The world community has every reason to be confused about what is going to happen next in the Middle East. All common sense and old-style calculations are gone with the wind.
After Saturday’s drone attacks, which damaged the world’s large crude processing plant in Saudi Arabia and triggered the largest jump in oil prices in decades, there were mixed messages from major European capitals and Washington, making a united response unlikely.
European diplomats and experts told Al-Ahram Weekly that “intelligence briefings” from Washington to European allies on the evidence and proposed course of action are vital now.
“We are going through a crucial moment. Any miscalculation could be costly for everyone. Oil supplies were disrupted briefly, but that pushed prices to their highest level in decades. Waging war in the region will lead to unprecedented strategic and economic risks and will open a Pandora’s box,” one European diplomat told the Weekly.
Donald Trump said he was sending US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia “to discuss what they feel” about the attack and an appropriate response.
Many observers noted that Trump has resorted to a time-buying strategy by sending Pompeo to Saudi Arabia. In older times, an attack of this magnitude would have pushed America to immediate surgical military action without any proof.
But now is not an ordinary time, and Trump is not an ordinary president.
NOWHERE TO HIDE: The cautious attitude from Trump reflects the dilemma he faces. He is not eager to get involved in another military conflict in the Middle East, but he does not like to look weak.
“The situation is incredibly serious. The impact on the global economy is serious, the implications of potential US retaliatory strikes is very serious. We are in a situation where the Middle East is in a pressure cooker and this could be the event that takes things from a proxy into a full-blown war,” said Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington.
Joe Bermudez, an expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies who examined intelligence images, told The Associated Press that satellite images show the attackers had detailed knowledge of which tanks and machinery to hit within the sprawling Saudi oil processing facility at Abqaiq in order to cripple production, but “satellite imagery can’t show you where the attack originated from.”
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab labelled the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities a “wanton violation of international law” and an “outrageous act”, but he stopped short of blaming Iran, saying the “picture is not entirely clear” on who was behind the attack.
Downing Street echoed a similar sentiment as Boris Johnson’s official spokesman also stopped short of blaming Iran.
Iran rejected allegations of any involvement and did not condemn the attack, saying it was a message that the war on Yemen must end and that Houthis rebels have the right to respond to the crimes committed in their country.
But be sure, the attack is not only about Yemen, it is also about Iran and its inability to sell its oil in the global market.
Tehran’s message is very clear, and that is, “if we cannot get any sanction relief through diplomatic means; we can make US and its allies suffer by creating disruption and mayhem,” in the words of the European diplomat.
Iran’s economy is under intense pressure and the Iranian leadership calculated that playing the same game and expecting different results will not help their cause, deciding now is the time to change the rules of engagement, benefiting from Trump’s reluctance to enter any war in the run up to presidential elections.
As the European diplomat put it, it is a calculated risk on the part of Iran. If the move pushes Trump to engage diplomatically with Iran, that is good. But if the move leads to military confrontation, then according to Tehran every other nation will suffer the consequences as Iran’s proxies will make sure the response against the US and its allies is felt in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
But military confrontation is Iran’s worst-case scenario. Tehran’s understanding is that the Trump administration will seek to avoid war. American voters in the last few years voted for presidents like Barack Obama and Trump himself after they promised to pull US troops from the Middle East. And Trump famously said, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” And after calling off an attack against Tehran a few weeks ago he showed he is keen to avoid war.
The Iranians built a strategy around that.
And while the launch sites of the attacks will no doubt be the subject of urgent intelligence analysis and investigation, the bigger picture is what the European capitals are looking at now.
For them, the roots of the current escalation are in the Trump administration pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions against Tehran. Add to that the US administration’s support for the war in Yemen, despite Congress voting for the US to distance itself from the war and stop arming any party there. Now the US is drawn into this regional proxy war, instead of being able to play the middleman. For Europe, this is where the risk lies.
IRANIAN CALCULATIONS: If Iranian fingerprints are found to be on the attack, the question will be what are Iranian calculations? The attack was so severe it knocked out 50 per cent of Saudi oil output, but it also destroyed any possibility of the US lifting sanctions against Iran anytime soon.
So, what was the Iranian rationale? The answer is: survival.
“Iran’s own oil is not being exported, the US, working through allies such as the UK, has interceded Iranian ships carrying that oil. So, you have Iran under this maximum pressure campaign. I think the Iranians, especially the hardliners who are ascendant right now because Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, are saying we do not trust the US or Trump to give anything up, or go back to the deal and lift sanctions, and the only language the US understands is pressure. I think the rationale is that; the Iranians are not necessarily in a corner, begging for sanctions relief. The Iranians actually want to make sure that they have the upper hand and if there are negotiations they can come to the table with leverage, but if there are no negotiations, they demonstrate their own deterrent capabilities,” said Jamal Abdi.
It is a very risky game. But Iran is playing it regardless, hoping that a hesitant US and its allies will be cautious.
Gulf countries could be reluctant to support military strikes against Iran as the consequences could be detrimental because of proximity.
This doubtless explains, in part, why Trump is going to check with the Saudis first before proceeding with a response.
“In one sense, Trump is abdicating his responsibility. In another sense, he is ensuring that the Saudis are going to have to live with whatever happens, and the US is not going to be the only party in this,” argued Abdi.
Surely the current tension will affect French efforts to organise a meeting between President Hassan Rouhani and President Trump. Nonetheless, a meeting between the Iranian and the American leaders as early as next week, amid the annual General Assembly of the UN, was premature and overly-optimistic anyway.
On the other hand, increasing tensions could be a golden opportunity for diplomacy, as there is an increasing need for talks. So, Mr Trump is going to face a very difficult decision in the coming days, and he might find advice from his European allies very handy. Their advice is: do not act rashly.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Rules of engagement shift in the Middle East.