Saudi Arabia bought its mid-range Dong Feng-3 ballistic missiles from China in the late 1980s, but had not put them on public display until they were wheeled past a reviewing stand at the Hafr al-Batin military base this week, at the parade concluding the largest military exercise the kingdom has ever mounted.
It was no secret that the Saudis had the missiles, but the public outing of the weapons on Tuesday was broadly interpreted by analysts as Saudi Arabia sending a message to its regional rival, Iran, at a time when the countries are battling at one remove in Syria, and the Saudis feel betrayed by Washington for attempting a rapprochement with Tehran by embracing negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.
“They’ve been kept under wraps all these years, albeit they were known to be there; it’s just quite interesting for us to see them on show,” says Jeremy Binnie, editor of Jane’s Terrorism and Security Monitor, who was among the experts taking note of the Saudi showcase.
“I think there’s a few different ways you could potentially read it, but certainly one is as a sort of display of Saudi Arabia’s ability to retaliate in kind to Iranian ballistic missile attacks. And that was sort of the message coming out of this exercise in general, quite a lot of publicity by Saudi Arabia standards all round.”
The Saudis and Iranians are longtime rivals divided foremost by faith – the Saudis functioning as guardians of Islam’s dominant Sunni branch, while the Iranians lead the minority Shia denomination. But the competition has ramped up in recent years as Iran has drawn Iraq into its orbit (as the Saudis insistently warned Washington would happen if the secular Sunni dictator, Saddam Hussein, was brought down), and has sharpened as Iran has drawn nearer to the capability of producing a nuclear weapon.
Iran says it has never had plans to build a nuclear bomb. It is currently engaged in negotiations over its nuclear program with the United States and other world powers. Those talks are reportedly proceeding well of late. Which is small comfort to the Saudis. "They don’t have much faith in the Obama administration," says Meir Javedanfar, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, a private Israeli university. "They are worried Washington is going to reach a deal with the Iranians and leave the Saudis behind."
Hence Riyadh's tough talk about going it alone. "We do not hold any hostility to Iran and do not wish any harm to it or to its people, who are Muslim neighbors," Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, told a security conference for Gulf states last week. "But preserving our regional security requires that we, as a Gulf grouping, work to create a real balance of forces with it, including in nuclear know-how, and to be ready for any possibility in relation to the Iranian nuclear file."
Tehran routinely showcases its own arsenal in parades, as well as mounting war games several times a year. But at the Saudi base, the reviewing stand also conveyed a message: Among the dignitaries was the chief of Pakistan’s army, Gen. Raheel Sharif, whose presence, along with the missiles, could be read as a threat to top a Saudi missile with a Pakistani nuclear warhead. The Saudis reportedly aided Pakistan in its clandestine and successful nuclear effort, and have done little to quell reports that Islamabad might provide its loyal friend with a warhead should Iran actually produce an atomic bomb.
“You can read what you like into it,” says Binnie. “But having a high-ranked Pakistan guy there helps keep that idea alive that Saudi Arabia might be in a position to get nuclear warheads form Pakistan if Iran goes nuclear, which the Saudis want us to believe at the moment.”
Will the Iranians respond? Not on any parade ground, says Javedanfar,who lived in Iran in 1987.
“It is a flexing of the muscles, but the war being fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia is not one where you can use missiles,” he says. “It’s proxy war, where you can use your intelligence agents, you use terror, you use unconventional means. That’s why I don’t think this is going to impress the Iranians too much.”
What might impress Tehran, he says, is a bold move in Syria, the main proxy war between the two Middle East powers. Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hizballah, heavily support President Bashar Assad against rebels armed and supported by the Saudis and a handful of other majority-Sunni nations. “I don’t think either Iran or Saudi Arabia sees the other as a conventional threat,” says Javedanfar. “If we see a flooding of Pakistani weapons to the rebels in Syria, this is the kind of thing that will worry the Iranians, not a Saudi missile.”