Iran is risking war with Saudi Arabia in order to assess the strategic philosophy of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
That's my read of Tuesday's missile attack by Yemen-based Houthi rebels targeting Riyadh. While the missile either crashed or was shot down over Riyadh, the Houthis say they were targeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other top Saudi leaders in the strike.
I have a number of takeaways.
First, we should be confident that the missile employed was provided to the Houthis by Iran and that Iran directed its use in this attack. That isn't simply because the rebels claim the missile employed was an H-2 Volcano, which both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have said is actually an Iranian platform. It's also because Iran is by far the most likely source of the intelligence that enabled the missile team to target the Saudi gathering at the right location and time. Moreover, reflecting their reliance on Iranian military support, the Houthis only take actions such as this one with Iran's grant of approval.
Second, it seems clear that Iran is either seeking to test Mohammed bin Salman, or to kill him.
While it might seem overtly aggressive of the Iranians to attempt to assassinate such a senior Saudi official, such action is straight out of the Revolutionary Guards' textbook. In 2011, for example, the IRGC attempted to blow up a Washington, D.C. restaurant in order to kill then-Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir. The Iranians had no concern that hundreds of Americans might also be killed or that the Saudis might retaliate.
Indeed, as I noted earlier this month, Iran was likely also responsible for the assassination of former Yemeni President Ali Saleh.
That said, I do think it's more likely that the Iranians wanted to test bin Salman here.
Recognizing that the 32-year-old reformist will soon be Saudi Arabia's presumably long-term leader, the Iranian hardliners are desperate to know how far they can push without being pushed back. This matters greatly in informing the shape of Iran's ongoing geopolitical campaign for hegemony over the Middle East. And considering his vigorous reforms on issues from Wahhabi extremism to women's rights to nuclear development, bin Salman is an uncomfortably unpredictable prospect for Iran's leadership. Put simply, they want to see what he's like when pushed hard.
In that sense, Iran might see this missile strike as the perfect dangle. After all, now that the Houthis have specifically said bin Salman was targeted (almost certainly on Iranian orders), Iran's leadership will know that bin Salman will hold them responsible for this attack. In turn, the form of his reaction will offer a good window into his strategic mindset.
Of course, the stakes here are extreme. The prospects for a regional war are growing rapidly, and neither Iran nor Mohammed bin Salman will want to lose face. It is now feasible, for example, that bin Salman could order retaliation against Tehran.