After the attackc on Saudi Arabia’s oil production, the U.S. and Iran flirt with war
It was bound to happen: after months of escalatory behaviors between the U.S. and Iran, a major attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil production facilities have pushed the standoff to dangerous levels. The U.S. blames Iran for the attack. On September 18, President Trump tweeted that the U.S. would ratchet up already crippling sanctions on Iran. In response, the Iranians have denied any involvement and Ayatollah Khamanei has said any talks with U.S. are now off the table. Why was this attack such a pivotal moment in the growing tensions between the U.S and Iran and what does it tell us about the future of the Middle East?
►Adnan R. Khan: How does this attack change the dynamics of the relationship between the U.S. and the Saudis on one side and Iran on the other?
Ilter Turan: This attack was allegedly carried out by Houthi rebels based in Yemen using drones on Saudi oil processing plants. The immediate effect has been a drop in Saudi Arabia’s oil production capacity and a rise in oil prices. That in itself affects the entire world. Suddenly, this ongoing conflict in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi tribesmen has acquired a significance which it did not have before. People have tended to look at the war as between people in distant places fighting each other for reasons that they are unable to comprehend. Now, they are discovering that this faraway war has immediate implications for their daily lives.
Domestically, Saudi Arabia now feels it’s not as secure as it thought it was. There had been some question as regards the competence of Saudi forces in Yemen but now this adds another dimension to it. Obviously, in the face of what the Saudis perceive to be a major Iranian threat, these sorts of failures in the field are really scary. The Saudis have put all their eggs into the American basket. They were making moves to strengthen their position against Iran but now their weaknesses are exposed and they are interested in getting more American support. But it’s unclear what kind of support the Americans are willing to provide. By all indications, there seems to be a significant reluctance on the part of the American public to support any external adventures by sending American troops.
The other thing is that, of course, Mr. Trump had been encouraged in his position to a considerable extent by Israel, which also feels threatened by Iran. But now the Israeli election results have put the principle proponent of a hostile policy against Iran - Mr. Netanyahu - in jeopardy. It’s not certain that he will come back as the prime minister and it’s even possible that he will end up in jail.
►Adnan R. Khan: Iran does seem to be in a strong position, ironically. What message do you think it is sending with this attack?
Ilter Turan: Firstly, let’s keep in mind that Iran has denied involvement in the attack. That does not necessarily mean that the weaponry used was not secured from Iran but the world market for weapons is rather broad and sometimes it’s even possible for an actor to acquire such weaponry simply by using the right channels and paying the right price. So, one should not be too hasty in making judgments about Iran.
With that said, assuming for the moment Iran was involved in some capacity, what’s clear is that the Iranian regime has been emboldened by the fact that it has faced threats from a number of countries demanding Iran do this or that but not delivering on those threats. Therefore, Iran may have judged that reasonably it is at liberty to press its own agenda, to show that it has the means to inflict significant harm on its adversaries. It is a way of saying: Look, we are here and we can do a lot of damage if you do not take us seriously. This message is directed mostly to the U.S. but the world will also take notice because of oil prices. All nations are equally interested in ensuring that no hot conflict should threaten the oil supply. Basically, assuming that the action is Iranian based, the message is: Be careful because with little weaponry, a lot of penalty can be inflicted on the world.
►Adnan R. Khan: Then there is the domestic angle for Iran. I was speaking to some of my Iranian contacts and they told me there is a lot of support for this strike on Saudi Arabia. Iranians were celebrating. They told me there has been a spike in Iranian nationalism over the past year, since the U.S. pulled out of the nuclear deal and re-imposed sanctions. If the perpetrator was Iran, how much did domestic politics play a role?
Ilter Turan: There are two dimensions to the Iranian position. Number one, there seems to be no indication that the Iranians were violating the nuclear agreement but the Americans unilaterally decided that Iran was in violation of that agreement and re-imposed sanctions. Understandably, this forced all Iranians to turn against the U.S. and rally behind their government. At the same time, hardliners in the Iranian regime were always opposed to the nuclear deal, accusing the government of being too liberal and too accommodating to what essentially is an adversary. When the U.S. pulled out of the deal, the hardliners argued that developments had proven them right and they tried to use the situation to their advantage. In short, re-imposing sanctions has simultaneously caused hardships among the population, guided the masses to rally behind their government with nationalist fervor and has given the hardliners the opportunity to bolster their political standing.
►Adnan R. Khan: The weakest party in all this seems to be Saudi Arabia. Its reputation is in tatters right now. It’s share in global oil output is diminishing. One has to ask: Are the Saudis relevant anymore?
Ilter Turan: If you’re strength derives only from one thing and you lose that thing, you lose your strength. Saudi Arabia’s status in the international system is exclusively based on oil and the money oil has brought it. It has survived as an international player mostly by purchasing weapons and luxury goods abroad, giving gifts or offering credits. These have given it an exaggerated position in the international system. Now that position is leveling out to where it should be. This attack has laid bare Saudi Arabia’s vulnerabilities and shown that the only way it can eliminate those vulnerabilities is to be at peace with its neighbors.