Rattled Saudis lean on US after oil attacks, but can Trump afford military showdown with Iran?

Published 01.10.2019 00:10

Two weeks after the brazen drone and cruise missile attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, the response from the Saudis and their U.S. allies have been largely limited to threats of military action and finger pointing at Iran.

The attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields and processing facilities sent shockwaves across Saudi Arabia and the region, quickly knocking out approximately 5% of global oil production and sending oil prices soaring.

Yemen's Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attacks but Riyadh, Washington and EU united in blaming Iran. However, attributing blame is one thing, and the trickier matter of retaliation is another.

Furthermore, this is not first flashpoint in recent weeks with attacks on oil tankers and seizure of ships also blamed on Iran.

The response from Washington has largely centered on the further tightening of sanctions that were already slapped on Iran since 2018 when the U.S. pulled out of the 2015 nuclear agreement that was dubbed by U.S. President Donald Trump as the "worst deal ever" in U.S. history.

Trump hesitated to authorize military measures in response to previous attacks attributed to Iran and has seemingly stuck with the same stance in response to the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais.

The Saudi focus on how the U.S. responds to the attacks underscores the Saudi reliance on Washington. The attacks also laid bare Saudis defense deficiencies and the heavy reliance of its economy on oil exports.

The attacks were clearly intended to showcase Saudi weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the geopolitical standoff in the region. The message was that the Saudis are not immune from the blowback of crippling sanctions on Tehran or its hand in the Yemen civil war.

Meanwhile, the Saudis continued their war of words and threats to respond to the attacks. Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Adel al-Jubeir recently stressed, "We want to mobilize international support, and we want to look at a whole list of options – diplomatic options, economic options and military options – and then make the decision."

The rhetoric from the Saudis and U.S. allies may be tough, however, in contrast, the brazen attacks have propelled the need to push for diplomatic solutions. The Saudis and the U.S. are fully aware that military responses, even on a smaller scale, will likely snowball into a much wider conflict.

EU leaders, while siding with the U.S. and Saudis in accusing the Iranian regime of being behind the attacks, have adopted a more pragmatic approach to deal with Iran and remain keen to salvage the nuclear agreement.

According to the EU statement: "It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation. We support ongoing investigations to establish further details."

At the same time, EU leaders continued to urge Tehran to agree to new talks on issues related to regional securities and its nuclear and missile programs.

Although, Iran's foreign minister accused the EU of "parroting absurd U.S. claims," the EU remains a key bridge between Washington and Tehran. At the U.N. summit this week, French President Emmanuel Macron shuttled between U.S. and Iranian officials trying to arrange historic face-to-face talks between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Ultimately, his efforts proved fruitless, with Rouhani rejecting any talks while sanctions remain in place, but it showed how desperate Western powers remain to avoid any military confrontation with Iran.

Tough U.S. sanctions have devastated the Iranian economy, but Tehran is not about to succumb to U.S. demands. Ultimately, it is ordinary Iranians that suffer more than Iranian officials.

In contrast to surrendering under U.S. maximum pressure policies, the recent tensions in the Gulf is designed to show that Tehran has many cards of its own against its regional rivals and the Trump administration.

Saudis will continue to pressure Trump behind the scenes to take a stronger stance beyond sanctions and the deployment of additional troops.

Al-Jubeir warned, "When push comes to shove, there comes a point when even America's patience runs out – and Iran must be aware of that."

But with Trump hesitant to launch any military operation or bog the U.S. with a costly new war ahead of presidential elections, Washington may have little choice but to return to negotiating table at some point in hope of containing Iran.

An Iran that can be controlled via diplomatic carrots is better than an isolated Iran that threatens havoc on oil markets and U.S. regional interests, and feels that it has nothing to lose.

In any case, the U.S. is unlikely to take action alone and a military response would hinge on gathering a Western coalition. At this stage EU leaders will be hard convinced to join Washington in a potential costly fallout it can do without.

At a minimum, the Saudis will be expecting U.S. help to beef up defenses. Saudis were naturally shocked at the ease and scale of the attacks on its oil infrastructure and may even turn to a power like Russia if Washington reassurances fall short of expectations.

Ominously, Rouhani told the U.N., "The security of Saudi Arabia shall be guaranteed with the termination of aggression to Yemen rather than by inviting foreigners."

An ever-angry Iran will only mean more risk of confrontation. Trump and the Saudis may be able to resist military action this time around, but can they justify responses limited to words and sanctions next time around?

* U.K.-based Middle East analyst

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