Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

US response shows attacks on Saudi Arabia have ultimately backfired

The Trump administration wants to defeat Tehran without firing a single bullet

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir. Amr Nabil / AP
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir. Amr Nabil / AP

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has executed a qualitative change in the policy of strategic recklessness adopted by regime leaders four months ago, apparently targeting two major Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, in an attack described by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as an “act of war”. The demagoguery of the IRGC axis that spans Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen is claiming it is cowardice that prevents US President Donald Trump from responding to its repeated provocations. Yet the pragmatic strategy of the Trump administration is immune to the boasts of the IRGC and its proxies, from Hezbollah to Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen to the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, because the administration believes it still holds all the cards. Mr Trump has refused to be lured into Tehran’s trap, which seeks to promote a war in the region that the regime desperately needs to divert attention from its domestic crises and create a way out of crippling sanctions. Instead, Mr Trump announced a new round of sanctions on Friday, the toughest yet, targeting banks and sovereign wealth funds, while pledging to send US troops to Saudi Arabia to bolster its defences.

Mr Trump has surprised Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, time and again by not straying from his strategy of maximum pressure, refraining from responding to Iranian provocations that began with the downing of a US drone, and doing his utmost to stop the European Union from circumventing the sanctions and enabling funds to filter through to Tehran. The only red line that could push the US president into direct military action against Iran would be if the IRGC or its proxies targeted American soldiers, in Iraq for example. If Tehran resumes nuclear activities, this could also cross a line of a different kind. The response could also be different if Mr Trump is elected for a second term next year. So how will the US and Saudi Arabia respond to the emerging Iranian challenge? Has the regime in Iran shot itself in the foot by targeting Saudi oil facilities, antagonising Europe, China and Russia at the expense of its interests?

IRGC chief General Hossein Salami. Vahid Salemi / AP
IRGC chief General Hossein Salami. Vahid Salemi / AP

Informed sources say the latest round of sanctions is extraordinary, aiming to put a total ban on any financial transactions with Iran. Tehran has been defiant in response, with foreign minister Javad Zarif declaring: “This means their attempt at bringing the Iranian nation to its knees under “maximum pressure” has failed.”

Sources say the US will next issue an ultimatum to Iran to abandon its provocative and aggressive policy within one week or face possible military measures.

The US president has stated clearly that he sees the attack as an assault on Saudi Arabia, not on the US. However, he has indicated he is willing to assist a “great ally” under attack, adding: “I’m not looking to get into new conflict but sometimes you have to.”

The US and Saudi Arabia will not be able to fully avoid military measures, especially if the IRGC intends to carry out more attacks against the Kingdom. While Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the Aramco attack last week, the US says it has incontrovertible proof the missiles were launched by Iran. The Saudi defence ministry said they had come from the north, not from the south, so could not have come from Yemen.

Any response is unlikely to take the form of an expanded military strike; rather, it will probably be limited military operations including retaliatory strikes against Iranian oil facilities, sources say. Limiting the retaliation to oil infrastructure means the response will be seen as a legitimate one against Iranian aggression.

In the Gulf region, opinions are divided between those who say failing to respond to Iran would encourage it to carry out further attacks and install Iran’s leaders as the region’s bullies who can dictate their terms, and those who say the attack should be taken as collateral damage to avoid destructive wars that benefit Iran and harm Arab Gulf countries. Most in the Gulf condemn the Iranian strategy of recklessness but at the same time do not want a US military response because it would suit Tehran’s purposes. The Trump administration wants to defeat Iran without firing a single bullet, by tightening the noose around lucrative oil and finance channels.

IRGC chief General Hossein Salami, centre, visiting an exhibition in Tehran displaying pieces of the American drone shot down by the military force. Vahid Salemi / AP
IRGC chief General Hossein Salami, centre, visiting an exhibition in Tehran displaying pieces of the American drone shot down by the military force. Vahid Salemi / AP

Ultimately, Iran's attack on Saudi oil facilities has backfired, inviting further sanctions, mobilising international support for Riyadh, and turning international public opinion against the regime in Tehran. Russian President Vladimir Putin condemned the Iranian attacks and said his country was ready to join international experts investigating the strikes. French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated France’s support for Saudi Arabian security and stability, saying the world must not show weakness in the face of such assaults. International partners have rallied around Saudi Arabia and converged in condemning Iran on the eve of the UN General Assembly, with the Security Council convening to discuss these developments. Moreover, there is now a stronger likelihood of more collective measures to guarantee the security of navigation in the Gulf and for an international diplomatic pushback against Tehran.

It is likely that the attacks have eliminated all chances for a meeting between Mr Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of UNGA. It is possible this is what the Mr Khamenei and the IRGC wanted. Expect more tension and instability in the region.

Updated: September 22, 2019 11:49 AM

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