Following the September 14 attack on two of Saudi Arabia’s major oil facilities, country’s leadership blamed Iran. US Secretary of State Pompeo tweeted, “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rouhani and Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy. Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.” He later said this was an act of war. President Trump, after his “locked and loaded” tweet, said it looked like Iran was behind attack but he did not want to go to war. On September 20, Washington announced new sanctions on Iran’s national bank and the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Three days later the leaders of France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement saying, “It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation. We support ongoing investigations to establish further details.” (*)
In a recent post, I asked if the attack was a huge gamble or a thorough reading of current international dynamics and US internal politics?
Perhaps, it was both. It’s now two weeks since the attack. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the US have responded militarily to the attack. Oil prices have gone up and down. So, are we back to business as usual? Has Iran got away with it?
If Iranians were indeed behind the attack, their rationale could have included the following:
- Tehran needs to show the world that it is not going to be intimidated by the US and Israel.
- Though not yet a nuclear power, Iran must at least prove that it is region’s primus inter pares.
- At a time of US sanctions and economic hardship this would also help bolster support for the regime.
- Saudi Arabia regardless of its troubles in Yemen will never enter into war with Iran on its own but will follow Washington’s lead.
- Riyadh and its Gulf allies would have a lot to lose by the disruption of their oil and natural gas exports.
- Riyadh would worry about the reaction of its Shiite population to a military conflict with Iran. As the guardian of Islam’s holiest shrines, it would also worry about the security of the Hajj pilgrimage.
- Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies are not committed to standing behind Riyadh in a conflict with Iran.
- The alliance between the Kingdom and the UAE in Yemen is wavering. For the first time in six years, officials from Iran and the UAE met in Tehran at the end of July to discuss maritime security in the Gulf.
- Gulf states will prefer to avoid further escalation of tensions in the region let alone a military conflict.
- Bahrain, for example, would worry about potential internal disturbances in a conflict with Iran.
- Gulf states have invested heavily in tourism. Expo 2020 will be hosted by Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. FIFA World Cup 2022 will be hosted by Qatar. These countries have also invested in free trade zones. They would not wish to put such investments at risk.
- Even Israel should worry about the implications of a new regional conflict particularly in Lebanon and Iraq.
- Washington is in disarray and will refrain from military retaliation.
- Facing problems in Iraq and desperate to make peace with the Taliban, it would not risk another military conflict which would throw the Middle East into further chaos for decades disrupting world energy supplies.
- The US is not dependent on Middle East oil but others including its traditional allies are.
- China imports roughly half of its crude oil from nine Middle Eastern countries, prominently among them Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.
- US military action would unite countries dependent on Middle East oil against the US.
- They will blame a new conflict not on Iran but on the US and would be inclined to see Washington’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and its “maximum pressure campaign” as the root cause of a new conflict. This would escalate trade wars.
- Washington will worry that a military response may lead to instability in Iraq endangering its supply lines to norther Syria.
- Should the US respond militarily even by a very limited surgical strike, many would see this as an attempt to divert attention from the problems faced by the Trump White House.
- The UK, Washington’s principal Western ally in Middle East is also facing internal problems arising from Brexit and would advise caution.
- France and Germany would not support military action against Iran.
- Moreover, the UK and France would fear that a military conflict may engulf their bases in the Gulf.
- Russia and Iran may be uneasy partners in Syria but Moscow would also oppose a US military response.
If these were Iran’s assumptions in launching the attack, one may say that to a large extent they have proven right. Washington is now in the middle of an impeachment crisis and Saudi Arabia is unable to respond to the attack on its own.
In their joint statement of September 23 France, Germany and the UK, while calling upon Iran to engage in dialogue and refrain from further provocation and escalation, reiterated their continued commitment to the JCPOA unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council. They urged Iran once again to reverse its decisions to reduce compliance with the deal and to adhere fully to its commitments under it.
The position taken by the three countries on the JCPOA represents world’s position regarding the Iran nuclear deal. The US and Israel are the exceptions. And, North Korea’s successful launching of a new ballistic missile from a submarine has once again underlined the contradictions of US policy towards Pyongyang and Tehran.
In mid-February 2017, PM Netanyahu was the fourth foreign leader to visit the Trump White House. Following their talks, President Trump started off the joint press conference by reiterating that one of the worst deals he had seen was the Iran nuclear deal. Later his guest said, “I want you to know how much we appreciate the change in American policy on Iran, which you enunciated so clearly just an hour ago.”
The strength of the strategic partnership between the US and Israel is well-known and will not change. However, PM Netanyahu’s encouraging if not leading the Trump administration into a confrontational relationship with Iran in defiance of the unanimously approved JCPOA has been a negative development for the Middle East as well as Washington’s credibility.
The lack of a more robust response to the attack on Saudi oil facilities has led some Middle East observers to think that this may embolden Iran and they may have a point. The question is how far Iran’s leaders go. If they were to believe that they may undertake further action against their regional adversaries with impunity, they could prove wrong. Because, such action will likely trigger a military response by Washington. The US may not wish to engage in another long war in the broad Middle East but it will respond. This may not be a devastating response but there will be a response not only targeting Iran but also sending a message to other nations which might be tempted to follow the Iran example.
Moreover, there is now the question of Iranian hackers who, with apparent backing from the government, have made more than 2,700 attempts to identify the email accounts of current and former United States government officials, journalists covering political campaigns and accounts associated with a presidential campaign. Since Washington is fed up with the election interference controversy, this may also encourage those who favor teaching Iran a lesson.
Provision of further evidence regarding the perpetrators of the September 14 attack pending, Iran seems to have scored a point. Now, Tehran needs to prioritize diplomacy and pave the way for dialogue with the US by heeding the calls of other signatories to the JCPOA. In the last few days, there is speculation regarding the launching of dialogue between Tehran and Riyadh through the intermediary of Iraq and Pakistan. Regardless of how the two capitals have got here and at what price, this must be encouraged. Furthermore, all countries, particularly those largely dependent on Middle East oil like China must unite in an effort to convince Iran and Saudi Arabia that they will not tolerate another blow to their interests and the global economy.
And, the West needs to admit that Gulf security cannot be ensured by more arms exports to Gulf states no matter how profitable this may be. If Iran is the problem, then building stability in the broad Middle East must start by ending the Syrian war which has offered Tehran the second opportunity to extend its regional outreach, the first being the invasion of Iraq. This can only be accomplished through effective multilateralism.
As for defeating the Islamic State and its evil ideology, there has to be progress towards lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Ali Tuygan, Ambassador (Ret’d) and former Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry. The article is also published on his blog.