What happens in the next clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
Is “maximum pressure” campaign used by President Trump against Iran leading the United States and Saudi Arabia toward war or negotiations? He temporarily diffused the crisis over the Iranian drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities by limiting the United States reaction to bolstering Saudi air defenses and sending a few hundred more American troops.
During his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Trump did not once mention the attack. He was content to excoriate aggressive Iranian behavior in general but pledged that American sanctions “will not be lifted” but rather tightened. Efforts by French President Emmanuel Macron to arrange a last minute meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani while both were in New York flopped, as Iran continues to insist that the American sanctions need to first be lifted. Both sides have refused to take the diplomatic offramp to their looming confrontation.
This leaves unanswered what Trump will do when Iran, now emboldened by its international show of military prowess, launches another attack. At this point, it seems highly likely that Iran will again bait Trump, directly or indirectly through its proxies, before the election in the United States next year. Only time will tell how and when these Iranian attacks will come.
In the meantime, Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman have a significant common problem to address with the embarrassing perception that they are both emperors without clothes when it comes to protecting some of the most vital oil facilities from Iran. As Vice President Mike Pence noted in a meeting with a Republican leader, there is an urgent need to “restore deterrence” to prevent more Iranian attacks.
The United States has never signed a formal defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, so it has no legal obligation to respond to what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo termed an “act of war” by Iran. But it has sold billions of dollars of arms to the kingdom, including an entire nationwide air defense system with the latest Patriot missiles whose American manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, boasts are “highly effective” against cruise missiles.
The Iranian stealth attack on Saudi Arabia also raises troubling questions about whether extensive American land and sea assets in the Persian Gulf are just as vulnerable to Iranian cruise missiles or the possibility of ground terrorist attacks carried out by Iranian proxies on the 5,000 American troops stationed in Iraq and 2,000 American troops stationed in Syria.
The United States Fifth Fleet, with 20 ships, more than 100 airstrikers, and 20,000 sailors and soldiers, has its home port in Bahrain off the coast of Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon is aware of the Iranian drone and cruise missile threat, sending an American carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, but that remains carefully positioned in the adjacent Gulf of Oman. Iran has avoided attacking American soldiers, bases, and ships, but it did shoot down a $130 million American surveillance drone it claimed was flying over Iranian waters. Trump refrained from a direct response based on the implausible pretext that he wanted to avoid Iranian casualties.
Now he has decided an Iranian sponsored attack on its key Arab ally in the Gulf region is also not sufficient to warrant an American military response, even though he told the United Nations General Assembly “all nations have a duty to act” in response to bellicose Iranian behavior. This serves to deflect his own responsibility for touching off the present crisis with Iran by pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal last year and launching a “maximum pressure” campaign of escalating sanctions.
Trump is still far from figuring out how to restore deterrence. The eye opening success of the stealth attack on the crown jewel of Saudi oil facilities has dramatically changed the perception of Iranian capabilities and above all willingness to resort to such an audacious step at great risk of American retaliation. Iran orchestrated the simultaneous launching of 18 drones and seven cruise missiles, all but three of which hit their targets with devastating precision. Not a single one of these was shot down or even detected by either Saudi or American radars, despite a massive American military presence all along the Arab side of the Persian Gulf.
We do not yet know why Saudi Arabia was unable to protect its most critical oil facility, a processing plant at Abqaiq in the eastern province with a capacity of handling seven million barrels a day, which is roughly three quarters of its current national production. Was it the absence of any Patriot missile batteries or the failure of those in charge of them to respond? It is clear the United States and Saudi Arabia are in urgent need of putting in place a credible air defense system to protect the critical facilities in the kingdom, including its vulnerable desalination plants.
The emperor needs new clothes in this battle with an increasingly forceful Iran, and the invisible ones of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale will not do. Above all, this is forcing the crown prince to reexamine his faith in President Trump and American reliability in the Saudi showdown with Iran.
David Ottaway is a former Washington Post correspondent and a Middle East fellow with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.