A small squadron of drones — and possibly cruise missiles — penetrated Saudi Arabia’s air defenses on Saturday, laying waste to a significant, valuable portion of two of the world’s most essential oil processing facilities. Amid worries about the impact of the strikes on global oil markets (half of the kingdom’s oil output was affected) and fears about broader military confrontations, facts and conjecture began jockeying for attention.
Houthi rebels fighting the Saudis in a brutal civil war in Yemen took credit for the strikes. Iran backs the Houthis, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran for “an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply” and asserted there “is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.” The Saudis, backed by the U.S. in Yemen, had yet to pin the strikes on Iran while the Iranians themselves deny any involvement. On Sunday, the U.S government produced photos that officials said indicated that the drones had to have flown into Saudi Arabia from Iraq or Iran. Iraq denies being involved.
Any prudent response to the attacks hinges on more factual certainty. Patience and foresight are diplomatic virtues in moments like this, even if the correct response ultimately involves more severe economic sanctions on Iran or military actions designed to rein in its rulers.
Like any U.S. president, Donald Trump could play a clarifying role and use the power and prestige of his office to bring a sense of order to what is a dangerous dynamic in the Arab world right now. It’s possible that the next few days will build toward the most momentous foreign policy challenge Trump will experience. But we’ve also arrived here precisely because of Trump’s own haphazard and conflicted approach to regimes he claims he wants to upend. He’s unlikely to navigate this complicated crisis with the necessary deftness.
Trump phoned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to offer support for the country and oil markets. Later Trump tweeted that he planned to release inventories from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help stabilize oil markets. He said, “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack.”
Shortly after that, he said, “The fake news is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, no conditions. That is an incorrect statement (as usual).” The problem with that one is that Trump said in June that he’d be willing to take a meeting with Iran with “no preconditions.”
Did any of that diplomatic signaling (including the departure of Trump’s hawkish national security adviser John Bolton) coax the Iranians into a more aggressive stance, convincing them to try to disable a crucial oil field controlled by its most powerful foe in the Arab world at a time when that foe was moving toward a public offering of shares in its national oil company, Saudi Aramco? Who knows.
What probably hasn’t been lost on Iran is that Trump has postured and blustered about his willingness to use military force to corral countries he considers hostile to the U.S., but then fails to follow through. In June, Trump ordered a military strike on Iran, only to call it off at the last minute.
The president has likewise boxed himself in with the Saudis. In addition to being willing to turn a blind eye to the kingdom’s own military atrocities in Yemen, and to countenance the murder of the Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi, Trump and his family have myriad financial conflicts of interest involving Saudi money. Trump has left himself little room to find diplomatic solutions that don’t meet the Saudis’ needs first while also blurring the lines between serving the U.S. national interest and his own self-interest.
Perhaps the president will rise to the occasion this week, despite the forces he helped set in motion and which are now pulling him in multiple directions. But don’t hold your breath.