Former head of Saudi intelligence issues Iran warning

Dominic Waghorn, diplomatic editor

At the end of a year that brought the Gulf to the brink of war, a senior Saudi royal has told Sky News Iran's actions could still provoke conflict and the world should be worried.

Tensions escalated in the summer when four oil tankers were attacked and Iran seized a British-flagged vessel in the Straits of Hormuz.

Prince Turki al Faisal has decades of experience to draw on from his time as the head of Saudi Arabia 's intelligence arm, and as ambassador to both the UK and US.

Speaking to Sky News while in London to promote an exhibition about his father King Faisal, he shared with me one of his favourite quotes: "History is just one damned thing after another", as Arnold Toynbee once observed.

This year has seen everything but open war break out over the Gulf. Tankers aflame at sea; Iranian commandos storming a British vessel; an American drone knocked out of the skies and Saudi Arabia's oil production knocked out by an attack blamed on Iran.

Tensions appear to have eased on the surface, but Prince Turki is warning there's every reason to be deeply worried.

"We have seen no signs from Iran that they are pulling back on their very negative and provocative military posturing - not just towards Saudi Arabia - but towards the rest of the countries in the area," he said.

And on the prospect of escalations leading to open conflict he is far from sanguine.

"Nobody wants war, that's for sure, because nobody will be a winner in a military conflict. The destruction will be universal."

There is plenty of reason to be worried.

To the north, an Iranian government feeling increasingly beleaguered. Under Donald Trump, the US has sided openly with its Saudi rivals, pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal and abandoned any pretence at even-handed diplomacy.

Iran's economy is going from bad to worse, thanks to US sanctions and the country has seen some of its worst unrest in years, brutally put down with the deaths of hundreds of protesters.

Laleh Khalili, professor of middle eastern politics at SOAS, told Sky News a cornered Iranian government is potentially dangerous.

He said: "There is a chance that the Iranian regime might lash out not only because it wants a distraction but because it thinks that these protests which I believe are genuine popular protests against the regime are being sponsored from the outside."

To the south, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has not done enough to ease fears about his judgement after the disastrous war in Yemen , while the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was blamed by the CIA directly on him.

Critics of the Trump administration Washington has given the crown prince carte blanche to act with impunity. Without restraint they fear Saudi Arabia Iran remain potentially on collision course.

The tensions of 2019 could yet erupt into open hostility in the new year.