America and Saudi Arabia may feel compelled to retaliate against Iran
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP says America’s forces are “locked and loaded” to strike at those responsible for the devastating drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia’s industry on September 14th. Is he about to pull the trigger for another American war in the Middle East?
Responsibility for the strikes on the Khurais oilfield and the Abqaiq oil-processing facility—the biggest such plant in the world—was claimed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fighting a Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. But American officials dismissed this notion.
Not only was the weaponry involved made in Iran, they say. They also believe the attacks had come not from the south-east of the Arabian peninsula, ie, Yemen, but the north, from Iraq, where Iran runs proxy Shia militias; or indeed from the territory of Iran itself. “Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” tweeted Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
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Mr Trump was more bellicose but, notably, less specific. He did not name Iran, though he suggested America knew who was responsible for the attacks, and was awaiting confirmation from Saudi Arabia as to the culprit. Within hours, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis in Yemen mostly endorsed Mr Pompeo’s account.
Even so, Mr Trump has been here before with his threats of war. He used the same “locked and loaded” phrase to menace North Korea in August 2017, before he met and “fell in love” with its dictator, Kim Jong Un, the next year. And just three months ago, Mr Trump revealed America had also been “cocked and loaded” when he aborted an air-raid against Iran just ten minutes before it was due to strike, because of the likely civilian casualties.
That planned raid was to punish Iran for shooting down an American surveillance drone, one of a series of Iranian provocations in recent months. They have included sabotage attacks, blamed on Iranian proxies, on ships in the Gulf; frequent drone strikes from the Houthis in Yemen (Mr Pompeo tweeted that Iran was behind “nearly 100” attacks on Saudi Arabia); and Iran’s announcement in July that it had breached limits imposed on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium that it accepted in 2015 in its agreement with world powers on curbing its nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Mr Trump was elected on a promise to get America out of its drawn-out wars in the Middle East, and has often sought to draw down America’s military presence in the region. Indeed, his reluctance to resort to military action is one of many differences of opinion that led to the departure of his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton.
Yet the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais—if Iran was indeed responsible—are its most serious provocations yet. That is one of three reasons why Mr Trump’s latest threats may be more substantial than his earlier ones. The second is their very familiarity. A man as conscious of his own image and importance as the president will not want to become known for repeatedly crying wolf.
Third is what Emile Hokayem, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in London, calls a “design flaw” in the policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran that America adopted when Mr Trump pulled it out of the JCPOA last year. The policy, of crippling Iran’s economy through sanctions in the hope of forcing it to abandon its nuclear programme and rein in its proxies elsewhere in the Middle East, “lacks a strategy of escalation”. Iran, for its part, certainly does have such a strategy. As it steadily ratchets up its provocations, America and its Saudi allies risk looking toothless.
At the very least, faint hopes that Mr Trump might meet Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in the next few weeks seem dashed. The idea for the first such presidential summit since the Iranian revolution in 1979 was pushed by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, at the G7 summit in Biarritz last month. Mr Trump and Mr Rouhani seemed to entertain the idea, but it was always opposed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Some think the attack on Saudi Arabia is an attempt by hardliners to scupper any hope of a rapprochement.
The oil market, badly disrupted by the lost production, may in fact be a deterrent to American military action. Part of the immediate spike in the price (of about 20% initially, before easing back) was the result of the supply shock. It reduced Saudi oil output by nearly 60%, and the world’s by 6%. Saudi officials said they hoped to restore one-third of production by the end of Monday. But getting back to pre-attack levels will take weeks.
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In response, Mr Trump on Sunday authorised the release of stocks from America’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to “keep the markets well-supplied”. He also said the government would expedite approvals of oil projects in Texas and elsewhere. The pressure on the price, however, comes not just from the big cut in production, but from the mounting fear of conflict—ie, of much more severe disruption to come. With worries growing about the problems facing the global economy, war in the Middle East would hardly be a solution.