The simmering Saudi-Iranian tensions in the CENTCOM region

Situation Update- Saudi/Iran Tensions

In the backdrop of the missile attacks on key Saudi oil installations last month, the Pentagon has signalled sending two fighter squadrons of F-15s, new air defense systems (including two Patriot batteries and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD)) and other assets, along with the thousands of U.S. troops needed to operate and maintain them, to Saudi Arabia. This brings the total deployment of U.S. forces to the kingdom to 3,000 since a mid-September attack on a Saudi oil field.

The attack on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais sent shock waves through both the global energy market and the national security sector, with fingers quickly pointing toward Iran as the culprit, even though the Houthi rebels in Yemen have claimed responsibility. The attack was undetected by both the US and Saudi air defenses. It resulted in a temporary interruption of Saudi oil production and material damage to the facilities, but no casualties. Days later, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Joe Dunford, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, ordered the deployment of 200 U.S. troops and a Patriot missile battery to Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon leaders also announced then two more Patriot batteries and one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, and its associated personnel, were on “prepare to deploy” orders, which are now being dispatched. 

On the additional deployment, Mark Esper said. “We thought it was important to continue to deploy forces, to deter and defend, and to send the message to the Iranians: Do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American interests or forces, or we will respond.”

Lately, last week two missiles struck an Iranian tanker traveling through the Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia on Friday, which is the latest incident in the region amid months of heightened tensions between Tehran and the U.S.

Washington has been sending a steady stream of military assets to the Kingdom over the past several months, as part of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. Tehran has responded by saying that any attack on its territory would be met with a disproportionate and devastating response against both US assets and allies like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Since May, the Pentagon has increased the number of forces in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility by approximately 14,000. That also comes as the department has emphasized the need to adhere to the National Defense Strategy, a document that explicitly calls for drawing down in the CENTCOM region in order to refocus resources towards China and Russia. 

Earlier this summer, the U.S. already sent about 500 troops to Saudi’s Prince Sultan Air Base, which was the first such deployment since the U.S. stopped sending troops there after the Iraq invasion. 

On the other hand, amid increasing tensions, both Tehran and Riyadh are willing to sit together on table this time, and a backdoor diplomacy facilitated by another important regional player Pakistan has already started. Pakistan’s premier Imran Khan has already visited Iran on a Sunday and is set to visit Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. Riyadh has recognised that it had got nothing out of the Yemen War except for huge expenses and border tensions. Similarly, US sanctions have badly damaged Tehran, which is struggling to come out of an isolation in the region. However, differences between the two rivals are old, deep-rooted, and difficult to resolve. The two sides have had a totally different approach toward conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. Even on Palestine, their approaches have been different.

The above write up is based on information appearing in news at RT, Tribune and Defense News. Additional reporting by Mark Frank for SCF.

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