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Situation Assessment 23 September, 2019

Unpacking the Saudi/US Response to the Aramco Attacks

The Unit for Policy Studies

The Unit for Policy Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Two Saudi Aramco installations were hit by missiles and drones on Saturday 14 September, disrupting half of all Saudi oil production. Despite Houthis claiming the responsibility for these attacks, Washington and Riyadh have accused Iran of orchestrating them because of the location's distance from Yemen, coming from the direction of northwestern Saudi Arabia, and the complexity of the operation. The Kingdom and the United States face a huge dilemma in deciding how to respond to this unprecedented aggression. The possibilities range from simply tightening sanctions on Iran to an increased US military presence in the region, to a limited military response, whether in Iran's spheres of influence in Syria or Iraq, or even in Iran itself, although this latter possibility appears unlikely.

US Considerations

The Trump administration’s policy towards gradual escalation of tensions with Iran is governed by a number of considerations, the most important of which is the position taken by the President who refuses to engage in any new war that is not directly related to US interests. This goes back to his administration's "national security strategy", which furthers his campaign slogan "America First".[1] During his 2016 election campaign, Trump pledged to withdraw US troops from many of the world's conflict zones, particularly from the Middle East, but has had little success. He found himself forced to send more troops to Afghanistan in 2017, as well as deploying additional troops to the Gulf in May and July 2019, in an attempt to deter Iran from carrying out attacks that threaten freedom of navigation in the region. As the US election approaches in November 2020, Trump finds himself facing an election promise he has been unable to enforce, especially after accusing his predecessors, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, of implicating the United States in costly international conflicts in which Washington has no direct interests.

Trump, in turn, does not want to give the impression of weakness to Iran, especially since he did not hesitate to accuse former US presidents of having lost "belief in American greatness."[2] He has often called out Obama for weak and hesitant foreign policy, encouraging US opponents to dare to cross lines. Trump finds himself embarrassed by the Republican hawks and his allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia. He has made significant threats against Iran but is now begging for a dialogue with Tehran under the sanctions he reimposed after he unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018, which Iran understands as surrendering to the failure of the agreement and the sanctions. This behavior has weakened the image Trump has tried to establish for himself, as a "great deal maker" from a position of strength. Iran has also raised the stakes in its challenge to Trump, and instead of bowing to sanctions and returning to the negotiating table, it is gradually escalating the cost on him, forcing him to retreat from his policies. In the face of this dilemma, Trump cannot back away from the sanctions policy he has imposed, while at the same time he has no means of applying pressure other than military action, which he is trying to avoid in fear of sliding into all-out war in an election year.

Saudi Considerations

Saudi Arabia now faces a dilemma no less difficult than what faces Trump. At the beginning of the crisis, Saudi Arabia was pushing for a military confrontation between Washington and Tehran in the hope that it would put an end to Iran's expansionist policies in the region. Over time, however, Saudi Arabia began to realize that it could pay a high price in such a confrontation, especially as confidence in the US position eroded, and the Trump administration's reluctance to engage in a full-scale military confrontation with Iran became apparent. Recent attacks on Saudi Arabia have increased their exposure to threats. Despite large arms deals and Saudi military spending, which ranks third globally after the US and China alone, Saudi Arabia has been utterly powerless in the face of air strikes coming from both Yemen and the north.

According to US reports, Saudi suspicions of Trump's intentions to counter Iranian aggression prompted Riyadh to formally ask Washington not to ignite a regional war, which would affect the kingdom first. The Saudi request, the content of which was leaked by the Trump administration, came through Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during his recent visit to Washington in late August 2019. Rather than beating the drums of war, bin Salman asked US officials to continue with the sanctions approach to Iran, given that the policy of "extreme pressure" imposed by the United States, in August 2018, is effectively undermining the stability of the Tehran regime, which may benefit from a limited war, which would divert the attention of the Iranian people from domestic crises to external threats.[3]

Saudi fears that the US will let them down appear to be justified; a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in May and June 2019 did not generate a US military response. Iran's downed of a U.S. drone in June 2019, which the United States insisted was flying over the Strait of Hormuz, not in Iranian airspace, yet it did not change the US position. After Washington revoked its decision to launch a retaliatory military strike on Iran, Trump retreated at the last minute; claiming that the consequence of Iranian deaths is a disproportionate response to the downing of a drone, and instead launched a "cyber" attack that Trump claimed had done great damage to Iran's missile program. Trump backed down at the last minute and the attacks on Aramco's facilities on 14 September unequivocally revealed Trump's lack of seriousness in any confrontation with Iran, as long as it did not directly affect US forces in the region. After stressing that his country was on alert to confront Iran, Trump began to retreat again, demanding that the Saudis take the initiative.

Saudi Arabia’s image in Washington is not much better than Iran’s, making it more difficult to defend if attacked. Riyadh’s base of alliances is shrinking in the US Congress due to a number of issues, including abuses in Yemen since 2015, which prompted Congress to vote by a majority of both houses, in May 2019, on a resolution preventing the United States from continuing its support for the Saudi-Emirati alliance. Trump was forced to use the veto to stop it. This is added to the repercussions of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a US citizen, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Moreover, the human rights record in the kingdom continues to draw widespread criticism in Washington and from around the world.

Riyadh justifies its intention not to respond directly to the attack, which Iran is accused of launching against Aramco, by its need to coordinate with Washington and obtain its approval; leaving them vulnerable to retaliatory attacks from Iran. This puts the decision to respond to Iran in the hands of the US, the Saudis say, although US officials confirm that Washington has sold Riyadh a lot of sophisticated weapons that would enable it to respond to the Iranian attack, if it really wanted to.[4]

Based on these considerations, the US Treasury Department's announcement on 20 September 2019, of further sanctions against Tehran, followed by the Pentagon's announcement that it will strengthen its forces and air and missile defense equipment in the region in response to the Aramco attack, may be the most that Washington and Riyadh want to do at this stage, in the hope that Iran will avoid any further aggression.

Washington's Reluctance in Confronting Iranian Aggression

There are some important factors behind the caution of the US administration, especially the Pentagon, in dealing with the crisis with Iran, the most important of which are:

  • The fear that a limited strike on Iran could spark a full-scale war in the region, involving the United States and its allies. In a limited strike, Iran is likely to use its proxy network stretching from Yemen to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, which could jeopardize US military bases and interests. If this happens, the United States will find itself forced to mobilize a large military force to defeat Iran; meaning a new war in the Middle East, and a scenario even worse than Iraq.
  • The administration also fears that a military strike might serve the hardline in Iran and could eliminate any chances to re-negotiate the Iranian nuclear deal.
  • According to US intelligence assessments, the Iranian regime, whose popularity is declining due to the impact of economic sanctions, is seeking to entice the United States into a small-scale military attack to raise its popularity domestically, and strengthen its strategic position externally, leaving the Trump administration reluctant to play this card.

Conclusion

Regardless of the context governing US behavior in response to the Iranian aggression, the recent crisis has exposed a profound change in the US approach to Gulf security and the limits of its commitment. This change did not begin with Trump but was established by the Obama administration. It is also linked to the US remapping of its strategic threats, to become more focused on China and Russia, according to the national security strategy unveiled by the Trump administration in 2017. The United States is also becoming less dependent on Gulf oil; producing 12 million barrels a day itself and buying only 9% of its foreign oil imports from Saudi Arabia. This does not mean that the Gulf region has completely lost its significance to the United States; this region remains a major source of oil and gas in the world, affecting the stability of energy prices globally, and thus the stability of the global economy. The United States is unlikely to allow rival international powers, such as Russia and China, to take its place in the Gulf, but this region is no longer as important as it once was. Finally, the US allies in the Gulf region, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, placed all their bets on President Trump in the belief that he would fundamentally change Obama's policies. But all that has changed for them, as they rush to normalize with Israel to gain Trump’s approval, is his continued demand for them to pay for protection, without this being translated into any real effects on the ground.

[1] “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, December 2017, pp. 2-3, accessed on 23/9/2019, at: https://bit.ly/2CzLLd7.

[2] “Remarks by President Trump on the Administration’s National Security Strategy,” The White House, 18/12/2017, accessed on 23/9/2019, at: https://bit.ly/2BKHQx0

[3] Nicole Gaouette, et al., “Pompeo Says Saudi Attack an 'Act of War' as Trump Sounds More Cautious Note,” CNN, 19/9/2019, accessed on 23/9/2019, at: https://cnn.it/2ku5xDd

[4] Nahal Toosi, “Trump's Deference to Saudi Arabia Infuriates Much of D.C.,” Politico, 16/9/2019, accessed on 23/9/2019, at: https://politi.co/2kiKB1W