While we all wait to actually see something that resembles actual evidence, as opposed to speculation and assertions, of who is responsible for Saturday’s attack on the Saudi oil facility, I think there are several things to keep in mind. The first is that the administration in general and the President, the Secretary of State, and the US Special Representative for Iran do not have any real credibility in any of their public statements. You will undoubtedly remember that all three of them went all in on Iran being responsible for the two rounds of tanker attacks in port in the UAE and just underway off the UAE’s coasts earlier in the summer. You’ll notice that those assertions were not only quickly contested by the ship owners and the UAE. And you have also probably noticed that all three stopped talking about them shortly after the initial round of public bluster. So until or unless someone with some credibility comes out and provides some verification that the Iranians actually conducted Saturday’s attack on the Saudi refinery, all assertions from the administration should be taken with a very large grain of salt. And this goes even more for anything the Saudis state publicly, as well as the Israelis. Both Muhammad bin Salman and Bibi Netanyahu have their own reasons for wanting to place the blame for this on Iran. And both would really like the US to fight Iran for them to the last American Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine, DOD and Service civilian, and contractor. Is it possible that Iran is responsible? Yes it is. What we don’t know right now is how plausible or probably it is.
What I think is going to happen here is that the President will bluster a bit more on Twitter or in press gaggles about Iran, though, apparently, the Special Representative has told Congressional staffers that the President is still open to engagement with Iran. So I expect that we’ll see a replay of what happened with the two rounds of tanker attacks from this past summer. Several days of Presidential bluster on Twitter and in press gaggles about Iran being responsible and what the US could do, followed by the Secretary of State and the US Special Representatives trying to both back up the tough talk, while doing whatever it is they’re doing. If no evidence is actually ever presented, or contrary evidence comes out, then the whole thing will just be dropped.
I do not think we’re going to see a US military response. A one off strike, either lobbing a couple of missiles or a US Air Force or Naval aviation strike, would be both tactically and strategically pointless. All it would do is rally the just attacked Iranian populace to support the Iranian government. As I’ve written about here, as well as in more professional publications, an invasion of Iran would be strategic malpractice. Moreover, as I’ve written about here and elsewhere, we simply do not have the military resources right now to actually increase our military operational tempo, let alone add a third theater of war to the Afghan and Iraqi ones we are already operating in. And there’s another reason an American response is unlikely: this wasn’t an attack on Americans or American infrastructure. As far as we know so far from the reporting, no Saudis were hurt or killed. Certainly no Americans were. So any attack on Iran here would not be justifiable, it would be preemptory. Not that I think the President or the Secretary of State actually care about such things as Just War Theory. It is also hard to convince Americans to support going to war to protect Saudi oil refineries, so even the domestic politics of this would be a very difficult needle to thread.
There’s a final dynamic at work here that I think is very important, which is that the Iranians are in control of this situation, not the President, not the Secretary of State, not Muhammad bin Salman, and not Bibi Netanyahu. They also have the President’s number. They know he doesn’t want to actually get into any more wars in the Middle East and Central Asia and, in fact, wants to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. They also don’t give a damn about the Trump Doctrine. The Iranians have no desire to treat the President fairly and from their perspective they’ve gotten nothing but “or else” from the US for over 40 years, with, perhaps, the exception of how President Obama treated them in the run up to and during the JCPOA negotiations. The open ended “or else” threat of the Trump Doctrine is a hollow threat for Iran. As a result, the Iranians are actually calling the shots here, not the President or anyone else. Whether the President, Secretary Pompeo, the Special Representative for Iran, or anyone else advising them recognizes this reality is something I cannot speak to.
Finally, for those looking for other resources, both subject matter experts and reporters, on the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran, I recommend the following.
- Professor David Commins’ excellent book on Saudi Arabia. (Full disclosure: I know David)
- Professor Juan Cole. Both his Twitter feed and his blog. (Full disclosure: I know Juan and have guest blogged for him in the past).
- Professor Shibley Telhami. (Fill disclosure: I know Shibley)
- LTG (ret) Mark Hertling, former Commanding General of US Army Europe and 1st Armored Division. (Full disclosure: I know LTG Hertling. I was the cultural advisor/senior civilian advisor for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team/1st Armored Division when he was the 1st Armored Division Commanding General)
- Brett McGurk, former Special Envoy for Middle East Peace and for Combatting ISIS. (Full disclosure: I’ve been on secure video teleconferences with Special Envoy McGurk though I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t know me from Adam and I am Adam!)
- GEN (ret) Barry McCaffrey.
- Liz Sly, Washington Post Bureau Chief. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Liz for over a decade and been interviewed by her several times)
- Anshel Pfeffer, Haaretz correspondent and Netanyahu biographer.
- Noga Tarnopolsky, who covers Israel and Palestine issues.
- Ronen Bergman, journalist and author of Rise and Kill First, which is a history of Israel’s secret assassinations program.