Nearly a week after claiming drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Yemen’s rebels say will stop targeting the kingdom.
An official with the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen has said it will stop aiming missile and drone attacks at Saudi Arabia, warning that a continuation of the war could lead to “dangerous developments”.
The announcement was made on Friday night by Mahdi al-Mashat, head of the Houthi’s supreme political council, which controls the rebel-held areas in Yemen.
“We declare ceasing to target the Saudi Arabian territory with military drones, ballistic missiles and all other forms of weapons, and we wait for a reciprocal move from them,” Mashat said on the Houthi-run Al Masirah TV.
“We reserve the right to respond if they fail to reciprocate positively to this initiative,” he said, adding that the continuation of the Yemen war “will not benefit any side”.
The announcement by the Houthis came nearly a week after they claimed a major attack on Saudi oil facilities.
Despite the Houthis insisting they are responsible for the September 14 assault on Aramco sites that initially halved the kingdom’s production, the United States and Saudi Arabia have blamed Iran.
Iran denies being involved, warning that any retaliatory strike on it by the US or Saudi Arabia will result in “an all-out war“.
‘Preserve blood of Yemenis’
“I call on all parties from different sides of the war to engage seriously in genuine negotiations that can lead to a comprehensive national reconciliation that does not exclude anyone,” said Mashat.
He added a major goal of the ceasefire was to “preserve the blood of Yemenis and achieve a general amnesty”.
The Saudi-led military coalition did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Houthi announcement.
Mashat also called for the reopening of Sanaa’s international airport and open access to Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeidah, a crucial entry point for imports and humanitarian aid that has been at the centre of United Nations-brokered talks.
The Western-backed coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in Yemen in March 2015 after the Houthis removed the internationally recognised government in Sanaa in late 2014.
The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people so far and left millions on the brink of famine, sparking what the UN calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The Houthi rebels have repeatedly targeted key Saudi infrastructure in recent months in cross-border attacks. Earlier this week, they said they had picked out dozens of sites in the UAE as possible targets for future attacks.
Earlier on Friday, Saudi officials brought journalists to the site of the Abqaiq oil processing facility, one of the two locations hit in drone and missile attacks on September 14.
The Yemen conflict is largely seen in the region as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The American public and the rest of the world have been sold the myth that the Patriot missile system is effective, and top of it’s tier. Here’s where this was proven wrong.
“The US army has announced its intent to procure a limited number of Iron Dome weapon systems,” said Colonel Patrick Seiber, spokesman for Army Futures Command, on Wednesday.
The choice to acquire the Israeli missile defence system marks a significant shift from US reliance and the global emphasis on the effectiveness of the Patriot Missile System of the same class.
Research and development of Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system were partly funded by a $429 million US investment.
Missile defence remains a contentious issue in the 21st Century. While global powers develop state-of-the-art missile systems to counter stealth aircraft on battlefields shaped by raging electronic and cyber warfare, their track records for shooting down missiles leaves much to be desired.
Israel’s Iron Dome has allegedly shot down more than 1,200 projectiles since going operational in 2011, catching the attention of some countries including Saudi Arabia, and more recently the United States.
The system is unique in that not only does it feature a reliable rate of interception, but it can tell if the incoming projectile is going to miss a target, saving a $100,000 interceptor from being fired altogether.
But given that the United States is already the owner of cutting-edge missile defence systems for its forces – also widely used by most of its NATO allies – the decision to acquire the Iron Dome System to “fill a short-term need” is questionable.
Why the Patriot Missile doesn’t work
The US 2019 Missile Defense Review cited the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile defence system’s “proven combat record”.
During the 1991 Gulf War, the American public was informed that the Patriot missile had a near-perfect record, intercepting a total of 45 out of 47 Scud missiles.
This estimate was later revised down by the US army to about 50 percent. Even then, it noted “higher” confidence in only about 25 percent of the cases.
A Congressional Research Service employee commented that if the US army had consistently and accurately applied its assessment method, the number would be far lower. Reportedly, this number was one Scud missile shot down.
Following a House Committee on Government Operations investigation, not enough evidence was found to conclude that there had been any interceptions at all.
There is little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq during the Gulf War,” the investigations concluded.
“There are some doubts about even these engagements,” it added.
The report, which called for declassifying more information on the Patriot missile and an independent evaluation of the missile defence programme, was crushed under a lobbying campaign by the US army and Raytheon, leaving only a summary publically available.
More recently, however, Saudi Arabia put its Patriot defences to the test and found them severely lacking, with outright failures.
In repeated missile strikes from Houthi rebels using unsophisticated ballistic missiles, the Patriot missile failed, at times spectacularly.
Despite Saudi Arabia claiming a high success rate for the missile system, it discussed obtaining advanced S-400 missile defences from Russia following the Patriot failures.
A diplomatic source also claimed in mid-September that Saudi Arabia had purchased the Israeli Iron Dome defence system to defend itself against Houthi rebel missile attacks.
Saudi Arabia isn’t alone in pursuing better options for the sake of national security. NATO allies such as Turkey also entered into discussions to bolster their missile defences by acquiring the Russian missile system, causing significant friction with the US, triggering a trade war and leading to threats that F-35 stealth fighter deliveries to Turkey would be cut off altogether.
The National, an English-language news outlet from the United Arab Emirates, reported that “one person died and two others were injured” by shrapnel over Riyadh.
But Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said on Twitter that in video footage of the missiles, it appeared that one defence system had ‘failed catastrophically’, while another ‘pulled a U-turn’ and exploded in Riyadh.”
This was not reported by Saudi news agencies, which continued to claim that all incoming missiles were shot down.
Lewis believes that it was “entirely possible” that it was the defence system failure, instead of the incoming missiles themselves, that caused casualties or injuries.
This raises critical questions not just about Saudi Arabia’s use of the missiles, but of the United States, which sold Saudi Arabia — and its elected public — a false representation of the missile defence system.
A closer look
More recently, experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies closely studied two different missile attacks on Saudi Arabia from both November and December 2017.
In both cases, they found it highly unlikely that the missiles were intercepted, despite official statements.
In their study, they examined where resulting debris, including the missile airframe and warhead, fell and where the interceptors were located.
In the two cases, a clear pattern was visible. The Patriot missile itself falls in Riyadh, while the incoming missile separates, passes defences and lands near its target.
One such missile warhead landed within a few hundred metres of a terminal at Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport. The second warhead, fired weeks later, nearly destroyed a car dealership.
In both cases, the report concluded that in spite of official Saudi claims, neither missile was shot down and that Saudi Arabia may not have even tried to shoot down the first missile in November.
With little evidence that Saudi Arabia shot down any missiles fired by the Houthi rebels during the Yemen conflict, and the United States’ own failed experience with Patriot missiles during the first Gulf war, a more serious question is posed: who is to say that the Patriot system even works?
While the US army’s statement announcing the acquisition of the Israeli Iron Dome missile defence system clarified that it would be a short-term solution while the US reviews its options, by purchasing an Israeli system and overlooking a US system with a questionable past, the US may be admitting to the failings of its own missile defence.
While the real damage is yet to be fully assessed and understood, the attack exposed Saudi political – and above all – military vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are the culmination of both erratic regional foreign policies and mismanagement.
They are also a symbol of Saudi Arabia’s unnecessary high military spending that has often privileged the purchase of fighter jets and other advanced technology when the real threat can actually come from low-key missiles and drones produced at a fraction of what Saudi Arabia spends on its armaments.
The attacks are a culmination of five years of erratic and undiplomatic moves that put the whole Arabian Peninsula including the small Gulf statelets in danger.
The biggest miscalculation that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman made was to think that his new US-made jet fighters would launch devastating attacks on Yemen’s Houthi rebels, thus pre-empting an Iranian takeover of its poor, southern neighbour.
The attacks are a culmination of five years of erratic and undiplomatic moves that put the whole Arabian Peninsula including the small Gulf statelets in danger
The stated rationale behind the Saudi air strikes on Yemen was to prevent the rise to power of a Hezbollah-like militia patronised by Iran.
The second rationale was to enforce Yemen’s subservience to Riyadh at a moment when its political factions were fighting an internal battle to control the country after the vacuum created by the fall of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the new rule of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
The third rationale was to protect the southern borders from Houthi penetration and asymmetric attacks.
A coalition was established to achieve these objectives but the main actors in the Yemen saga remained Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
A military vulnerability
However, nearly five years since the onslaught on Yemen began, none of these objectives have been achieved. In fact, Saudi military vulnerabilities proved to be a crippling obstacle to achieving these goals. Yemeni Houthi attacks have expanded and reached as far as the capital and major cities.
While the damage that this war has inflicted on Yemen is now well-documented, its impact on Saudi Arabia’s military capabilities and reputation is irreparable.
If the Saudi military wanted to test its capabilities in Yemen, with the war becoming a training field for its soldiers and pilots, then the whole world can now see how it is badly trained and unfit to conduct a war – even with all the US and British guidance and equipment.
The sponsors of Saudi military must certainly be disappointed if they believed a disciplined and well-trained Saudi army and air force could deliver the desired outcome.
No ‘Desert warrior’
In comparison, many partners and allies of Saudi Arabia seem to be more satisfied by the UAE’s performance in Yemen. But all military might is relative. The recent rift between the two coalition countries over south Yemen indicates that even Saudi Arabia’s closest partner in the destruction of Yemen is having second thoughts about the war.
The damage to the UAE’s reputation in Washington is probably something that Abu Dhabi wants to mitigate and repair as soon as possible. Yet both Gulf countries have committed serious atrocities in Yemen that no realpolitik can justify.
Domestically the oil field attacks have punctured the narrative about invincible Saudi Arabia in the eyes of its citizens, although expressions of dissatisfaction are muted. Whether Iran or the Houthis launched the attacks, the fact remains that Saudi oil installations remain vulnerable to missiles and drones.
Also, Mohammed bin Salman is in no position to adopt the title “Desert Warrior 2” like his cousin Khalid bin Sultan did in the 1990s. Half a million foreign troops were assembled to evict Saddam Hussein from Iraq and prevent an imminent penetration of Saudi borders.
Khalid bin Sultan assumed the title and became a military legend, despite the fake courage and military prowess that were associated with his military leadership of the international force. Everybody knew that without US boots on the ground, most of Saudi Arabia’s eastern region would have been swallowed by Saddam’s army.
While Yemen cannot be compared to Iraq in terms of its military capabilities, the Saudis are yet to score a minor victory in the ongoing war.
Trump’s mixed messages
In a fully fledged war with Iran on behalf of Mohammad bin Salman, which the international community may not be ready to embark on, it is certain that the Saudis could fight alone. Whether the international community wants a war now remains to be seen, but King Salman and his son are now pleading to enlist Trump and others in a coalition of the willing.
Saudi leaders will find out that sooner or later the US will allow them to sink into oblivion, like the many dictatorships supported but later dropped by Washington
They are even proposing to launch an investigation to establish the source of the attack, which they definitely want to lead to Iran. But let’s not forget how Saudi Arabia blocked every UN initiative to investigate its war crimes in Yemen after civilian casualties reached a horrific figure.
The Saudis also resisted and rejected any international investigation of its crime of the century that resulted in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in its own consulate in Istanbul.
So far, Trump has given mixed messages in his Twitter diplomacy toward his Gulf allies. He oscillates between insulting Saudi and Gulf leaders when he constantly reminds them that US mercenary services to their regimes come at a high price, while expressing full sympathy and support for their erratic regional policies.
Trump conducts a transactional foreign policy in which there are no durable partnerships or special relationships. US national interests as narrowly understood by him and his advisors are the primary driving force. For sure Trump is committed to projecting US power abroad but the recipient must pay for it.
Countries like Saudi Arabia may believe that there is in fact a special partnership with the US, but they are under the illusion of their amplified importance and relevance to the US.
Saving Saudi Arabia
The Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular are not that relevant to this American administration, as their main focus is beyond the region and its old rivalries and intrigues. Trump neither respects Saudi leaders nor cares about their fate.
Saudi leaders will find out that sooner or later the US will allow them to sink into oblivion, like the many dictatorships supported but later dropped by Washington.
It is in the interest of Saudi Arabia to achieve by diplomacy what it constantly failed to achieve with its weak military. Saudi Arabia should end the Yemen war as soon as possible, pay for the reconstruction of Yemen, and open dialogue with Iran to save itself. The US will not come to its rescue.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter: @MadawiDr
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tehran, Iran. A portrait of late Iranian revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini hangs on the wall.
OFFICE OF THE IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER VIA AP 2016
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called violent attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure in Abqaiq and Khurais “an act of war,” as evidence suggests that Iran is the culprit. This marks the most dangerous escalation between the U.S. and Iran since the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran. However, this confrontation has major implications for the growing U.S. – China strategic rivalry.
Amidst historic U.S. – Iran tensions, Beijing is doubling-down on its strategic partnership with Tehran, ignoring U.S. efforts to isolate the Islamic Republic from global markets. Following an August visit by Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Beijing, the two countries agreed to update a 25-year program signed in 2016, to include an unprecedented $400 billion of investment in the Iranian economy – sanctions be damned.
The capital injection, which would focus on Iran’s oil and gas sector, would also be distributed across the country’s transportation and manufacturing infrastructure. In return, Chinese firms will maintain the right of the first refusal to participate in any and all petrochemical projects in Iran, including the provision of technology, systems, process ingredients and personnel required to complete such projects. According to an exclusive interview with Petroleum Economist, a senior source in Iran’s petrochemical sector had this to say about the new agreement:
The central pillar of the new deal is that China will invest $280 billion developing Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemicals sectors… there will be another $120 billion investment in upgrading Iran’s transport and manufacturing infrastructure, which again can be front-loaded into the first five-year period and added to in each subsequent period should both parties agree.
This comes at a time when Washington is exerting its so-called ‘maximum pressure’ strategy against Iran, which aims to change its international behavior by bringing oil exports down to zero.
The Trump policy is a 180 degree U-turn form the sanctions relief granted by the previous administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Obama brainchild intended to temporarily freeze the Iranian nuclear program, but ignored its regional power projection and growing missile arsenal. Under the agreement, Iran’s economy rebounded by over 12% compared to when sanctions were in full force. However, Iran continued to build intermediate and short-range ballistic and cruise missiles and drones, and fund proxies from Lebanon and Syria, to Iraq, to Yemen.
The Trump Administration’s sanctions, however, have cut Iran’s economic growth down to a meager 3.7%. The country’s oil output – the lifeblood of the economy — dropped from almost 4 million barrels per day (mbd) in 2018 to barely above 2.5 mbd in March of this year, and the exports declined to a trickle.
Timeline of Iranian oil output March 2011 – March 2018 (million barrels per day)
Nowhere To Run But East
Given Iran’s precarious geopolitical and geo-economic position, it has little choice but to forge a closer relationship with China, despite the country’s reputation as a predatory lender. Russia, too, is a major Iranian partner, weapons and nuclear, rocket, and military technology supplier.
Like the other Eurasian economies involved in China’s massive Belt and Road initiative (BRI), mostly imported Chinese labor will be utilized to build factories, designed and managed by large Chinese manufacturers, with identical specifications to those in China. According to the Middle East Monitor, the agreement also confers “the right to delay the payment of these prices for two years in the Chinese national currency (Yuan).”
This presents an extremely favorable situation for the Chinese, as Beijing earns yuan from its projects across Africa and Central Asia – and therefore does not need to make oil trades in USD, diminishing the bite of sanctions. In return, Tehran gains an additional ally on the UN Security Council, and an economic lifeline with a secure oil and petrochemicals market. The deal facilitates Iran’s quest to become a regional and nuclear-armed hegemon, potentially threatening Europe and the U.S.
Overall, this may not prove a financially sound endeavor by Beijing, as Chinese companies will come under U.S. sanctions – but it may end up as a shrewd geostrategic play by both parties. Profitability certainly hasn’t been China’s main motivation in many previous investment schemes, nor is it Iran’s. This case is no different. It is a geopolitical anti-American axis. China’s game here is clear: first, increase tensions between the U.S. and Iran by weakening the impact of American sanctions and increase their soft power leverage in the energy-dense Middle East. Then integrate Iran into the Belt-and-Road initiative and into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, of which Tehran is an observer member.
Beijing’s gambit to cozy up with a terrorism-sponsoring state, however, may backfire. Iranian aggression is likely to end up in Tehran’s defeat. Regardless of how Saudi Arabia and the United States decide to proceed with retaliation for the Abqaiq-Khurais attacks, China may soon have a severe case of buyer’s remorse.
Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab said Thursday that an Israeli drone that crashed in Beirut’s southern suburbs last month was a “custom made military” drone with explosives and was not meant to gather intelligence only, Sept. 19, 2019. (The Daily Star/Mohamad Azakir)
An Israeli drone that crashed in Beirut last month was not only on an intelligence flight as it was ‘loaded’ with explosives, Lebanon’s defense minister said Thursday.
Wednesday on Fox News Channel’s “Your World,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), a candidate for the 2020 Democratic Party presidential nomination criticized President Donald Trump’s response to an attack on an oil production facility in Saudi Arabia.
Gabbard went on to argue Saudi Arabia’s promotion of extremist Wahhabi ideology was a bigger threat to the United States than Iran.
CAVUTO: All right, so the interpretation I have is that you want to bring back that Iran deal, get — move back to that.
But it does give a signal here that you’re no fan of the Saudi leadership — and many are not, I get that — but more of a fan of the leadership in Iran.
GABBARD: No, I’m a fan of the United States of America. I’m a fan of the American people.
And as president and commander in chief, I would put their interests above all else, putting the wellbeing of the American people —
CAVUTO: Is it in our interests for Saudi Arabia — is it in our interests for Saudi Arabia to be protected or its kingdom to be protected? Or do you draw a distinction?
GABBARD: Well, let me tell you what is not in our interest, is this alliance that has been longstanding between the United States and Saudi Arabia, in spite of the fact that they are directly and indirectly supporting Al Qaeda, the terrorist group that attacked us on 9/11.
We just observed the 18th anniversary of that terrible attack on our country in 2001. They are continuing to spend billions of dollars every year propagating this extremist Wahhabi ideology that’s fueling the growth of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS and others around the world.
They are directly supporting those who pose a threat to our country and the United States, that threat that we need to defeat.
CAVUTO: Is that threat greater than Iran?
GABBARD: Yes, it is. Currently, Iran doesn’t — currently, Iran doesn’t pose a direct threat to the United States.
CAVUTO: So Saudi Arabia is more of a problem for us than Iran is?
GABBARD: We have the opportunity to make sure that we prevent Iran from continuing to move forward towards developing a nuclear weapon.
That’s where we need to be focused. If I were president right now, that’s exactly what I’d be doing, getting back into that nuclear deal, getting rid of these crippling economic sanctions, and being able to make sure we can move forward in the interest of our national security.
CAVUTO: So a President Tulsi Gabbard would see Saudi Arabia as a bigger threat to our country than Iran?
GABBARD: What I would like to see is Saudi Arabia ending their support for Al Qaeda, terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, who pose a threat to the American people.
CAVUTO: I’m sorry. That’s not what I asked. That’s not what I asked.
Be — things as they are now —
GABBARD: I know. You’re turning my words around. You’re turning my words around.
CAVUTO: No, no, no, no.
I want — I want to just be very clear that — but you — you have a higher opinion of Iran than you do Saudi Arabia, as things stand now?
GABBARD: No. No, that’s not at all what I’m saying.
CAVUTO: Then explain.
GABBARD: That’s not what I’m saying.
I’m focused on how we can best keep the American people safe, on how we can make sure that we are — we have our national security intact.
And so whatever actions that we take —
CAVUTO: And the Saudis are a bigger threat? And the Saudis are a bigger threat to that safety than Iran? I just want to be clear, Congresswoman.
GABBARD: The Saudis are directly supporting the very terrorist group that attacked us on 9/11 and that continue to pose a threat to the American people today.
CAVUTO: So if the president were to take action against Iran — with or without Saudi intelligence or help — that would be a bad move, in your eyes?
GABBARD: That would be a very bad move. It wouldn’t serve the interests of the United States. It would cost thousands more of my brothers and sisters in uniform their lives. It would cost us, as taxpayers, trillions of dollars more.
It would make the Iraq War that I served in look like a picnic, compared to the cost and the consequence and the devastation that would come about as a result of that war, what — to speak of the fact that it would be unconstitutional, given the president would do that without that authority coming from Congress.
“Not surprisingly, the Saudis are finding themselves with no ally to protect them. They cannot fight Iran alone. Stupidity and inexperience are the two guiding lights of its de facto ruler, the crown prince”
A cursory look at the balance of power in the region will show how unequal a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on 16 September (AFP)
Shock and awe.
The words the Pentagon used when it enjoyed a monopoly on the use of force and was about to rain it down on Saddam Hussein, are coming back to haunt it, two presidents on.
US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are shocked and awed by Iran. Tehran – and not Washington – is adept at mounting displays of rapid dominance to disorientate its enemy. No greater display of shock and awe could have been mounted than the one that hit two of Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil terminals on Saturday.
Drones or missiles?
The Saudis were defenceless and the target was hit with pinpoint accuracy. Try, as the US might, to avert the attention to Iran, there is little doubt that at least some of the drones and possibly missiles used in the attack flew over Kuwait, which means that they were flying south from Iraq.
The attack was witnessed and recorded by a bird hunter on the triangular border of Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia
The attack was witnessed and recorded by a bird hunter on the triangular border of Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In three different clips sounds of low flying drones or missiles are heard – all of whom are travelling south.
In the video which has gone viral on social media, the bird hunter refers to four to five smaller planes which were followed by what he thought were missiles. He said he was near Salmi where the three borders meet at the time of the attack on Saturday morning.
Even better, from Iran’s point of view, was the row that followed the attacks, between a justifiably irate Iraqi prime minister and Pompeo.
Initially, the Americans released satellite pictures of the oil tanks being hit from the north west – evidence that the drones and missiles came from Iraq, not eastwards from Iran. However they were soon forced to backtrack and claim the attacks came directly from Iran.
Adel Abdul Mahdi’s statement, which he compelled the Americans to endorse, was a masterful mixture of denial and confirmatory threat. He denied the attack had been launched from Iraqi soil – in contradiction to the intelligence briefing he had just received – and threatened anyone against using proxies on Iraq’s soil.
This was aimed at Pompeo, as much as it was anyone else.
Another Gulf war
Months before, the US had floated the idea with Abdul Mahdi that the US wanted to bomb Iraqi Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy militia, from where a drone strike against Saudi Arabia had originated.
Abdul Mahdi persuaded Pompeo to stand that attack down. The US instead allowed Israeli drones to strike Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) or al-Hashd al-Shaabi targets from Kurdish bases in Syria.
Was the US, let alone a president fighting reelection, prepared for another Gulf War ? Had not his country seen enough war this century?
After these attacks, Abdul Mahdi faced intense domestic pressure from his political allies to publicly name Israel as the aggressor. He refused for the very reason that he today denies where the retaliatory drones came from.
Had he named America’s principle ally in the region, he would have declared that a state of war existed between thousands of US troops on his soil and al-Hashd, Iraq’s best troops, which he is trying painfully to re-integrate into his national forces.
Did America really want that to happen? Was the US, let alone a president fighting reelection, prepared for another Gulf War? Had not his country seen enough war this century?
Abdul Madhi’s arguments hit home.
Scrambling around for ways of delivering a “proportionate” response, Trump and Pompeo did not have an answer then and do not have one now.
‘Locked and loaded’
To date, Iran and its network of militias in Yemen and Iraq have shot down a US drone, blown holes through tankers off the Emirati ports, seized a British tanker, attacked airports, pipelines and oil terminals, and now have delivered the biggest strike against Saudi oilfields in the long and war-torn history of the Gulf.
Iran is sending Trump a clear message: “You want chaos? You want to tear up international treaties negotiated by your predecessor and slap sanctions on us? Well, we can give you chaos
Neither during the Iran-Iraq War, nor Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War, nor in the Second Iraq War, has Saudi Arabia ever had to halve its oil production, as it has done this week.
By so doing, Iran is sending Trump a clear message: “You want chaos? You want to tear up international treaties negotiated by your predecessor and slap sanctions on us? Well, we can give you chaos, and you will soon find out how vulnerable your allies are.”
Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, has used every international forum for months to signal Iran’s intentions to fight back. He said this in August in Stockholm: “President Trump cannot be unpredictable and expect others to be predictable. Unpredictability will lead to mutual unpredictability and unpredictability is chaos.”
Zarif was not listened to then. Maybe he will be now.
A cursory look at the balance of power in the region will show Trump how unequal a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be.
The strategic depth
It has taken Iran decades to create what it calls a “strategic depth” of battle-hardened militias by whom it has always stood, funded, armed and trained. And it is not about to abandon them now, however much they are hit by Israel.
Saudi Arabia has also funded and backed militias in the region, particularly in Syria, but is notorious for dumping its allies and talking instead to their enemies. This happened in Syria and Yemen.
Iran, which has survived decades of sanctions and war, has a high pain threshold. It has developed its own arms industry and it can defend itself.
Saudi Arabia has a very low pain threshold and can not defend itself. As Trump himself reminded it, the kingdom would not last for two weeks without American protection.
Iran’s regional network is in place and fully functioning. Its weapons are locked and loaded. It has built a strategic alliance with two of the region’s other military powers – Russia and Turkey – which appears able to survive considerable tensions in Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s regional network is crumbling. Its closest ally, the United Arab Emirates, has clearly parted company with the Saudi coalition assembled to fight the Houthis in Yemen. The UAE’s announcement that its forces were leaving Yemen took the Saudis by surprise.
Then came the fight between rival proxy militias over the southern port of Aden, which involved Saudi and Emirati planes bombing each other’s Yemeni proxies. The Emirati plan – to install southern separatists in the south and leave the north to rot – clearly does not solve Riyadh’s problem, all of which continues in the north.
The tensions between the Saudis and the Emiratis over Yemen burst into state-controlled media.
When six Emiratis soldiers died recently, there was some evidence to believe that they had been killed in Libya, not in Yemen. The Emiratis could not admit their forces were fighting alongside Khalifa Haftar and thus breaking the international embargo.
The Saudi state run al Arabiya channel, which ironically is based in Dubai, refused to tow the official Emirati line and said merely the soldiers had been “killed”. They refused to describe them as martyrs.
This led to an extraordinary outburst from a UAE activist close to the government in Abu Dhabi, Hamed al Mazroui. Mazroui described Al Arabiya as “the whore of all media, with no competitor”. He deleted the tweet but kept up his fire on its director Abdulrahman al-Rashed.
On the ground, the Houthis understand what the Emirates are trying to do and the implicit Faustian pact the UAE is making with Iran – you keep the north, we will have the south. The Houthis exchanged prisoners with Emirati-backed militias, while they refused a prisoner exchange with forces loyal to the exiled Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
Wider afield, Iran now has established ties with Turkey and Russia, despite the very different agendas the three regional powers pursue in Syria. Not content with the chaos it has created in its own backyard, Saudi Arabia is continuing to seek new battlegrounds and opening up new fronts.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has lost patience, as he puts it, with Turkey over its handling of the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last Octobar in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Accordingly, he has decided to step up his campaign against Turkey by fishing in Cypriot waters. The Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Adulaziz al Assaf said during a visit to Cyprus that Saudi Arabia supports the Greek Cypriots against Turkey’s oil and gas exploration in the Mediterranean.
Running out of allies
Not surprisingly, the Saudis are finding themselves with no ally to protect them. They cannot fight Iran alone. Stupidity and inexperience are the two guiding lights of its de facto ruler, the crown prince. Who else could have promised to take the battle “into the heart of Iran” only to find himself dousing fires in the heart of Saudi Arabia?
He is alone, save for a reluctant and quixotic US president who has fewer cards to play than he has. Trump’s behaviour is not a great return for the investment of hundreds of millions of riyals that bin Salman spent on US arms contracts.
The least that could be said of previous generations of Saudi leaders was that for all their faults, they kept cautious control of their region. They knew how to balance competing interests and played host to most of them.
Mohammed Bin Salman has thrown caution to the wind and now finds himself with few cards to play. Yemen, Oman and Jordan are hostile. Qatar and Turkey have openly sided with Iran. The Emiratis pursue their own agenda.
Unlike Iran, the Saudis are not used to hardship and are profoundly ill suited to waging a regional war which they themselves promoted. Perhaps that is why a profound silence will follow the show of shock and awe that took place on Saturday.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
David Hearst is the editor in chief of Middle East Eye. He left The Guardian as its chief foreign leader writer. In a career spanning 29 years, he covered the Brighton bomb, the miner’s strike, the loyalist backlash in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in Northern Ireland, the first conflicts in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in Slovenia and Croatia, the end of the Soviet Union, Chechnya, and the bushfire wars that accompanied it. He charted Boris Yeltsin’s moral and physical decline and the conditions which created the rise of Putin. After Ireland, he was appointed Europe correspondent for Guardian Europe, then joined the Moscow bureau in 1992, before becoming bureau chief in 1994. He left Russia in 1997 to join the foreign desk, became European editor and then associate foreign editor. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he worked as education correspondent.