The Saudis and Emiratis have the ear of the US president and are likely pushing for a confrontation with Iran - but they might end up disappointed as the 'America First' president does not have an appetite for war.
In a series of reciprocal escalations over the past couple of weeks, the United States and Iran both seem like they are headed for war. Amongst other actions, the US characterised what is usually a routine deployment to the Arabian Gulf as a military response to non-specific “threats” emanating from Iran.
In response, Iran said that the US aircraft carrier that was deployed was “a target, not a threat.”
With the Americans engaged in gunboat diplomacy and the Iranians puffing out their chests and posturing, it is no wonder many fear a slide into a war between the two countries. However, such an outcome is highly unlikely due to several factors.
Who’s stirring the pot?
Firstly, an American deployment to the Gulf is of no surprise to anyone. The US maintains a permanent presence there, with air bases dotted around the wealthy Arab countries surrounding the strategic waters and the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet permanently based out of Bahrain.
During the Bush and much of the Obama administration, US aircraft carriers were not uncommon sights on the Gulf’s waters. Obviously, this is so the White House can ensure there are no interruptions to the copious amounts of oil and natural gas that flow out of the region coming up to about a third of the world’s oil supply. This alone would not be a casus belli.
With a return of a heavy sanctions regime against Iran and the designation of the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation by Washington, Tehran has repeatedly threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz to commercial shipping.
As sanctions have intensified with the removal of waivers for countries still dealing with Iran’s ailing banking and energy sectors, and with the announcement that the United States would be deploying more assets to the Gulf to defend against Iranian threats, Iran has threatened to close the Straits again and warned that it would target American interests.
Not long after all this sabre-rattling began, four oil tankers were sabotaged and left crippled off Emirati waters past the Straits near Fujairah earlier this week. Two of these tankers were Saudi Arabian, one Emirati, and another Norwegian, and the United States has blamed Iran for the sabotage even though the Islamic Republic denies all responsibility.
If it was the Iranians, and it is likely Iran or its proxies, then it is Tehran sending a tempered message that it can strike even beyond the Straits and harm shipping there.
Two days later, Yemen’s Houthi rebels – who are backed by Iran and considered an IRGC proxy – managed to conduct a drone strike on Saudi oil installations in the Eastern Province. How a Houthi drone managed to fly that far without Saudi motion sensors and radars picking it up has yet to be explained.
Saudi has previously managed to shoot down and intercept Houthi missiles targeted at Mecca of all places, so it is unlikely that an armed drone flown all the way from Yemen would not have been detected.
As was heavily publicised in 2017 by US President Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia and its wealthy allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) sealed a deal for American arms and defence technologies worth $350 billion over ten years. This was perceived as being part and parcel of an intense lobbying effort by GCC powers intent on squaring off against Iran, and the evidence of that came not long after when Riyadh and its allies blockaded fellow GCC member Qatar who they deemed to be too close to both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
With hawks such as John Bolton in the White House, and pro-Saudi and pro-Israeli influencers such as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner whispering in the president’s ear, it is clear that Saudi and the Emiratis are pushing for these escalations and threats to the world’s energy supply to encourage market jitters which could force the US to militarily engage with Iran and curb its ambitions.
The Saudis will have to fight their own war
This is not to say that Iran is blameless, far from it.
Iran has been expanding its influence and threatening its neighbours since former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was ousted from power in 2003. Iran has engaged in wanton sectarianism, forming a Shia Liberation Army, backing militias in Iraq and Syria who have perpetrated terrible war crimes against predominantly Sunni Arabs but also Shia personalities who oppose Iran, and has entirely subverted the Iraqi state to serve its purposes.
It also instigated the botched Saudi intervention in Yemen by arming the Shia Houthis to the teeth and encouraging them to carve up the ill-fated country. Iran is as much if not more, to blame than anyone else.
But the Saudis have miscalculated and misread their American ally’s appetite for war. Trump has consistently drawn down US forces across all foreign theatres of war and is currently negotiating with the Taliban to end Washington’s involvement in Afghanistan and bring American troops home.
Domestically, the American people have no desire to see yet another Iraq (or perhaps worse), and no amount of Gulf Arab money or Israeli lobbying can change that.
If the Saudis and the Emiratis want a war with Iran, they had either better pray for Saddam Hussein to be resurrected and to initiate a second Iran-Iraq War – a war that was successful in containing Iranian expansionism, despite the enormous cost – or they had better be prepared to fight their own battles.
Should Riyadh and Abu Dhabi decide to go to war against Iran, I have no doubt the US would fully support them with arms, training and intelligence capabilities. However, American help will come at a significant cost, and it will be in their interest to drag the war out much as they did during the Iran-Iraq War.
However, this is most unlikely to happen, as Saudi strategists are fully aware that the result of any Gulf Arab military action against Iran would result in a resounding defeat for them. Iran’s conventional capabilities may be less technically advanced, but they are better trained on the equipment they do have.
Iran fought an eight-year conventional war against Iraq and routinely deploys its men on missions abroad, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, giving them an experience edge over the soft and untested Arab armies.
Iran is also capable of striking many of these wealthy Arab cities with ballistic missiles as well as disrupting their export of energy, dealing a crippling blow to their economies.
Finally, Iran’s proxies are all over the region and can be activated at any moment. If the Saudis cannot defeat the Houthis, they stand little chance of being able to deal with the better armed and trained militants right over their northern border in Iraq.
In addition to both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei both recently stating that they do not anticipate going to war against each other, all of this shows how Trump’s policy of bluster but little action will not result in sustained military action - but it is likely an attempt to force the Iranians back to the negotiating table. If that is the result of all this, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are likely to be left sorely disappointed.
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