The story of who really attacked the Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia has taken strange turns. The anti-Iran axis fails to stay on message. And yet Trump, the Houthis, Tehran and even the Saudis all have at least something positive to take away.
First, the Houthis were claiming responsibility for ten drones they fired against two facilities in Saudi Arabia. Not before long, American and Saudi pundits and politicians rejected the Houthis’ claim: If it was the Houthis, they could not have done it alone but in cooperation with Iran, with Tehran providing the drones. No real insight here, as Iran admitted to this long ago. But there were not only drones involved, but also cruise missiles. A mix of both hit the facilities on many impact points simultaneously.
The Houthis received Iranian help, perhaps did it with Iranian help, which, accordingly, means that the Houthis acted on behalf of Tehran’s orders. Because this is what a proxy does – irrespective of the fact that the Houthis don’t see themselves as Iranian proxies.
Yet de-escalation followed suit, accompanied with yet another explanation of what had transpired
Then a next iteration of the events emerged. The Houthis (in alliance with or on behalf of Tehran) did not attack from Yemen, perhaps did not attack at all. Rather the drones or cruise missiles came from Southern Iraq and were fired by the Hashd Al-Sha’abi, the Iraqi Shiite militias who are, allegedly, the military cornerstone of the ‘Shiite crescent’. Hence, some pundits suggest actions against these groups should be taken.
But then the story took another turn: The cruise missile, plus drone attack originated from Iranian territory. And Iran’s Khamenei is behind it, knew everything about it, even worse, he ordered it. In fact, what he did was a de facto declaration of war with global dimensions, given the importance of Saudi oil. Hence was bound to ensue. Yet de-escalation followed suit, accompanied with yet another explanation of what had transpired: The Houthis attacked the facilities from an unknown location inside Saudi Arabia.
Needless to say, there is no proof for any of these allegations. On the other hand, they neatly fit in the worldview of a global active cabal of politicians, pundits, think tankers and former intelligence operatives which has been propagating war against Iran for the sake of war against Iran for decades. I shall call them the ‘axis of hawks against Iran’.
The US have outsanctioned themselves. The next step can only be US wheat, soybeans and pharmaceutical products going to Iran
On September 12th, Donald Trump sacked John Bolton and publicly talked about easing sanctions against Iran. He also restated his willingness to talk to Iran’s president. This must have come as a shock to the US-Israeli-Saudi ‘axis of hawks against Iran’. It also adds to the backdrop in US-Saudi relations. After all, Donald Trump publicly mused about the Saudis paying more for their defense than just for arms deals. Furthermore, on the eve of the first anniversary of the Khashoggi killing, Saudi Arabia has come under greater scrutiny and criticism in the US due to its human rights record and the horrible war in Yemen. This said, after the attack, one major political objective of the aforementioned axis has been achieved: The sanctions have not been eased.
Even so, Donald Trump scuttled their decades-old plans for finding a reason to attack Iran once again. It maybe unfortunate that he is primarily advised by proponents of the ‘axis of hawks’, yet he has shown better judgement – or ‘guts-ment’ (or instincts) – than most of his entourage regarding the useless and clueless nature of wars against nation states in the Middle East. But contrary to many others, he did the right thing by not to giving in to warmongers.
True, he is sharpening sanctions as a diplomatic and domestic gesture. However, whether he knows it already or not: the US have outsanctioned themselves. The next step can only be US wheat, soybeans and pharmaceutical products going to Iran. The damage on Iran’s economy is already done. And contrary to the axis’ claims, Iran is still up and standing. Trump may not understand too much about strategy, but he certainly knows a lot about selling a product, and the product the axis was advertising – a war against Iran – is just not good enough.
If anything, Aramco has shown resilience. In a certain sense, the drones backfired
The attacks have also an unintended side effect in Saudi Arabia. The country undergoes an important transformation of state and society. The economic bedrock of the Crown Prince’s future-oriented reforms that ultimately will (or should) transform the Kingdom into a sustainable economic and military powerhouse is Saudi Aramco. In the last months, media coverage of the state oil company has been often negative, mostly regarding the change of its director. However, there is no indication that the Saudis would forgo their plans for a ‘blockbuster stock market listing’.
Aramco’s technicians and management, as well as Saudi authorities have already shown their capacity to deal with serious crises such as the drone (or drone-plus-cruise missile) attacks: Contrary to initial reports, the company assured that output would be back to normal by the end of the month. If anything, Aramco has shown resilience. In a certain sense, the drones backfired and could lead the Saudis to significantly upgrade their air defense systems.
Whether one likes it or not, the drone attacks will pass as a floating episode rather than the spark set the region aflame. The same dynamic unfolded a few weeks ago when vessels in the Strait of Hormuz appeared to be on the frontline of the confrontation. The international public – at least in Europe – has grown extremely sceptical towards claims and counterclaims on anything regarding the Middle East. This does not mean the public would take Tehran’s arguments at face value. However, amidst the cacophony of US claims regarding the perpetrators of the attack, the Iranian argument – simplistic as it is – gets stronger due to the fact that it has a clear message and does not contradict itself. Because in the post-2003 world of today, the global public is deeply sceptical about anything the US claims.