Can the US help Riyadh stand up to Iran?
US President Donald Trump seems to like what the Saudi leadership is doing both domestically and regionally. The latter, in particular, fits into Trump’s narrative that their mutual enemy, Iran, is engaged in destabilising activities in the Middle East that must be stopped.
However, assisting the Saudis and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in a direct confrontation with Iran is likely a bridge too far for Washington.
There seems to be little daylight between Trump and the Saudis vis-à-vis Iran. Indeed, during his speech in Riyadh in May, Trump said that from “Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region.”
Trump has even weighed in on Saudi domestic politics, saying he has “great confidence” in King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, after reports that he dismissed several high-ranking officials from their posts and arrested some leading Saudis for alleged corruption, adding that they “know exactly what they are doing.”
Trump also supports the Saudi charge that Iran was behind the Houthis’ launch of a missile towards Riyadh that the Saudis intercepted. Trump tweeted: “A shot was just taken by Iran, in my opinion, at Saudi Arabia.” He then went on to boast that the system that knocked it down was built in the United States.
Strategically, Trump has aligned the United States squarely behind the Saudi and UAE role in the Yemen conflict and in June lifted the hold on precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia that was imposed by the Obama administration due to concerns over Yemeni civilian casualties. For Trump, the arms sale was an endorsement of his commitment to help the Saudis roll back Iranian aggression.
However, despite Trump’s close embrace of the Saudi leadership, elements in the US bureaucracy are exhibiting nervousness over US support for a more aggressive Saudi policy in the region.
For example, despite Trump’s tweet about Iran’s role in the missile attack, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “We don’t have a full assessment of who is responsible” for the missile attacks and “we haven’t made that determination.”
Earlier this year, when Trump tweeted about fully backing the Saudi-led boycott of Qatar, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advised Trump to tone down his support as he tried to mediate the crisis. Tillerson has been on record saying the Saudi demands on Qatar are too harsh but his intervention in the dispute is yet to yield positive results.
The Pentagon is also concerned about the rift in the GCC because the conflict is taking eyes off the struggle against the Islamic State (ISIS) and might cause Qatar, if it believes the United States is favouring Saudi Arabia, to close Al Udeid military base that the US Central Command depends on for forward deployment of US forces in the region.
The Pentagon does not seem impressed with the Saudi performance in the Yemeni conflict. The Saudi-led coalition has not removed the Houthis and their allies — forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh — from Sana’a. With the war essentially a stalemate, US Secretary of Defence James Mattis said in April that the Yemeni conflict needed a “political solution.”
Yemen’s bloody war, including Saudi and coalition air strikes, has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and Saudi blockades of Yemeni ports and closing of airspace to flights into Sana’a’s airport have exacerbated the dire humanitarian crisis in the country. In the wake of the November 4 Houthi missile attack on Riyadh, the Saudis imposed a total blockade of Yemen, but have since confined it to all Houthi-controlled ports in the north. Nonetheless, the ongoing blockade of the important northern port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea, through which 70% of humanitarian supplies have come into Yemen in the recent past, has led the United Nations and NGOs to warn that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen will soon become a catastrophe.
While Trump thus may be inclined to support a confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, he is likely to encounter resistance from US military and diplomatic professionals, backed by Mattis and Tillerson and perhaps national security adviser H.R. McMaster. They see Saudi Arabia’s aggressive posture in the region as heading down a slippery slope to a potentially dangerous place. While there is no love in Washington for Iran, neither is there support for a new war in the region.
State Department and Pentagon officials are likely concerned that if the Saudis attack Iran and Tehran retaliates, the Saudi military may not hold its own against the Iranians, compelling the United States to go to Riyadh’s aid.
Such a scenario would further destabilise the Middle East and could create a new quagmire for US forces, which Trump himself warned against during the 2016 US presidential campaign.
For these reasons, it is likely that Washington is quietly counselling the Saudis to lower the temperature and desist from war talk despite mutual concerns about Iran.