The pre-dawn attacks on September 14 knocked out more than half of the Saudi oil output, or about 5.7 million barrels per day amounting to five percent of the global oil supply. This daring attack was claimed by the Houthis of Yemen but blamed on Iran by Saudi Arabia and the United States brought the Middle East to the brink of war. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his initial statement held Iran responsible for the attack. President Donald Trump, while implying that Iran was the culprit, sent mixed messages. On the one hand, he declared that the United States is “locked and loaded” to retaliate for the attack. On the other, he stated that he would like to avoid war with Iran and would defer to the Saudis in making a decision about identifying the source of the attack.
On September 18, the Saudi defense ministry declared that the attack was “unquestionably sponsored” by Tehran and put on display the debris of drones and cruise missiles to demonstrate that they were of Iranian origin. A total of twenty-five drones and missiles were used in the strike launched, ministry spokesman Col. Turki al-Malki told a news conference. “The attack was launched from the north and unquestionably sponsored by Iran,” he said, adding that Iranian delta-wing unmanned aerial vehicles were used in addition to cruise missiles. However, he went on to qualify his conclusion by saying that an investigation into where the attacks were launched from was still underway and the result would be announced at a later date. There has been no word since from Riyadh regarding the result of the investigation.
Nonetheless, most observers saw these attacks as an unprecedented escalation in the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia for power and influence in the Middle East. They were also seen as a challenge to the United States by Iran since Washington is Riyadh’s principal ally and Saudi Arabia’s premier security prop. More important, the attacks appeared to be a part of the tit-for-tat moves that Washington and Tehran have made against each other since the United States announced its withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018 and the reimposition of draconian sanctions on Iran.
In retaliation Tehran has been gradually exceeding the limits it had accepted in the JCPOA on the level and quantity of uranium enrichment. The latest IAEA report issued on August 30 stated that Iran has accumulated 241.6 kilograms of enriched uranium and is enriching at the level of up to 4.5 percent. It had thus exceeded both a 202.8-kilogram limit on its enriched uranium stock and its 3.67 percent cap on the fissile purity to which it is allowed to refine uranium under the nuclear agreement.
Although this is nowhere near the 20 percent mark that Iran had reached before signing the nuclear agreement, it was a clear signal that Tehran was willing to defy the limit imposed on it by the JCPOA unless the United States changed tack or the Europeans agreed to make up for the loss it suffered after its oil exports were cut off.
Several incidents involving attacks on shipping in the Straits of Hormuz pointed toward Iranian complicity and a form of signaling that Iran would not hesitate to retaliate against American and allied facilities in the Middle East if it was attacked by the United States. The attack on the Saudi oil facilities fell within the same pattern although they were of a much graver nature. While the origins of the attacks may be a contested issue, it is clear that the weapons used were of Iranian make and that the Houthis or the Shia militia operating in Iraq could not have undertaken these attacks without the involvement of Iranian experts.
However, this escalation seems to have produced unintended consequences. It seems Iran has been successful in sending the message that any attempt by the United States to attack Iran militarily would come at a great cost to the United States, then for its regional allies, in particular Saudi Arabia. This message was reinforced by the fact that while one heard a lot of bluster emanating from Washington the Trump administration failed to retaliate in concrete fashion for the attacks on the most sensitive Saudi targets.
This sequence of events has eroded the trust that the Saudis and other allies of the United States in the Persian Gulf had reposed in Washington that the latter will come to their aid if they felt their security was threatened. American inaction following the attacks on Saudi oil assets has sent the clear message that Trump does not intend to engage in another costly military involvement in the Middle East to provide security to its allies from their common foe, Iran. Furthermore, the message seems clear that the United States is unwilling to intervene militarily even to avert major global negative economic consequences such as disruption of oil supplies. Most observers in the Gulf perceive the American reluctance to act in the face of what they consider to be Iranian “provocations” as a corollary of Trump’s decision to keep the promise he made to the voters in 2016 to bring American soldiers back home. This interpretation has gained weight in light of the Trump administration’s desperate attempts to find a face-saving formula through talks with the Taliban, so far considered to be international pariahs, to disengage from the Afghanistan imbroglio.
All this seems to have led to serious rethinking among the rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. Recent credible reports assert that the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS, has approached the Pakistani and Iraqi prime ministers to act as go-betweens to set up direct high-level talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran in order to reduce tensions between them and, consequently, the threat to Saudi security from Iran. Iran has welcomed the Saudi gestures, stating that it was open to talks with Saudi Arabia, since this could help Tehran to detach the Saudis from the United States and thus ease the regional pressure on Tehran.
Given America’s demonstrated reluctance to come to the aid of Saudi Arabia in case of a confrontation with Iran, the Saudi rulers seem to have calculated that it is in their interest to find accommodation with Tehran before the strategic situation becomes more disadvantageous for them. In this MBS seems to be following the lead of United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, also known as MBZ, who has taken steps to improve relations with Iran among other things by reducing the Emirati involvement in the Yemeni conflict. The beginnings of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could also lead to Saudi Arabia disentangling itself from MBS’s disastrous misadventure in Yemen.
Where does this leave the American policy of exercising “maximum pressure” on Iran to force the latter to completely renounce its plans for uranium enrichment, discontinue its ballistic missiles program, and stop its support to proxies and allies in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah and the Assad regime, which Washington perceives as being antagonistic to its strategic goals in the region? Saudi Arabia has been the kingpin of American strategy toward Iran. Any loosening of Washington’s ties with Riyadh is bound to redound to Tehran’s benefit. The prospects of this happening should induce the Trump administration to re-evaluate its own policy of total hostility toward Iran and seek avenues, including back-channel possibilities, to begin its own conversations with Iran in order to find a way to reconcile American demands with Iranian requirements.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and a senior fellow for the Center for Global Policy. His books include The Many Faces of Political Islam and, most recently, Will the Middle East Implode and editor of Assessing the War on Terror.