by François Nicoullaud
Who exactly carried out the September 14 attacks on two major oil facilities in Saudi Arabia? Was it the Houthis? The Iranians? Some combination of the two? It does not really matter, as most already consider Iran the main culprit. In a diplomatic note sent to the United States through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, the Iranian government has rejected the accusation. It has also publicly said that any aggression would be met by a retaliation that would not be limited to the source of the attack. The same message has been repeated in various tones by many prominent Iranian leaders. It seems clear now that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been deterred from a military strike. Donald Trump won’t rush to his friend Mohammad bin Salman’s aid, and therefore nobody will move.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia at an Impasse
At this point, the U.S. and Saudis appear deeply embroiled in their own contradictions. President Trump would like to bring the Iranians to their knees, but balks at sparking a war in the Persian Gulf. More than 85% of Americans oppose another Middle Eastern war, which would bring casualties, military expenses, and a spike in the price of gasoline. For Trump himself, his reelection would be put at risk. He is therefore entangled in his choice to pull out of the 2015 Vienna nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) and to impose on Iran a policy of “maximum pressure.” This policy has become an end in itself, and lacks a consensus in Washington on the desired end state: regime change, or a change in Iranian behavior? The dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic programs, or merely containment? The policy’s now-obvious failure in forcing the Iranian regime to submit, coupled with the Trump administration’s apparent inability to imagine another policy, has brought the U.S. to an impasse.
As for the Saudis, the disaster of their war in Yemen has finally backfired on them, and more precisely on Mohammad bin Salman, who recklessly started it in 2015. They are now threatened on their own territory, notwithstanding their immense military expenses and the presence of about 40,000 U.S. military personnel in the region. The security of the Saudi population is at stake, as is its prosperity, which depends on the country’s ability to peacefully produce and sell its oil. And this prosperity is in turn a prerequisite for the well-being and future of the Saud family. The dynasty is more fragile in this respect than the Islamic Republic, which, in its forty years of existence, has survived terrible sanctions and constraints, a ruinous war, and—last but not least—a permanent popular discontent.
Coming back to the September 14 attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais, did the Iranian regime anticipate its outcome? The complexity of the operation and the precision of the strikes have left experts aghast and forced military leaders in the region and abroad to revisit their assumptions. And there are further questions about the possibility that people inside Saudi Arabia participated in the attacks and could have at least guided some drones toward their targets. The Houthis, when claiming responsibility for the attacks, alluded to support from within the kingdom, giving the Saudis another reason to worry.
But the Iranians’ satisfaction should not blind them to their own dilemmas. Tehran’s “maximum resistance” to Washington’s “maximum pressure” also threatens to become an end in itself. By locking themselves in such a posture, Iranian leaders have left the initiative—be it for war or peace—to the U.S., and have plunged their economy into a quagmire. At the present moment, both parties are asking for the impossible—the Iranians press for the instant lifting of all U.S. sanctions, while the Americans want the Iranians to demonstrate that they will never pursue nuclear weapons, give up their missile program, and forsake all ambitions toward regional influence. Consequently, the Iranians refuse any contact with Trump or his aides, viewing it as a gesture of submission.
Sea Change and Opportunities
But the attacks on Saudi Arabia have produced a sea change. For the next few weeks, though not much more than that, the Iranian government has the ability to take a step towards its adversary without giving the impression that it is yielding to the stronger party. This precious opportunity has to be seized before it disappears. Are the leaders in Tehran considering it? Could the Houthis’ recent statement declaring a ceasefire in their operations against the Saudis be a first step? Will Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s regional security proposal at the United Nations General Assembly be taken as a positive gesture?
Most likely, times are not yet ripe for a meeting between the U.S. and Iranian presidents. But as a first step in defusing tensions, the two sides could work on a package of reciprocal concessions. This could include at least a partial lifting of oil sanctions in exchange for Iran’s return to a strict implementation of the JCPOA along with some other gesture painless enough to be acceptable to Iranian hardliners but visible enough to be presented as a brilliant success by President Trump. Some kind of slowdown of the enrichment activities at Iran’s Natanz facility could perhaps suffice. The French, who have already spoken a lot to all the parties involved, could play a useful role. There is no doubt that ample conversations will take place in New York in the coming days during the UN General Assembly.
If the U.S. and Iran could establish a dynamic of reducing tensions—which at some point will have to address the war in Yemen—it would become possible to think about a diplomatic encounter in the coming months, at a level to be defined. President Trump could benefit from such an event during his reelection campaign, and so could Rouhani’s government, if it took place before Iranian legislative elections scheduled for next February. The likely political weakening of two prominent adversaries of any kind of U.S.-Iranian detente—Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammad Bin Salman—would also help, as would any progress, however timid, towards an end to the Syrian civil war. For once, Iranian leaders are in a favorable position to take a bold initiative. Will they be able to put aside their internal quarrels and do so? Obviously, this can’t be taken for granted. Things could as well go the other way. Hope, though, is showing us a little light in the tunnel.