion of his prerecorded speech to criticizing Tehran and blaming it for causing mayhem in the region.

“Our experience with the Iranian regime has taught us that partial solutions and appeasement did not stop its threats to international peace and security,” Salman said. 

Riyadh has yet to publicly reveal its evidence in the case against the 10 alleged terrorists, nor has it revealed how it became aware of their activities. As in the case of the Saudi Aramco drone strike, Riyadh is expected to take the high road and avoid retaliation. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Iran appears to be ramping up its efforts to cause trouble in the region, if Riyadh is to be believed. 

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