Gulf leaders have become uneasy about the mismatch between Mr. Trump’s rhetoric and his actions. In June, he threatened Iran with “obliteration” after it shot down an unmanned American drone, and then backed away from a planned retaliation at the last minute. His decision to fire John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser, has strengthened a belief that Mr. Trump does not want war. But many feared he would stumble into one.
The Emiratis now appear to be wondering if they can rely on this president. After a series of attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf, they pointedly refused to blame Tehran, and then quietly sent a diplomatic delegation to Iran. They also pulled most of their troops out of the war in Yemen.
Will the Saudis respond in the same way? They have been waging a ruinous proxy war in Yemen since 2015, with the goal of teaching Iran a lesson. The lesson now seems to be flowing in the other direction. The Houthi militia in Yemen, which is allied with Iran, took responsibility for the missiles that struck Saudi Arabia last week. No one seems to take that claim seriously, but the Houthis have been firing drones and missiles at Saudi Arabia with rising frequency. The Saudis may have to recognize that only diplomacy will bring that war to an end.
Mr. Trump could yet fulfill the Gulf countries’ hopes that he can batter and humble Iran. But at this point, it seems more likely that his fecklessness will provide them with a very different, and perhaps more enduring legacy: the recognition that they must learn to manage Iran without American help.
Saturday’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. [Continue reading…]