The war by proxy that has pitted Saudi Arabia and Iran for the last few years witnessed an alarming and unexpected escalation on Saturday,14 September. Eight cruise missiles and 17 drones attacked Saudi oil installations, causing the disruption of almost half of Saudi’s daily oil production, 5.6 million barrels of oil, to be exact.
Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility and vowed more attacks if Saudi Arabia doesn’t cease war operations in Yemen. It was not the first time that the Houthis have targeted Saudi Arabia using missiles and drones; however, the latest claim was met with great scepticism on the grounds that it was next to impossible that the missiles and drones used in the Saturday attack could have flown all the way to the northern part of Saudi Arabia, where the oil installations were badly damaged.
Less than 24 hours after the attack, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran and a few days later stressed that the attack was “an act of war”. Iran denied involvement without hiding its direct support for the Houthis in exercising their right of self-defence, as Iranian officials put it. US President Donald Trump said that the United States is “locked and loaded” to go after whoever waged the attack against Saudi Arabia. He went on to say that he would defer to the Saudis to see what the response would be, a position that was roundly criticised by Democrats. Later on, the US president made clear that he was in no mood to authorise military strikes on Iran in retaliation for the Saturday attack.
Secretary Pompeo flew to Saudi Arabia 18 September to confer with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman on the best way to deal with this latest escalation with Iran. The trip was a sure sign that Washington favours diplomacy to military strikes that could drag the whole region into an all-out war that no one is ready for lest it degenerates into a military confrontation across the Middle East and the Gulf without anyone capable of bringing it to an end.
That’s the reason Pentagon officials pointed out Thursday, 19 September, that they would defer to Saudi Arabia’s assessment before explicitly blaming Iran. The top spokesperson for the Pentagon, Jonathan Hoffman, that “we need to get the parties back on the diplomatic path to avoid this type of action.”
However, he added and strangely enough, that “as of this time, all indications are… that Iran is in some way responsible for the attack on the Saudi refineries,” but declined to say if the drones and missiles used in the attack were launched from Iranian territories.
Secretary Pompeo explained his trip to Saudi Arabia as an attempt to make sure the United States understands how its friends and allies in the Middle East are viewing the challenge and the threats posed by Tehran.
He insisted that Washington would like a peaceful resolution and his trip was an “act of diplomacy”.
He stressed that Washington, through his diplomatic efforts, is bent on building a coalition aimed at achieving peace and a peaceful resolution to present tensions caused by the sudden escalation in the Gulf. Moreover, he said that the United States would continue to deny Iran the capacity to underwrite Hizbullah, Shia militias in Iraq, and developing the Iranian missile programme —“all the things that they have done to pose a threat to the world …”
The Iranians have continued denying their involvement in the attack and warning that they would not hesitate to defend their country if the United States and Saudi Arabia go to war against Iran. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohamed Javid Zarif, told CNN last Thursday,19 September, that his country wants to avoid war in the region and is ready to engage in open talks with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the meantime, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, ruled out any talks with the United States.
To describe the present situation in the Gulf, the best word would be a stalemated confrontation, where everyone is brandishing their military muscle but lacking the political will to go to war.
In this three-way tug of war, it seems that Tehran, in demonstrating maximum resistance to the maximum pressure campaign by the United States, has succeeded in painting both the United States and Saudi Arabia into a corner. Tehran knows that Saudi Arabia on its own would not go to war without the full consent and backing of Washington and, in the meantime, the US president, who is wary of all foreign entanglements, wants to go into the presidential elections next year having saved America from another war in the Middle East.
For the time being, we can assume that Tehran is the party calling the shots in this tug of war. The message is clear. Crippling US sanctions will not drive Iran to surrender to American pressures and will. And the more the United States remains inflexible on Iranian demands of ending sanctions, the more its allies — and mainly Saudi Arabia — will bear the brunt of Iranian frustration and despair.
One Iranian official described the United States as a “rabbit” and not a tiger. If this is the perception in Tehran, then the US administration should realise that its strategy of maximum pressure against Iran is neither paying off, nor is it sustainable in the medium and long term. If the United States is wary of going to wars in the Middle East, then it should not forego diplomacy.
Iran will keep harassing the partners and allies of the United States in the Gulf and the Middle East with all available means without entering into a direct confrontation. This would assure Tehran plausible deniability.
If there is a lesson to be drawn from the latest escalation and the American reaction to the attack against Saudi oil installations, it is that Arab countries should not depend on the United States to come to their assistance in time of need. Arab powers should rethink their strategic posture vis-à-vis the United States.
On Tuesday, 17 September, US Vice President Mike Pence briefed Senate Republicans on the attack that targeted Saudi Arabia. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said after the briefing that the presentation that he had heard left him in no doubt that Iran was “the culprit”. He concluded that the problems with Iran “only get worse over time, so it is imperative that the United States take action to deter further aggression by the Ayatollah and his henchmen”.
From all indications, the US administration is not keen on resorting to war anytime soon to provide such a deterrence.
The Saudis and Arab countries in the Middle East have been squeezed between the lack of strategic deterrence as far as Iran is concerned and Tehran mastering the diplomatic art of plausible deniability.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.