Can the US help Riyadh stand up to Iran?

November 26, 2017
Cheerleader. US President Donald Trump (L) and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh, last May. (AFP)

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.