Western allies exchange barbs while Iran plans future attacks

Western allies exchange barbs while Iran plans future attacks

French Defense Minister Florence Parly speaks to the media on the sidelines of the 15th Manama Dialogue. (AFP)

At the Manama dialogue last week in Bahrain, there was clear competition between the US, Europe and Asian powers on who can contribute more to Gulf security. Some officials lamented what they described as US disengagement or withdrawal from the region, and vowed to fill the perceived vacuum.

In response, US officials reiterated Washington’s firm commitment to Gulf security, citing the additional troops and military hardware that the US has dispatched in response to Iranian attacks earlier this year, and the pre-existing American military bases throughout the region and their formidable blue-water navy. They called for greater commitment to support US efforts to build a robust naval coalition to safeguard freedom of navigation in the Gulf.

Those discussions were especially important in light of recent revelations of Iran’s planning and execution of the September attacks on Saudi Arabia, and its apparent intention to launch more of them.

While the world awaits the results of the international investigation of the Sept. 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities, earlier this week Reuters published a credible account verifying Iran’s responsibility for those attacks, and indicating that it is planning new ones.

The report, based on first-hand knowledge, describes how top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), led by Maj. Gen. Hossein Salami, plotted and executed the attacks after getting approval from Iran’s senior leadership, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The Reuters report shows that it was Iran, not the Houthis in Yemen, that carried out the attacks. The plan took months until the order to carry out the attacks was given in early September. The initial list of targets included a seaport in Saudi Arabia, an airport and American military bases, but the plotters settled eventually on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil installations to avoid a direct confrontation with the US.

The report cited several sources corroborating that the launch site was the Ahvaz air base in southwest Iran, but instead of flying directly from Iran to Saudi Arabia over the Gulf, the missiles and drones took circuitous paths to the oil installations, to hide the fact that they came from Iranian territory.

The attacks on oil shipping and Saudi oil facilities were meant, according to the report, to punish the US for pulling out of the nuclear deal and re-imposing sanctions on Iran. One commander was quoted as saying: “It is time to take out our swords and teach them a lesson.”

But the attacks had other sinister objectives as well: Hurting the Saudi economy, destabilizing the oil markets, and putting pressure on the US to change its Iran strategy. More ominously, Iran wanted through those attacks to size up US President Donald Trump and his administration to see how far it could go without provoking an all-out war that Tehran would lose.

The attack cut Saudi oil production nearly in half, reducing global oil supply by about 5 percent. Oil prices went up by about 20 percent. The Reuters report showed Iranian officials gloating over the havoc that the attacks wreaked on oil markets worldwide. But all that was temporary as Saudi Arabia quickly restored supplies and oil prices quickly went down.

The assault on Saudi Arabia followed months of Iranian provocations: Attacks on oil shipping, seizure of oil tankers, and the downing of a US surveillance drone. Although the US was furious, there was no immediate military retaliation.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the attack on Saudi Arabia as an “act of war,” and Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned Iran: “Do not strike another sovereign state, do not threaten American interests, American forces, or we will respond.” The US did impose additional sanctions on Iran and reportedly launched cyberattacks. It also bolstered its military presence in the region.

The Iranian leadership may have concluded that Trump’s bark was worse than his bite. It may calculate that as Trump faces domestic troubles and a difficult re-election contest, he would not risk escalation with Iran. In one of the meetings described by Reuters, an IRGC commander told senior security officials: “Start planning for the next one (attack).”

The conclusion here is that Tehran is serious about further escalating the conflict in the Gulf, but that is not motivating its opponents to unite. In particular, there is less-than-ideal coordination between the US and its partners on the one hand, and the EU and its key players on the other.

Out of deference to Tehran and fear of its withdrawing from the nuclear deal, some EU states are avoiding the appearance of working closely with the US-led coalition, despite the fact that Iran has breached the deal in very serious and material ways. France’s defense minister said her country was conducting its efforts from a French base, and speaking with other European countries to work together, apart from the US. 

Greater coordination and collaborative efforts are needed instead of competition and exchanging verbal barbs.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

It is not clear who else is joining the French effort, other than a dozen officers from the EU to start working in 2020, which appears to be a token presence for now. On the other hand, the US has welcomed new members to its coalition, which now includes about a dozen members and many more non-members joining its efforts.

Greater coordination and collaborative efforts are needed instead of competition and exchanging verbal barbs. Such commitment is needed now more than ever to counter what has been revealed about Iran’s plans for further attacks in the Gulf, which could be more devastating than the previous ones.

There was an element of truth, perhaps, in the criticism directed at the US at the dialogue last week. While most have acknowledged that the US and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are carrying out the lion’s share of military preparedness and financial cost, they asked for more political direction and clarity from Washington. That observation may be accurate.

  • Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC’s assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal, and do not necessarily represent those of the GCC. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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