By Gary Sick, Gulf2000: This afternoon, the Middle East Seminar at Columbia (which I chair) and the Center on Global Energy Policy (chaired by Jason Bordoff) held a special joint meeting to discuss the Abqaiq attack last Saturday. The discussion was very rich, and involved a remarkable array of specialists. I can't summarize it, and it is not available on line. However, I can share my own initial presentation.
Although I dislike the form, I chose to put my comments in the form of nine takeaways from the situation so far. Although the form is slightly tongue in cheek, I am absolutely serious about the contents. I would welcome reactions/comments on any or all of the nine items.
Nine Takeaways from the Abqaiq attack
1. The attack on Saudi oil is a direct consequence of the decision by the Trump administration to withdraw from the JCPOA. Depending on how this plays out, that decision may come to be seen as a disaster of comparable magnitude to the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
2. The US policy of maximum pressure on Iran succeeded in removing some 3mbd of Iranian oil off the market for the foreseeable future. The Abqaiq attack removed some 5mbd of Saudi oil off the market for at least a matter of weeks. Those who fail to understand the connection will be doomed to repeat the experience.
3. An opponent who is backed into a corner with nothing left to lose may not observe the Marquess of Queensberry rules.
4. Are there any winners in this situation? Yes: China and Russia. Their influence is steadily becoming dominant. The United States said it wanted to shift its focus away from the Middle East, but this was not what we had in mind.
5. Why is it that Iranian allies in the region are assets, while America’s allies are liabilities?
6. Trump’s solution to all Iran problems is sanctions. Iran today not only has nothing left to lose; it has nothing left to sanction. It’s like the Federal Reserve when the interest rate is negative: your leverage is all gone.
7. The US government is alone in claiming unequivocally that the strike was conducted by Iran. Whether true or not, the charge eliminates the element of ambiguity that would permit effective diplomacy. At the same time, President Trump has suggested that Saudi Arabia conduct whatever military action is required, with implied backup support by the United States.
8. Urging MbS to open a second front in Iran after his disappointing performance in Yemen puts the Saudi ruler in an impossible dilemma: either commit strategic suicide or publicly acknowledge his weakness. All of which leads me to wonder:
9. Is Trump trying to bring down Mohammed bin Salman?
First published in Gulf2000. Cartoon by Emad Hajjaj.
Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of two books on U.S.-Iran relations, in addition to several other edited books and articles dealing with U.S. Middle East policy. Mr. Sick is a captain (ret.) in the U.S. Navy, with service in the Persian Gulf, North Africa and the Mediterranean.