Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Saudi Oil Facility Attacks: What the US Should Do Now

It will take more than tweets for President Trump to show the Iranians that they will not benefit from attacking the world’s energy supply.

by Michael Isenberg.

The video was quite dramatic. Mountains of white-orange flame dwarfing the buildings and lighting up the sky. Billows of red smoke trailing off into the night.

The attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, believed to be from a combination of cruise missiles and drones, struck the Abqaiq processing plant and the Khurais oil field at 4 AM Saturday morning. The Saudi government reported that there were no fatalities or injuries, fortunately, but the Abqaiq facility will be offline for an undetermined period of time. The facility removes sulfur from some 5 to 7 million barrels of oil a day, about half of Saudi Arabia’s production, and around 5% of the world’s oil supply.

Now that the fires are, if not exactly out, at least “under control,” the question for those of us in the US is what, if anything should we do about it? And that question can’t be separated from the questions of who was responsible for the attacks and what were their motives.

Who did it?

Within hours of the attacks, a spokesman for the Houthi rebels in Yemen appeared on their al-Masirah news channel and claimed responsibility. The Houthi, based in the country's western hills, have been at war with their government since March of 2015, in what has been called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The war has been a stalemate, with little change in the territories subject to government and Houthi control. Almost from the beginning, the Saudi military intervened on the government side, conducting a massive air campaign, but with little effect. In retaliation, the Houthis have launched drone and missile attacks against defense and oil facilities within Saudi Arabia, but none of these earlier attacks were as damaging as Abqaiq and Khurais.

It’s about 550 miles from Abqaiq to Houthi-held territories in Yemen, within the 930 mile range of the most advanced Houthi drone, the UAV-X. Nevertheless, there is some reason for skepticism whether the Houthis were actually responsible. An anonymous US military source has claimed that the damage to the facilities were on the west-north-west sides, suggesting a direction of attack from Iran, or possibly Iraq, where there are many Iran-backed militias. Indeed, as the map shows, both Iran and Iraq are much closer to the targets.

In a tweet on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out Iran explicitly for the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” adding, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, in turn, accused Pompeo of lying. “Having failed at ‘max pressure,’” he tweeted, “@SecPompeo's turning to ‘max deceit.’”

In my mind, the bottom line as to whether the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks came from the Houthis or the Iranians is: I don’t care. The Houthis are Iranian clients. We know this because of the various Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis, sometimes accompanied by trainers, that have been observed over the years, and sometimes intercepted, most notably the capture of the Jihan One by the Yemeni government in 2013. As far as I’m concerned, Iran is responsible, regardless of where the drones took off from.

What was their motive?

Iran’s defenders insist that the Islamic Republic has no motive for carrying out such an attack. I disagree. When it comes to motive, there are numerous possibilities; an embarrassment of riches. Any one of them could fill a blog post by itself. In the interest of space (and not boring you), I will merely list some here, without going into their details and relative merits:

  • Start with Iran’s domestic politics. We often talk about the country as if it’s a single entity with a single motive. But Iran and its government are deeply fractured. In particular, there is conflict between the religious hardliners on the one hand, led by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, and the civilian government on the other, led by President Rouhani. The biggest area of disagreement is engagement with the West. Rouhani got re-elected promising that such engagement would grow the country’s economy, while the hardliners still view the West as the Great Satan. By stirring up conflict with the West, the Revolutionary Guard is causing Rouhani’s policies to fail, thereby undermining him. An all out war would give them a pretext to remove Rouhani from power all together.
  • Iran has other domestic problems. Contrary to Rouhani’s plans, the economy is tanking, thanks to President Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal and re-impose economic sanctions. Iran is desperate to get the sanctions lifted, and by threatening the world’s oil supplies, it hopes to pressure the US to give in.
  • In addition to economic disaster, the government of Iran faces a population that is sick and tired of living under shari’ah, and is fighting back. An unending series of foreign policy crises can distract the population from these issues (I actually did fill a blog post about this. From last July: “Rouhani Wags the Dog: Behind the Trump/Rouhani war of words”).
  • Then there’s US domestic politics. The 2020 election, unfortunately, will touch on every major event for the next 14 months (An aside: when the presidential election touches every major event, the presidency has too much damn power). Even if Trump doesn’t lift the sanctions, by dragging him into an unpopular Middle Eastern quagmire, Iran hopes to cost him enough votes for him to lose what promises to be a close election. A Democrat in the White House will be far easier for them to hoodwink, as they learned from their experience with Mr. Obama.
  • As for regional politics, Iran is locked in a battle with Saudi Arabia to dominate the Middle East. Shutting down half of Saudi oil production harms its rival substantially.
  • Finally, the Iranian government is run by Islamists, who are inspired by the Quran and the Hadith--which say that Allah has commanded them to wage jihad against the unbeliever (the West) and bring death to the apostate (Saudi Arabia).

    What should the United States do?

    First of all, here’s what I don’t think we should do just now: attack Iran militarily. Abqaiq and Khurais were not directed against the United States and none of our citizens were hurt. A military response would be disproportionate. Not to mention, as I noted above, the Revolutionary Guard wants a confrontation with the US, so we shouldn’t give them one.

    But just because I don't want a military confrontation with Iran doesn't mean I think we should sit on our collective ass and do nothing. That’s what we’ve been doing and it’s not working.

    A lot of the discussion about Iran revolves around the false alternative, "Go to war" or "Do nothing." In fact, there are numerous lesser measures we could take. Indeed, if history teaches us anything, it's that the best way to create a situation where we have to go to war someday is to do nothing, rather than take those lesser measures while we still can.

    It would be irresponsible to do nothing. The Iranians have threatened to shut down shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and have taken numerous steps to make good on that threat. Yes, they deny mining the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous oil tankers and the evidence against them is sketchy. But there's no doubt they shot down a US drone and seized the Stena Impero oil tanker and its crew (which they’re still holding). Furthermore, they delivered the cargo of the Grace One tanker to Assad’s Syria, in violation of EU sanctions and their own promises, and they’ve imprisoned some dozen or so western citizens, mostly on dubious spying accusations. No responsible government can sit idly by in the face of this many attacks on the liberty and property of its citizens.

    And yet, the response of the US and its allies has been virtually non-existent. President Trump posted some threatening tweets and added Ayatollah Khamanei and Foreign Minister Zarif to the list of sanctioned individuals, thereby freezing any assets they have in the United States. This did nothing but prompt mockery from Mr. Zarif who tweeted, “It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”

    Clearly, Iran is not impressed, and, like all bullies, it has merely been emboldened by the weak response to engage in ever more aggressive provocation. It will continue destroying property and kidnapping people until the West puts some measures with real teeth in place, on top of the US sanctions already in existence.

    As I’ve argued previously, US policy should not be based on knee-jerk reactions to the latest event. Rather, the US should act according to an overarching strategy for Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of whom is a friend to the US or US values. Specifically the US should learn from the successes of the Nixon Administration during the Cold War and follow a two-prong strategy based on (1) linkage—tying the things Iran and Saudi Arabia want to their good behavior, and (2) triangular diplomacy—playing them off against each other.

    There is not much we can do right now by way of triangular diplomacy. Ideally we would expand military and diplomatic aid to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and thereby show the Iranians that this kind of attack only benefits its rival. But there’s not much opportunity, given that President Trump—despite Congressional opposition—is already giving them everything they want. Might want to rethink that policy.

    There’s a clear path on the linkage side, however. We already know the US sanctions are hurting. If President Trump persuaded our European allies to join the US, it would make a big difference in showing Iran that aggression will not get the sanctions lifted, but instead will have the opposite effect. We've heard about President Trump's spectacular negotiating skills often enough. It’s time for him to put them to work.

    UPDATE 9/18--Since I posted this, there have been reports that US officials claim the reason Saudi air defenses were ineffective is that the radars were all pointed to the south, toward Yemen, where an attack was expected from, rather than the north, toward Iran. If true, then this is evidence that the attack actually was launched from Iran. It also suggests that there's something we can do for the Saudis at this point, and thereby send the message to Iran that bad behavior will only benefit its rival: sell them some more Patriot missile batteries for their northern perimeter.

    Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com

    Photo credit(s): BBC, WhatsNew2Day.com, twitter

  • No comments:

    Post a Comment