Cartoon by Daryl Cagle
Whatever Iran’s role in the Saudi attack, the regional status quo is unsustainable
The Guardian: aturday’s attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities at Abqaiq represent a potential tipping point in regional and international relations. Although many questions remain, and Iran has officially denied responsibility, the likelihood of its involvement at some level is high. Regardless of the precise details, there is already a range of serious geopolitical implications to consider.
If Tehran is responsible, this clearly demonstrates that Iran’s asymmetric military capabilities can pose a serious threat to the strategic interests of the west and its partners in the region. Oil-supply vulnerabilities are no longer limited to the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for exports and a repeated flashpoint over the years. After all, with this strike on a land-based facility, Saudi oil production reportedly dropped by about 50%.
These dramatic effects align with the current Iranian strategy of signalling to the US and its allies that there can be no such thing as a limited strike against Iran, as some contemplate in Washington: in such a scenario, Iran would retaliate, inflict significant cost and potentially provoke an all-out war. The attacks could also represent a further following-through on the promise that if Iran is prevented from exporting its own oil, it will disrupt the global oil market in return. It initially restricted this activity to the Strait of Hormuz. The Abqaiq attacks go way beyond this, however, embodying a determination to show that the Saudis will not be allowed to plug the gap left by Iranian oil that has been taken off the market as a result of sanctions.
At this point, it should be clear that the regional status quo is simply not sustainable. Iran’s “strategic patience” over economic sanctions following the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal, aimed at giving Europe the chance to provide Iran with the promised economic dividends of that pact, has not borne fruit. Europe has been unable to provide sufficient sanctions relief after more than a year of trying. Iran now sees its position deteriorating, with little diplomatic progress and a weakening economy – and it is not prepared to allow this to happen quietly.
President Trump has a number of issues to weigh as he considers his response. On the one hand, if he acts, he could potentially spark a war that he has said he doesn’t want, and which would violate his campaign promises. On the other hand, if he doesn’t act, he could be perceived as weak and ineffective. Either way, Tehran knows that Trump is under pressure because of the impending 2020 election campaign. It is likely using this moment to respond to US pressure with its own. Just as Washington has leveraged Tehran’s economic vulnerability on oil exports, Tehran is leveraging US vulnerabilities – specifically, the lack of appetite among its electorate for a new war in the Middle East.
At the moment Trump’s position is ambiguous, which presents its own dangers. He stated on Twitter that the US military machine was “locked and loaded” in response to the attack, but later suggested that diplomacy was still an option. He indicated that he had authorised the release of oil reserves in an effort to “keep markets well-supplied”, but the next day claimed that the US was no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil, downplaying the impact of the Saudi attack on the world’s oil markets.
The conflicting messages are creating confusion for both allies and enemies. This matters because conflicting signals encourage miscalculations, particularly, in this case, on Tehran’s side. Iran has often pursued escalatory measures, but has generally held back from crossing a line that would provoke a wider military response. In the current context, those lines are blurred. Hardliners will be cheering the success of the attack and welcoming the leverage it may bring. Moderates will be calling for caution because of the extremely high stakes. One can imagine an Iranian miscalculation and an incident that leads to the loss of American life. That could become a game-changer and lead to war.
In response to Saturday’s attack, some have urged the Trump administration to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, arguing that Tehran will only back down when confronted. Thus far, however, this has not been the case. Trump’s maximum-pressure strategy has had the opposite effect: the more pressure has been exerted, the riskier the strategies Tehran has pursued, simply because it is more desperate and feels it has less to lose.
A deal proposed by French president Emmanuel Macron involving the extension of a $15bn credit line to Iran could allow all sides to save face. Earlier this year, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, stated that: “There will be no war; nor will we negotiate with the US.” The French initiative represents a viable exit strategy for de-escalation and fits nicely within Khamenei’s parameters. It doesn’t require the US to provide economic relief, allowing the Europeans to take the lead.
Ultimately, whether or not Iran was behind the attack on Saudi Arabia, this situation presents a double-edged sword for Tehran: the effects of the attack and what it potentially signals about Iranian power could bolster Tehran’s position ahead of potential talks at the UN General Assembly. Alternatively, there is the risk of serious escalation – and at the very least, the possibility that the prospect of a return to the negotiating table, and ultimately relief from sanctions, will be undermined.
• Mahsa Rouhi is a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme