Gulf nations may opt for an Iran strategy independent from US

Iran’s sectarian militias, operating freely in Iraq under the name of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, have placed Iraqi territory at the disposal of Tehran.
Saturday 21/09/2019
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, leaves a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 21. (AP)
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir, leaves a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 21. (AP)

What we understand from Iran’s suspected sabotage operation against Saudi oil installations is that Tehran has opted for escalation in response to the US sanctions against it.

This operation has, at the same time, exposed US President Donald Trump’s administration. It is in a conundrum because it has no option but to continue with the sanctions while being open to dialogue without preconditions with Tehran.

Iran has responded to the US offer of dialogue without preconditions by a virtual declaration of war. Yes, the attack on Saudi oil installations was a declaration of war in the full sense of the term because it threatened “global oil supply and security, which poses a threat to the global economy.”

This is the view of Saudi Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who does not lack the audacity to say things as they are, describing what happened accurately and with the utmost transparency.

Iran is suffocating and considers itself the victim of a war described by one Iranian diplomat in Beirut as a “slow death,” stressing that Tehran “will not stand by being helpless towards this slow death and this war.”

So Iran took its decision. What happened to Saudi Arabia is much more serious than closing the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has found difficult to do. It is much easier to hit vital targets in the Arabian Gulf. Today, it was Aramco plants; tomorrow, it will be desalination plants.

Iran is testing the United States’ resilience and response capacity knowing that Trump is afraid of going to war lest it ruin his chances of a second term at the White House. How far will Iran go in what it regards as a response to the US war?

Apparently, it will go far because the US administration has ruled out a military response and, as long as the targets of Iran’s war are Gulf countries, not US troops and bases in the region.

Tehran is perfectly comfortable with a policy of escalation in the absence of an American administration capable of deterring it. Iran knows it can cross all redlines, except for killing US troops.

The downing of the US drone over the Strait of Hormuz in June was a clear example of that. Trump backed off a military response at the last minute and acted just like Barack Obama had done. Trump argued that the response would have resulted in many Iranian casualties, while US losses were limited to a drone that costs $150 million.

Considering this situation, characterised by an Iranian full-speed-ahead policy and by the United States looking the other way, Arab Gulf countries adopt a strategy compatible with the facts of the situation. Iran, unable to engage in a direct confrontation the Americans resorted to retaliation in the Gulf and in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

It is important to note that, given the weakness of Iraqi authorities, Iran has increased its pressure on Baghdad to play the game by Iranian rules. An example of the fruits of this strategy is Tehran’s renewed recuperation of Muqtada al-Sadr, who was shown sitting comfortably next to Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during the commemoration of Ashura.

It is no longer a secret that Iran’s sectarian militias, operating freely in Iraq under the name of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, have placed Iraqi territory at the disposal of Tehran, right under the United States’ nose. Will Trump surprise his Gulf allies by proving he is different from Obama and that his dismissal of national security adviser John Bolton will have little effect on the confrontation with Iran?

It should not come as a surprise that, if the United States does not opt for a different response to the attack on Saudi oil facilities, the Gulf countries will opt for an Iran policy very much independent from that of the United States. It would be a replay of what happened when Obama saw no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover of Egypt following the dubious election of Muhammad Morsi as president.

Iran is always trying to drive a wedge between this Arab country and the other. So when the United States, because of its narrow interests, is reluctant to resort to firmness with Iran, it is normal that several countries in the Gulf region choose to reconsider their positions and policies. In the end, all the Gulf states are in the same boat and will presumably realise that the Iranian game of focusing on Saudi Arabia alone, so far, will not pull the wool over their eyes.

There is a different reality in the region, especially in the Gulf. The United States can be content with a policy of tightening sanctions on Iran but the Gulf countries cannot afford to stand by while Iran attacks them as part of its game with Trump, especially when the Tehran regime views US sanctions as a matter of life or death and shows its readiness to cross all the redlines.

One can say that oil supplies from the Gulf are no longer a matter of life or death for the United States — It can do without them, within certain limits — but what about the rest of the world, including China, India, Japan, South Korea and European countries except Britain and Norway? How will the Trump administration react if those countries pressure it to ease sanctions on Iran, especially those on oil exports, so Iran will ease the escalation in the Gulf region?

As the United States plunges into a state of confusion caused by Trump’s unstoppable desire to stay in the White House at any cost, even if it were just a photo opportunity with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, the Gulf region and the world are left in the lurch.

The White House resident seems willing to pay a price for his ambition but no one in the Arab region is willing to bear the consequences of that price.