Damn, when those pigeons come home to roost, they take a dump all over everything, don’t they?
A few weeks ago, writing about the ongoing mess in the Persian Gulf, I opined, coming on all sage, that Iran was bound to keep responding to US pressure by messing about with Western allies and interests in the region:
We can therefore expect the Iranians to keep pushing back with the only means at their disposal, sending messages via tanker attacks, or other such mischief, meant to demonstrate the extent to which they can make life very complicated indeed for America, and for that matter the whole Western World.
Well, I didn’t expect them to be this frigging full of mischief.
Over the weekend, a remarkably precise and devastating attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil processing facility, the world’s largest, was prosecuted by somebody, using what are being loosely described as “drones”. The Iranian- backed Houthi forces in Yemen claimed responsibility, and this is almost within the realm of plausibility – those Houthis have been full of surprises. Saudi Arabia swaggered in to the civil war in Yemen expecting to mop the floor with the Shia insurgents, and instead have been met with powerful and resilient resistance from an enemy that has previously sent both drones and ballistic missiles to strike Saudi assets, and even attacked ships with naval cruise missiles.
Still, the destruction that rained down on Abqaiq seems well beyond anything the Houthis could have mustered up all by themselves. The hallmark of their many previous efforts to strike deep within Saudi Arabia has been ineffectual incompetence, and before this they caused little more than annoyance. Yet the Saudi facility was hit with astonishing accuracy and effect, by an enemy with capabilities that seem more reminiscent of the American military than a somewhat ragtag rebel army operating out of a third world sandlot. Post-attack damage assessment photos show multiple high value targets neatly punctured with what must have been precision guided munitions armed with substantial (perhaps shape-charged) warheads, suggesting that cruise missiles, not mere drones, may have been involved:
Unfortunately, the time is long past when America had a monopoly on such smart weapons.
That such an attack could only have been prosecuted with some sort of Iranian help is obvious. Certainly the weapons were of Iranian origin. They’ve been flowing arms to the Houthis all along, including increasingly sophisticated missiles – the Iranians may not be able to give Raytheon a run for its money, but basic cruise missile technology is well within their grasp, and they’re known to have developed several different kinds, as well as unmanned drones of the type that might also have been involved. They’ve been keen to show them off in recent years:
Chinese cruise missile technology has also found its way into Houthi hands, again via the Iranians.
No, Iran’s complicity isn’t in doubt; while we should resist any rush to judgment, it seems at this point as if the real question is whether the Houthis were involved at all. Saudi and American sources are asserting that the attack didn’t originate in Yemen, and even if it did, it’s hard to imagine the Houthis were the ones turning the launch keys. In any case, this was either a direct attack by Iran on Saudi Arabia, or an indirect attack by Iran using its proxy to launch the weapons it supplied, probably under close Iranian supervision, and either way the conditions are now set for a cataclysm that simply must be avoided.
How awful, then, that helming American foreign policy is an idiot in the thrall of foreign potentates whose only advisors are hawkish domestic ideologues, utterly incapable of the deft diplomacy that’s now required. Indeed this whole mess is a logical outcome of Trump’s ham-fisted management of Persian Gulf policy, from supporting the Saudi’s brutal war in Yemen (vetoing attempts by Congress to rein this in) to pulling out of Obama’s Iran deal and putting the screws to the Mullahs with a renewal of painful economic sanctions. None of this has been in America’s best interests. It’s the child prince in Riyadh, thirty-something Mohammed bin Salman, who’s getting what he wants. An analyst quipped on MSNBC last night that the Saudis are determined to fight Iran to the last American, and in Donald, for reasons that may have more to do with Trump’s business interests than conventional geopolitics, they’ve found a willing collaborator, if not a dupe. Donald has coddled and fawned over MbS to an unseemly extent, as has son-in-law Jared Kushner, allowing the young firebrand to get away with murder – literally. Whether he’s butchering Washington Post columnists, kidnapping foreign leaders, blockading other American allies in the Gulf, or creating an appalling humanitarian crisis in Yemen, the Saudi Crown Prince has enjoyed steadfast, unquestioning support from the Trump administration. Now we are presented with this horrifying tweet, suggesting that the Saudi tail is wagging the American dog to an even more alarming extent:
Say what now? We’re waiting for the Kingdom to tell us under what terms we would proceed? Really, Donald? We stand ready to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war at the behest of Mohammed bin Salman – whatever our good buddy MbS says, that’s what we’ll do?
This is mad; but now that we’ve arrived at this sorry place, and whether the Saudis call the shots or not, options are limited. It’s reckoned that the strike on Abqaiq has cut off as much as 5% of the global supply of oil, with no clear indication yet as to how long before ordinary operations can resume. This may have an impact on the price of oil worldwide, with knock-on effects on Western economies, even if the Iranians don’t strike again, which they may, perhaps by picking new and similarly juicy targets, like all those big, fat oil tankers that clog up the Strait of Hormuz.
No American President could confront this possibility and let Iran’s aggression go entirely unanswered. Yet the only answer at this point would seem to be military – there isn’t much else America can do to mete out economic punishment or impose diplomatic isolation. The Iranians know how unpalatable a new Middle Eastern war would be for any American, and they know, too, that Donald is particularly reluctant. He made that clear when he decided to tweet to the whole world how, when last he contemplated attacking Iran, he got cold feet at the last minute and cancelled the operation. The Iranians may have taken this as a sign of weakness, and may be pushing their luck because they think they can get away with it, though it’s not entirely clear what their endgame is. Do they expect they can drive America back to the bargaining table, and force Trump to reinstate Obama’s deal? Or are they merely determined to punish their enemies as severely as they can?
One of the toughest aspects of this sort of crisis is trying to figure out what your opponent actually wants, and thinks it can achieve.
I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking well, at least it’s a good thing that Bolton is gone! You’re right. It is. Sadly, though, it won’t do much to temper America’s response if Donald is instead taking counsel from Secretary of State Pompeo, who’s said to be equally hawkish on Iran, or MbS, who’s proved himself so reckless that it’s a wonder somebody in the Kingdom hasn’t dealt with him. He’s reckless but wily, I suppose. If you’re interested, you can get more detail on his many misadventures, and the means by which he’s managed to squelch internal opposition, in this column I wrote about eleven months ago:
I was tired of the Saudis then. I’m completely exhausted with them now.
A military response, if Donald has the stomach for it, would be problematic in numerous ways. To begin with, there is no legal authorization for starting a war with Iran, though Trump would attempt to characterize US action as a discrete response within the scope of his executive authority, or legal under the authorization for the use of military force that Presidents have been using to justify combat operations all over the globe since it was passed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He may get away with that, given the way Congress seems to have entirely forgotten its sole constitutional authority to make war, but a single military strike, however devastating, is unlikely to put an end to Iranian aggression. True, there is certainly much the US military can do to harm Iran, from blowing up military targets to crippling vital infrastructure and mining their waters. A strike on Iranian oil facilities might seem a good way to send a “two can play that game, soldier” sort of message. As long as they’re at it, they’d likely have a go at Iran’s revived nuclear program too.
Presumably, though, the Iranians are preparing for this, and have their own list of targets against which they can retaliate. Apart from obvious soft spots such as shipping and oil facilities, America has numerous assets spread throughout the region, tens of thousands of personnel and numerous bases, all of which are vulnerable to “asymmetric” attack, by way of suicide bombers, mortar bombardment, or even more drone and missile strikes. The massive airbase at Al Udeid in Qatar would be an obvious target. The Iranians might not limit themselves to American assets and personnel either, which is why any military response needs to be coordinated in close consultation with allies, something Trump is famously reluctant to do. Even if consulted, those allies will probably be in no mood to take part in military operations. In their view the escalation of hostilities with Iran is all Trump’s fault, and they’re angry at Donald’s cavalier abandonment of the multilateral nuclear treaty that was so difficult to put in place, which is, after all, what got this ball rolling. It’s thus quite likely America would end up going this one alone, and against the better judgment of its closest international friends, further eroding the western alliance structure that Donald has seemed determined from the outset to undermine.
Once begun, a destructive, ruinous campaign of tit for tat could carry on for a long time, accomplishing little while being very difficult to stop. A full-blown war drawing in other regional powers is a distinct possibility, especially if Iran attacks the hated Israelis as the conflict drags on. Other great powers, particularly the Chinese, who import a great deal of Iranian oil, could perceive vital interests at stake, perhaps spurring them to intervene. The whole of the Middle East could be set ablaze, with disastrous consequences for America and all of its allies, including MbS and the Saudis, whose position is more vulnerable than it seems. It’s easy to imagine the House of Saud being toppled in the conflagration, just as it’s easy to imagine hardliners within the Revolutionary Guard consolidating power in Iran, making any negotiated settlement all the more difficult. If Israel gets drawn in, Iran would probably launch attacks from one of its zones of influence in Syria, which in turn could pull Syria into the fray, along with, God forbid, their Russian benefactors, whose expeditionary forces may well get caught in the crossfire. Even the Turks could get involved – they’ve got their own designs on Syria, and the Kurds who live there, and might see an opportunity amid the chaos. You can drive yourself mad thinking of all the malign possibilities.
It’s much harder to imagine a military scenario that ends well.
What then to do? The smart play would be to pretend the Houthis really did launch this attack on their own, and get the Iranians to pretend to be angered at the temerity if their proxy and purport to rein them in, in return for a resumption of talks leading to a deal that everyone can make believe isn’t the same one that Obama negotiated. Face could be saved, Iran could get what it wants, which, if it’s a return to the pre-Tump status quo, is also what we should want, and Trump could claim that his incredible negotiating skills have resulted in something beyond what that lousy peckerwood Obama achieved.
I’ve advocated this approach before in this space, to no apparent effect – its as if Donald and his minions aren’t listening. I know, that seems incredible to me too, but it sure looks as if my blog isn’t required reading in the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom. Oh well. Trump may just be frightened enough of war to do what I recommend anyway, all on his own. I’ve come to believe that Trump doesn’t listen anyone but himself, and if that’s right, his innate aversion to risk will keep him out of a major conflict. If I’m wrong, if Pompeo, or MbS, or Netanyahu, manages to persuade him that America’s military might can achieve more than it really can, well, buckle up. It isn’t just the obvious risks of a military approach that worry me; it’s the inevitability of the consequences you can’t imagine that’s always the most frightening.