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Attack on Saudi oil facility signals new rules in 'Iran war’

  • Martin Jay
  • 20 Sep 2019

The president’s delicate relationship with the Saudi royal family and Trump's re-election campaign are the real targets of the attack on Saudi Aramco.

President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he tours a section of the southern border wall, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, in Otay Mesa, Calif. ( AP )

Most American presidents like to think that foreign policy is a deal-breaker at elections when, in reality, it isn’t. And yet Donald Trump is about to change that and make his own failed policies around the world centre stage, which could even cost him re-election if the events of the last few days in the Middle East are anything to go by.

There is no other way of interpreting the Saudi Aramco bombing as Trump’s Iran strategy being a colossal misjudgment and a total foreign policy failure. While some fret over John Bolton’s outing, others will see that since Trump backed away from retaliation over the US drone attack in the Strait of Hormuz, he clumsily signalled to Iran that he had no stomach for a war of any sorts. 

With crippling sanctions having a real impact in Iran, oil sales at an all-time low and European Union countries who were signatories to the so-called ‘Iran deal’ scrambling to offer a cash package, Iran is in no mood now to look at alternative options to de-escalate the tensions. 

In recent weeks it has seized tankers, its proxies have attacked western allies in the region, and since the debacle over Bolton, it has shifted gear again into overdrive on Trump.

Many Americans chose not to see the bigger picture of Iran striking back. Even US pundits don’t refer to Trump’s campaign to topple the regime with crippling sanctions - which have resulted in people dying in Iran due to an economy in a tailspin and western drugs spiralling – as a ‘war’. But that is what it is.   

And so, to blame Bolton for clashing with the president over the Taliban meeting or putting the North Korean talks into a ‘Libya’ dimension – or for being too gung-ho on Tehran – is impervious to the reality in front of the Trump administration today. 

The attacks on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil depot were not an accident or a random event. They are linked to Bolton’s departure and both Trump’s and Netanyahu’s re-elections.

The attacks are a culmination of a US decision to go to war with Tehran when Trump went ahead with the ‘secondary sanctions’ plan which has resulted in the local currency crashing, inflation soaring and an exodus of international companies from Iran.

What the oil field attack in Saudi Arabia represents is a typical reaction from Tehran which will undoubtedly continue with such strikes, which come with plausible deniability, on Saudi Arabia from now right up until the 2020 elections. No one has been able to prove that Iran was behind the attacks and the Iranian-backed Houthis have claimed responsibility.

Trump’s craven reaction to the drone attack in June made any possibility of talks with Iran impossible. Moving to negotiations would feed straight into the Iranian hardline narrative that a strategy employing precision strikes would have its desired impact on both Washington and the EU. 

There are no options for Trump to strike Iran. And he has already shown that he can’t risk US body bags running up to his re-election bid.

The nightmare scenario for Trump now is that these drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and others are going to reach the radar screens of humble voters who are still angry that he has not brought US troops home from Afghanistan. 

Whatever move he makes now will go badly for him. Sending more US troops to the Middle East - and risk a soldier being hit by just one of these drone attacks? Suicide. Hitting Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and starting Iraq War III? Ditto.

Oh what a tangled web Trump has weaved. This mess he is in is entirely of his own making as his strategy was misjudged and poorly handled. Iran has the upper hand now and has the Europeans exactly where it wants them (offering cash). 

Many of Trump’s experts might argue that he should continue the sanctions game, but there is little evidence to show it is having the type of impact that he can leverage. De-escalation of the tensions now should be his priority as he might pull off the stunt that he, in fact, saved the crisis singlehandedly.

It might be too late for that. American voters are beginning to see that before Trump came to office, the US and its allies in the region didn’t have this magnitude of a problem with Iran.

And worse, Trump’s unique reaction to the Saudi Attacks threatens to make the situation much, much worse as the attack raises several awkward questions about the defence-based relationship Riyadh has with Washington. 

How could this have happened when the kingdom is spending something like $300 billion a year on kit, yet none of it even able to stop drones? 

Trump’s answer, which will be like pouring salt in the wounds of the House of Saud, is clumsy but gives us an indication of why the Saudis are in this mess in the first place: pay more money, and I will protect you.

But the Saudis won’t see it like that. And even if that offer is genuine, it would be a disastrous policy for the US to take right now and would play right into the hands of Iran. 

If the comments he made to TV journalists in the White House are for real, he is suggesting that Riyadh is not paying enough money to America for being defended. The risk is that some cynical analysts close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might believe that Trump deliberately coaxed Iran into hitting Saudi Arabia so his cronies could clean up on even bigger defence contracts. 

In reality, what Iran is doing is ensuring that voters in America for the first time start to judge this incumbent president on his track record on foreign policy. What Trump badly needs is not face time with Rouhani but a heavyweight negotiator who can follow up with substance once this vociferously childish, vain president has got his photo op. 

The reason why Iran has resisted all such meetings is that its leaders know that nothing comes of those meetings as Trump is hopeless at making deals. He doesn’t understand international diplomacy. He believes the story can only work if it’s all about him. 

The Saudi attacks are just that. They are making him, his personality, the story as it is his unique personality disorder which brought about the situation. Iran is sending a message: if you won’t let us export our oil, then we will prevent the Saudis from doing the same and put Trump in the news for all the wrong reasons.

But that message, which was very well timed just two days or so before the Israeli elections, isn’t reaching Trump. He sees only opportunity. Now sit back and watch the relationship between him and the Saudis deteriorate and watch that smile on Iran’s foreign minister’s face get wider. 

The Iranians used to be mocked by western pundits for foolishly thinking that they can bank on Trump not being re-elected. But no one thought they might actually have a hand in it themselves.  

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.

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