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Saudi Arabia Charges Iran With ‘Act of War,’ Raising Threat of Military Clash

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image A still image taken from a video distributed on Sunday by Yemen’s pro-Houthi Al Masirah television station, said to show the launching of a ballistic missile aimed at an airport in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Credit Houthi Military Media Unit, v

LONDON — Saudi Arabia charged Monday that a missile fired at its capital from Yemen over the weekend was an “act of war” by Iran, in the sharpest escalation in nearly three decades of mounting hostility between the two regional rivals.

“We see this as an act of war,” the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Jubair, said in an interview on CNN. “Iran cannot lob missiles at Saudi cities and towns and expect us not to take steps.”

The accusation, which Iran denied, came a day after a wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia that appeared to complete the consolidation of power by the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, 32. Taken together, the two actions signaled a new aggressiveness by the prince both at home and abroad, as well as a new and more dangerous stage in the Saudi cold war with Iran for dominance in the region.

“Today confrontation is the name of the game,” said Joseph A. Kechichian, a scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who is close to the royal family. “This young man, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is not willing to roll over and play dead. If you challenge him, he is saying, he is going to respond.”

The accusations raise the threat of a direct military clash between the two regional heavyweights at a time when they are already fighting proxy wars in Yemen and Syria, as well as battles for political power in Iraq and Lebanon. By the end of the day Monday, a Saudi minister was accusing Lebanon of declaring war against Saudi Arabia as well.

Even before the launching of the missile on Saturday, which was intercepted en route to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, the crown prince had staged another surprise demonstration of the kingdom’s newly aggressive posture toward Iran and Lebanon. The prince hosted a visit from Saudi Arabia’s chief Lebanese client, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who stunned the region by announcing his resignation, via video from Riyadh, in protest against Iran’s undue influence in Lebanese politics.

Even some of Mr. Hariri’s rivals speculated that his Saudi sponsors had pressured him into the statement. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, said over the weekend that the Saudis had all but kidnapped Mr. Hariri. Mr. Nasrallah urged Mr. Hariri to return to Lebanon for power-sharing talks “if he is allowed to come back.”

On Monday, Saudi Arabia released a photograph of Mr. Hariri meeting with King Salman that was widely seen as an effort to contradict the theory that the prime minister was effectively a hostage.

The Saudi claims that Iran had provided the missile could not be independently verified.

Mr. Jubair, the foreign minister, said the missile had been smuggled into Yemen in parts, assembled in Yemen by operatives from Hezbollah and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran, and fired from Yemen by Hezbollah.

A statement from the Saudi Arabian news agency said “experts in military technology” had determined from the remains of that missile and one launched in July that both had come from Iran “for the purpose of attacking the kingdom.”

Citing allegations of Hezbollah’s role, Thamer al-Sabhan, minister of state for Persian Gulf affairs, said Monday that Saudi Arabia considered the missile attack an act of war by Lebanon as well.

“We will treat the government of Lebanon as a government declaring a war because of Hezbollah militias,” Mr. Sabhan told the Saudi-controlled Al Arabiya network. “Lebanon is kidnapped by the militias of Hezbollah and behind it is Iran.”

The top commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran called the accusation of Iranian involvement in the missile attack “baseless.”

“These missiles were produced by the Yemenis and their military industry,” the commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, told the semiofficial news agency Tasnim.

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, accused Saudi Arabia of “wars of aggression, regional bullying, destabilizing behavior & risky provocations,” in a statement on Twitter. Saudi Arabia “bombs Yemen to smithereens, killing 1000’s of innocents including babies, spreads cholera and famine, but of course blames Iran,” Mr. Zarif said.

American officials have previously accused Iran of arming its Yemeni allies, the Houthis. But it was unclear how Saudi experts would know how or why Iran provided the missiles.

With help from allies including the United Arab Emirates and the United States, Saudi Arabia has enforced a sea and air blockade around Yemen since it launched an attack on the Houthi forces there more than two years ago.

In Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed’s grip on power tightened further on Monday. American officials tracking the situation said that as many as 500 people, including at least 11 princes, had been rounded up in a wave arrests directed by Prince Mohammed in the name of a crackdown on corruption.

Some are expected to face undisclosed criminal charges while others may be pressured to testify about their roles in corruption schemes. Men were sleeping on mats on the floor of the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, which has been transformed into a singularly luxurious prison to house the detainees.

The arrests cemented Prince Mohammed’s dominance over military, foreign, internal security, economic and social affairs inside the kingdom, freeing him to pursue an aggressive confrontation with Iran. That posture has been a hallmark of his rise over the two and a half years since his father, King Salman, 81, took the throne.

Prince Mohammed has sharply escalated a cold war with Iran, stepping up Saudi Arabia’s efforts to push back Iranian influence in the Syrian civil war, plunging the kingdom into a protracted military conflict against Iranian-allied forces in Yemen, and isolating neighboring Qatar in part for being too close to Iran.

His hawkish stance toward Iran also appears to have formed the basis for a close bond with President Trump, who visited Riyadh this year and maintained a conspicuous silence over the weekend about Prince Mohammed’s campaign of arrests. On Tuesday while traveling in Asia, he praised the arrests, saying the king and crown prince “know exactly what they are doing.”  Read More

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