Leading up to ARAMCO attacks, Iran increased aggression in the Middle East.
The reactions following the devastating attacks on Saudi Aramco oil plants reveal at least as much about the challenges facing the status of the alliance against Iran-backed terrorism as the assessment of the attacks revealed about the attacker. Following the assessment by the US and Saudi intelligence, it appeared that the attack did not originate from Yemen but rather from Iraq or Iran, and was carried out with “surgical precision:. Iraqi authorities denied that their territory had been used for the purpose of attacking Saudi Arabia; however, in May 2019, Iraqi militias, rather than the Houthis, attacked sites in Saudi Arabia, and more recently, Israel had attacked Iran-backed Iraqi militias for the first time following intelligence concerning a planned attacked against Israel. According to some leaks, a mixture of sophisticated drones (12-14) and cruise missiles was used to create damage that took the oil plants out of commission for as long as several months that it may take to fix the damage. Saudi Arabia had been forced to shut down 50% of its oil production, which caused a spike in the oil markets.
The US issued a statement that it was ready to deep into its strategic oil reserves if increased production becomes necessary to stabilize the markets. According to intelligence, the drones likely originated from Iraq and were sent by one of the Iran-backed Shia militias, whereas the cruise missiles may have come directly from Iran, where they could have been deployed from Khuzestan. Iran denied any involvement in these attacks; however, drones recovered from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon in the past have shown identical Iranian fingerprint. Furthermore, close coordination between Shia militias in Iran and Iran has been established; some of these groups have sworn allegiance to the Islamic republic, and the US in the past accused Qassem Soleimani of giving direct orders to these militias to carry out attacks against US forces in Iraq. Iran and Iraqi militias have been responsible for many deaths of US troops; following the US designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization in the spring 2019, Iraqi militias increased threats and attempted attacks aimed to bring about the end of the US military presence in Iraq, despite military agreement with Baghdad.
The US response to Iranian aggression has been inconsistent and indecisive
Furthermore, the level of sophistication of the cruise missiles and the precision strikes implicates a state actor; the US directly pointed towards Iran as the culprit. In recent past, Secretary Pompeo had accused Iran of destroying oil tankers in the Gulf and of being behind other attacks against Saudi Arabia. Declassified satellite imagery demonstrated the extent of the damage and showed the level of sophistication in these distant attacks, which made it unlikely that this was a Yemen-based Houthi operation. Following Iran’s threat to close off the Strait of Hormuz, essential to the transportation of one fifth of the world’s oil supply in April, tensions between Iran, the United States, and the Gulf States rose rapidly. However, the US response to these attacks has been largely defensive and deterrence based.
Following the downing of a US drone by IRGC forces, President Trump chose to blame the incident on a mistake by a rogue Iranian officer, despite evidence that the IRGC rewarded the officers involved in the operation. The US responded with a cyber strike which was alleged to have damaged the IRGC missile capabilities; however, as evidence in clearly shows, it was insufficient to debilitate Iranian capabilities altogether. These months of tensions followed rather inconsistent political development, where the United States continued pushing for maximum pressure and criticized France for offering $15 billion to Iran to stay in the JCPOA; Iran was shown to have violated the terms of the agreement and started taking steps towards renewing uranium enrichment process; and the United States and Iran went back and forth about the possibility of a direct meeting between President Trump and President Rouhani, which would not necessarily affect the lifting of the sanctions by the United States. The attacks on Aramco, the most damaging of the series of such operations in recent months, immediately followed the firing of President Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, known for his hawkish stand on Iran and his opposition to the meeting with Rouhani as well as the lifting of some of the sanctions and a potential $15 billion aid package that President Trump had floated by his national security circles.
Furthermore, President Trump contributed to the speculation about the apparently dichotomous or inconsistent US foreign policy on Iran by suggesting the possibility of a new nuclear deal and by criticizing John Bolton repeatedly following his departure, and claiming that Bolton held him back in various ways. Bolton’s exit was celebrated by Iranian and Iran-backed media and lobbyists, who has been working hard to propagate the perception that Bolton was pushing for aggression that would have embroiled the United States in a costly and massive military conflagration. The same pro-Iran messaging had been consisting in presenting the false dichotomy of doing nothing at all in response to the growing Iranian aggression, including the hijacking of various oil tankers, and blatant oil smuggling, or perhaps even going along with Tehran’s ultimatum concerning the lifting of sanctions against its various entities, and oil sales – or some apocalyptic (and improbably) vision of a total war involving Iran, its various international brigades and proxies, the Gulf states, and the US. Implicit in that threat was the fact that Lebanese Hezbullah alone is armed with over 150, 000 missiles it can launch at Israel at any point in time – and even if that attack proves to be self-destructive, it would still carry an unacceptably high cost of human lives.
The Slow US response to these increasing incidents, the apparent ineffectiveness of the nascent “Sentinel” alliance of mostly Western navies that are supposed to escort oil tankers and deter Iranian threats (of mostly Western navies that are supposed to escort oil tankers and deter Iranian threats (and which the Saudi Arabia just joined, according to official reports – See San Diego Union Tribune), the repeated comments by President Trump claiming that the allies, including Saudi Arabia, are not paying enough for the US defense of their vessels and interests and should be in charge of their own defense, US failure to designate IRan-backed Houthis as terrorists despite their lethal attacks targeting Saudi civilians addressed by Secretary Pompeo in a recent meeting with the Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman, and, the failure to intercept any of the missiles targeting the Aramco plants called into question US commitment to the alliance, and to existing defense relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Has the White House betrayed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies?
Some voices in the region have accused the White House of playing games with Gulf lives in exchange for a mere possibility of a dubious rapprochement with Iran; others have gone further in believing the United States outright sold out Saudi Arabia and has allowed Iran, one of the most surveilled countries in the world, to strike at KSA in exchange for not being targeted by Iran and its proxies or perhaps with the mind toward the meeting with Rouhani which the regime has thus far been rejecting. President Trump’s decisive stand in countering regime’s destructive terrorist activities across the region and beyond has been called into question by his critics on the right and in the Gulf following his initial failure to respond with a military strike to the takedown of the US drone, and now, the incoherent statements concerning a joint response to the Aramco attack, where President Trump indicated he is in no rush to respond and where no concrete proposals were even articulated, much less threatened explicitly. According to VOA, the Patriot defense system failed to intercept the drones & missiles; however, arguably, the response has been poorly managed.Meanwhile, Russia, in an apparent dig at Washington, proposed the sale of the S-400 missile defense system to Saudi Arabia, which awaits the delivery of the US THAAD system not scheduled until some time from now (if it is not blocked by the isolationist and left-leaning opponents of a defense relationship with KSA in Congress).
Despite outright accusing Iran from organizing the Aramco attacks, the US has thus far refused to treat this operation as an act of war, perhaps due to consultation with Saudi Arabia itself. Saudi Arabia is one of the b est-armed countries in the world, having expended billions of dollars in recent years on modernizing its military; however, it is notoriously poorly trained. President Trump articulated he does not want war, which has been interpreted as a nod towards both those who claim that a strong response to Iranian aggression either means a military attack or will inevitably lead to a full scale military confrontation, as well as the acknowledgment that the US will not taking risks of confrontation with Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
Although there is no evidence that would show US has entered into some secret agreement with Iran, deliberately sacrificing Saudi security, these comments and the lackluster nature of any preventative nature shows the limitations of the relationship that have been underestimated by the complacent counterparts on both sides of the table, and that at the very least, there is much trust rebuilding and relationship rebuilding that needs to take place before Iran succeeds in driving the two countries away from each other, and making each more vulnerable on its own. Furthermore, concrete agreements with respect to US role in any future prevention measures and clearing understanding over the responsibilities with respect to attack on Saudi territory and interests should be addressed in a clear way and articulated to the public in both countries – and to the world.
Why have Americans turned on Saudi Arabia, rather than Iran, following the Attack?
Pentagon experts have claimed that the Saudi military is not always in control of its own defense systems, and as the recent episode has revealed, they have not been able to intercept major attacks. Furthermore, it is expect that in any major confrontation, despite having superior military equipment, the Saudis may lose to Iranian forces, particularly its highly trained IRGC contingent and proxies, all well versed in ground game and asymmetrical warfare, which Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states lack almost entirely. Perhaps for that reason, Saudi Arabia has been careful in announcing a full “investigation” and only then pointing to Iranian weapons that had been used in these attacks. However, despite these challenges, the most significant challenge by far has been domestic pressure from the leftists, isolationists, and the rising libertarians who had been calling for the abandonment of KSA entirely. SEveral factors figure into the rise of these voices:
- The rise of the isolationist base among the populist movement which had propelled PResident Trump to power to begin with. Many of them perceived anti-Iran hawks such as JOhn Bolton as “neocons” continuing the failed regional pro-democracy legacy of President George W. Bush, despite the widely divergent political philosophy of Bolton and Bush. Many are not well versed in foreign policy, or otherwise believe that US can somehow be separated either from the effect of oil shortage on the global markets or from the effects of Iranian aggression in the seemingly distant Middle East.
- The effects of the ongoing pro-Iran lobbying efforts, including, most recently the alliance between the leftist billionaire George Soros, known for his adversarial positions to traditional Republican positions, the libertarian icon Koch, who had favored business rapprochement with Russia and Iran, and Trita Parsi, the unregistered foreign agent of Iran known for his founding of the Iran-backed domestic lobby group NIAC, which has been the vocal voice behind President Obama’s nuclear deal. Former Obama officials heavily involved in the media and foreign policy circles, including career officials in various US government agencies, have been on board with these campaigns, as have been Muslim Brotherhood backed organizations and Qatar. Qatar has been successful in advancing and embracing anti-Saudi stereotypes, through its alliances with Western media, educational institutions, think tanks, members of Congress and the administrations, and investors and defense circles – including popular tropes about alleged Saudi involvement in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and casting shadow on the recent Saudi efforts at domestic reforms or even increasing openness to interfaith and intercultural efforts and a potential for future dialogue with Israel.
- Saudi failure to advance its interest through complete absence of lobbying – The Arabiya Foundation, one of the few, if not only – relatively effective Saudi organizations in DC – was recently defunded and shut down, lack of engagement with Western media, and failure to generate any real social, media, political, or cultural support. Instead it had relied on the past history of strong defense relations with the US, taking this implicit backing for granted and failing to address the momentum of its adversaries in the current political climate.
Growing calls to abandon KSA to its fate
As a result, the voices calling for the abandonment of effective alliance with KSA (at least in anything substantive but the name) have been focusing on the elements common to the talking points of its adversaries:
- That KSA has failed to become an effective partner on security issues in that it has not trained its own military; that any protection or response to KSA is going to be costly and worthless to US interests – since Iran is not a direct existential threat to the US. Indeed, some of the voices are also informed by anti-Saudi biases, and the failure of US and KSA to develop a relationship on bases other than defense and oil trade. Still others do not believe that US should play any direct role in the region or that others should at the very least shoulder most of the financial and military burden for security operations.
- That Saudi Arabia and Iran are both adversarial to US culture, values, interests, and security and for that reason should be effectively treated the same.
- That Saudi Arabia and Israel are expecting US to fight “their” wars for them (failing to take into account that the effects of terrorist attacks are global and that US has an interest in keeping Strait of Hormuz free from security threats and it has an interest in freedom of navigation and travel to the countries it has business and defense relationships with)
- That the world will be better off if US neither provides KSA with weapons nor defends it in any way (because KSA has enough weapons already, because they cannot use them responsibly, because they are liable to use these weapons for evil, and because it’s an Islamic state and therefore by definition contrary to the interests of Western civilizations), and even better if Saudi Arabia, or at least the monarchy, meets its downfall at the hands of Iran and its proxies.\
- That US has failed to provide for the well-being of its own citizens adequately and should not be involving itself in any expenditures abroad until every corner of the country is prosperous and the multitrillion dollar deficit is scaled back significantly if not turned into a surplus.
- That Saudi Arabia would not have the US back in the event of attack or other such needs
These comments are reflected on social media as part of a popular sentiment among voters with a political opinion, as well as among various analysts, influencers, talking heads, and members of the US government.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, perhaps out of concern about embarrassing and alienating the US government, has avoided publicizing or sharing information pertaining to existing defense agreements and any concrete commitments and obligations, focusing only on the shared history and mutual interest, and ignoring the central emotional element and the disinformation and limited views projected through the above sentiments.
Possible joint action that can repair and strengthen US-Saudi alliance
In reality, however, the situation is not nearly dire as the fearmongers have tried to portray it. US and Saudi Arabia can do much jointly to counter the Iranian threat without being dragged into the sort of conventional warfare that everyone would rather avoid, and for a good reason.
These options include:
- cyber strikes that could cripple Iranian military capabilities
- Joint petition for treating Iran as an outlaw states and its proxies as terrorists before the UN Security Council
- Full enforcement of existing sanctions
- sanctioning lucrative gas trade, with Qatar among other enablers
- Sanctioning Chinese entities for oil trade and smuggling, as well as Turkey, without whose support Iranian economy cannot endure
- Cracking down on the illicit schemes that make up the backbone of Iran’s shadow economy and make its financial support for various proxies possible
- de-Swifting Iran, which will take an additional toll on its ability to do legal business
- enforcing the arrests or liquidations of designated Iranian terrorists, such as Qassem Soleimani and members of the IRGC, the Basiji militias, and various proxies
- designation of Houthis and assorted other proxy groups as terrorist entities and treating them according
- Engaging in joint campaigns to counter pro-Iranian propaganda and disinformation
- Engaging in relationship and confidence building measures and additional joint training exercising
- US can provide direct assistance to KSA and other Gulf States in restructuring their approach to military in accordance with demands of modern asymmetrical warfare, which would eventually help KSA become an equal partner in the security realm
- US can play an important diplomatic and political role in mediating among KSA and its allies, such as other members of ATQ and bringing them to the same page with regards to security and defense issues
- limited strikes against IRGC naval vessels which make up the bulk of Iran’s most effective naval capabilities, and which would render the Islamic Republic ineffective in furthering contraband to Yemen, attacks on foreign oil tankers, or other aggressive operations
- Saudi Arabia, for its part, needs to let go of the outdated and ineffective modules of communication, and instead engage in vibrant dialogue with the various elements of Western societies that could convince those who are open to it that Saudi Arabia is a friend not a foe, combating stereotypes and misconceptions about its people and the nature of its relationship with the US, and engaging various elements in a more nuanced discussion on the global nature of Iranian threats and the disinformation and ideological outreach and manipulation by Iran and its fellow travelers and proxies. That means becoming more direct, making its requests more explicit, opening up about real time needs before the disaster strikes, and being open to engagement with friendly voices interested in learning more or even advancing the defense relationship and other potential grounds for relationship between the two states.