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.

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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.

SHOW 11 COMMENTS

11 Comments

  1. As I have said it many times on Lobelog before, Iran, specifically, Rouhani ought to push hard for taking the nuclear research all the way to the end point. At the present time Rouhani should make up for his initial resistance to Iran becoming a nuclear power in early 1990’s. Iranian progressives are realizing and getting on the same page with the ultra conservatives that negotiating with the West is for the birds and not for the governments. At this time, the best and strongest deterrent against attacking Iran is to join the other nuclear powers and do it NOW!

  2. A scenario that is plausible based on thus far published information is that the objective of the attack was to prevent the possibility of dialogue between Trump and Rouhani at the UN. While hardliners in Iran do not want a Trump-Rouhani meeting consider the alternative that hardliners from those that oppose Iran could have engineered the attack to preempt lifting of sanctions on Iran. It could also have been seen as playing a role in the election in Israel and affirming Netanyahu’s activist policies.

    What appears to be notable is that the damage appears to be relatively modest – repairable before the end of September – but sufficient for Pompeo to claim that it is an attack on global energy supplies. As such U.S. global interests would be involved. It would not be just a Saudi – Houthi / Iran issue. The incoming drones mysteriously evaded all Saudi defenses. They were also not detected by the extraordinary U.S. radars and systems on ships in the Gulf. If the missiles came from elsewhere, potentially inside of Saudi Arabia or possibly in the Sinai detection may have been avoided. No doubt there are Iranians prepared to sell Iranian weapons that could be demonstrated to the media. But, what level of expertise would be needed to tell whether a missile was recent Iranian or Soviet era junk purchased on the black market?

    The Houthis claimed they launched 10. The Saudi’s claim to have identified 18. What if the Houthis and supporters in Iran expecting a provocation to derail the possibility of Trump-Rouhani talks received information that the attack had taken place and immediately claimed credit guessing the wrong number of missiles? It would be in their interests to paint Saudi Arabia as vulnerable. It may be far less vulnerable than it seems.

    The hawks urge a U.S. response. This could offer Trump an opportunity to spring a surprise even more dramatic than crossing the DMZ into the DPRK. Trump has already defined the problem as a Saudi national security concern where the U.S. would be willing to help, if paid. Trump could call for direct talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a steps to a regional security conference aimed at building a framework for the security of all states in the region. If Iran would participate productively the U.S. would rejoin JCPOA and relax sanctions along with guarantees for Saudi Arabia’s security. Violations by Iran could lead to re-imposition of Maximum Pressure. The whole process could conducted within the framework of the Security Council and be guaranteed by the P5+ EU in similar model to JCPOA. Outcomes could address the non-nuclear issues of concern to Trump – missiles and support for various groups in the Middle East that have threatened the security interests of countries in the region. Unlike the Middle East “peace” seminar organized by Pompeo in Warsaw in February such a Middle East security conference would invite Iran as a key participant and place particular attention on Iran’s security needs. Iran was asked for support by Iraq in 2014 to fight ISIS that threatened to overrun the country. Syria faced a similar problem. Iran has legitimate interests in supporting the fight against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. Now, the Popular Mobilization forces are being bombed in Iraq and Syria. If war broke out ISIS would surge and could emerge as the ultimate victor.

  3. José Raymond Herrera.

    You (correctly) say this: “Neither U.S. nor Saudi Arabia have boots on the ground.”
    You then said this: “In that case, expect fierce missile riposte hitting US Navy in the Gulf and more Saudi oil facilities.”

    Huh? How does one logically follow from the other?

    If Iran has boots on the ground, and the USA/Saudi’s don’t, then the obvious riposte for an American air strike is for Iran to use those boots to overrun Saudi Arabia.

    After all, what is there to stop them?

    You then end with this: “Full war, what else?”

    Well, no, what you are advocating is not “full war”.

    A “full war” is Iran throwing everything at US forces in the region.
    Including those soldiers which Iran has and the USA… doesn’t have.

    I simply don’t understand why nobody notices that simple fact: Iran has an army in the Middle East, and CENTCOM doesn’t. Trump could start an “air war” and then find all his airfields overrun before he has time to grunt “Huh? What just happened?”

  4. Khosrow

    Well said thank you but the western war crimes doesn’t start and end with Trump and his lapdog in UK Bush junior and Obama are as criminal
    As current western leaders. God willing they will see and be judged by a fair international criminal court.

  5. VIDBELDAVS

    “A scenario that is plausible based on thus far published information”

    Do you have any “solid proof” that Iran from Iran have done the attack on Saudi refineries past Saturday? Just like Pompeo making assumption based on western propaganda without any proof is just a fiction.
    Iran as has said in past few months numerously will not negotiate with US because US has illegally broke and ignored a UNSC adopted resolution requiring all members to adhere to JCPOA. As Iran’s SL ayatollah Khamenei just said a few days ago (many in west refer to him as the ultimate decider on matters of Iran foreign relation directions, and according to western narrative a hardliner) only when US comes back to JCPOA table talks with US is possible. Therefore, there was no possibility of talks between US and Iran that hardliners try to prevent it by bombing the Saudi refineries.

    Making scenarios base on assumption is just a form of propaganda in this case just a Israeli Hasbara, and in US case for her tremendous failure to protect Saudi clients from poor Yemen she helped bombing for years. And for Saudi for their incompetence to win a war they waged against one of poorest nations on earth. As you see for all these three evil regimes the only way out of their embarrassing incompetence is to blame their real common enemy and the only major regional power in western Asia, which is Iran. There is an Iranian proverb that describes the reason these three evil regimes are basing their propaganda against Iran. “Is better (more prestigious) to be kicked by a horse than a donkey” now you see why the attacks are blamed on Iran. Your comment base on “assuming” Iran done it is helping their propaganda and is baseless.

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