Saudi Oil Attacks Put U.S. Commitments to the Test

Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman (White House via Wikimedia Commons)

by James M. Dorsey

Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.

For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.

The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.

No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

Republished, with permission, from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

James Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.



  1. An alien force is in Iran. It is using Iran’s resources to build weapons and launch them. The Ayatollah regime represents itself only. They would love a war with Iran, to get started, to get the blessings of secular non-violent Iranians. At the moment they are fighting for their own survival against the non-violent secular opposition. The world needs to treat these aliens with the same contempt as they did with the Soviets in Afghanistan, especially when they send their representatives to the UN.

  2. Wish lobelog would do article on Putin-Israel relationship, wh is relevant here. Until recently it looks like Israel had enough to offer Putin for him to withhold retaliation by Syrian or Russian S-300 air missile systems on any of Israel’s continuous bombing sorties. Can it be coincidental then that come the Houthi strike on Saudi’s major oil facility, Putin now v, def sees a major sales opportunity for his systems in Saudi – *and* has simultaneously warned Israel that it will now be subject to his missiles’ retaliation?

  3. If there would be retaliation it should be massive bombing. Neither U.S. nor Saudi Arabia have boots on the ground. In that case, expect fierce missile riposte hitting US Navy in the Gulf and more Saudi oil facilities. Full war, what else?

  4. When the Saudis indiscriminately bomb Yemen and murder 1000s of women and children it is fine. When the joint Saudi UAE bomb and are regarded as war crimes and both the US and UK are also directly involved in the war crimes, it is still fine. When the Saudis and the US bomb the Shia groups in Syria or Iraq, again it is fine. And when Israelis bomb the Shia in Syria, in Lebanon or in Iraq again it is fine. But when any of these victims retaliate it is destabilising and a violation of the international law!

    By now all these politicians and the formerly camel riders self proclaimed kings should have been indicted for war crimes. Had there been an effective international criminal court, MBS and the Emirati Shaikh and Netanyahu, Trump and Johnson should have been prosecuted for crimes against humanity and genocide.

    The world should realise that the US and Israel and the Arabs are not dealing with an oil company in Iran but with the whole country: the lives of over 80 million people; we have been under their unlawful siege for a long time and millions of our people are suffering and dying a slow death due to the poverty caused by this unlawful economic siege. If by falsely accusing Iran and using their propaganda machines to justify attacking us to divert attention from their war crimes in Yemen and Palestine and Syria and Iraq, then Iran should respond accordingly as savagely to punish these war criminals, because had the drones been launched from Iran I have no doubt that as we have seen in the past Khamenei would have made a strong public statement shortly before the launching of the drones.

    Iran has been too patient for too long! We have been bleeding for too long and patiently watched a bunch of morally bankrupt former colonisers racist war criminals and uncivilized camel riders laugh at us by hiding behind their masks of the civilised world and international law and self-defense and protecting the world’s energy supply. It is the time to retaliate, as ferociously and indiscriminately as possible! No pity on these mass murderers! We can no longer bleed in silence. Enough is enough!

  5. My sympathies, but I think you’re radically misreading what’s going on. I think Iran has played a v. difficult situation extremely well. It has shown in the last few months, that if Israel & the US seriously attack it, or start a war, it can block the Straits of Hormuz and cripple Arabia’s oil production. The US, Israel and Saudi seem def,.to have got the message. They may all for their separate reasons hate Iran but not that much. What’s going on is posturing. I think they privately realise that the only solution is negotiation They can sanction even more – they haven’t taxed the air crossing the Iran border -yet. But they know it’s going to be negotiation, and Trump thank God believes in the art of the deal, not the art of war.

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