A new school of confrontation is imposing itself in the Middle East, a region that is becoming a platform for regional and international wars. Following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the 2003 occupation of Iraq, the 2006 war in Lebanon and the 2011 (failed) regime change in Syria, now Iran is in the spotlight. But Iran’s style of confrontation is adopted from the western style: hitting the partners and leaving no fingerprints.
The threat of direct attacks on US forces has been cited as a justification for the possible deployment of 120,000 US troops to the region, as reported by the New York Times. Citing administration officials, the Times said it was unknown whether President Donald Trump had been briefed on the plan, including the number of troops. The Times said the meeting occurred days after the Trump administration cited “specific and credible” intelligence last week that suggested Iranian forces and proxies were targeting US forces in Syria, Iraq and at sea. Trump denied the report on Tuesday, dismissing it as “fake news.” “Now would I do that? Absolutely. But we have not planned for that,” he told reporters at the White House. “Hopefully, we’re not going to have to plan for that, and if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”
Iran is not Iraq or Lebanon or Syria or Afghanistan. For 40 years, the “Islamic Republic” has been surrounded by enemies, suffered severe sanctions and was forced to build itself and combat sanctions effectively. It has supported partners that are showing potential capabilities in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It has never engaged in a direct war since the Iraq-Iran war ended in a cease-fire in 1988 but has managed to conduct a large and significant war by relying mainly on its partners (in Syria) with limited Iranian forces on the ground.
Today Iran is faced with a direct menace. Notwithstanding the serious threat coming from the US, it is still fighting indirectly, flexing its muscles but not facing its enemies face-to-face. The Middle East is observing a new style of battle: instead of fighting the US forces, its allies are taking the hits. The response of US partners is still unclear.
Last Sunday, a huge explosion went off in seven giant oil carriers at 04:00 am local time at the Emirates al-Fujairah harbour, the world’s second largest bunkering hub. The ships suffered a sabotage attack – in territorial waters thus falling under the UN Article 33.1 of the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, rather than international waters that is subject to Article 34, 35 and 38 – just at the time of the “Imsak” (the time of stopping to eat for those observing the fasting month of Ramadan). Local authorities not only refrained from announcing the news but denied it for the first 12 hours. The acknowledgement of the damage of four rather than seven ships came from the UAE Foreign Ministry rather than the Interior Ministry, indicating consultation with other countries on the necessity of releasing the information.
On Tuesday this week, the Yemeni Army operating with the Houthis carried out a professional drone attack against Saudi oil facilities. “Seven drones UAV-X bombed Saudi targets 1,400 km in Saudi Arabia territory”. Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih acknowledged the attack, more than 320 km west of the capital Riyadh, hitting “two oil pumping stations for the East-West pipeline – The pipeline transports a third of Saudi crude production from the kingdom’s eastern fields to Yanbu port, which lies north of Bab al-Mandeb – has been hit by explosive-laden drones”. Brent crude futures rose 1.38% to trade at $71.20.
Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, both US allies and both countries handsomely paying a “ransom” to President Donald Trump for protection, are suffering attacks, mainly on targets related to oil with the potential to raise the price of crude oil worldwide. These allies are coming out of their usual comfort zone, by releasing information – that would normally be suppressed– related to the two attacks quoted above. There are two possible explanations for this disclosure:
Either the US allies are fed-up of being abused by Trump and are sending a message that the additional 100,000s troops that the US may be thinking of deploying to be stationed in the Gulf to protect these countries from possible attacks can only be a burden on the finances of Saudi and the Emirates. Moreover, although Saudi Arabia and the Emirates are paying, they are not getting the “service” they pay the US for. Trump has repeatedly bragged about this extortion; even a mafia boss who cannot protect the victims of his racket thereby loses prestige.
Alternately, both countries may be releasing the information to push for a war against Iran, the primary suspect and beneficiary of these attacks. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards threatened last month to close the Strait of Hormuz (where a fifth of global oil consumption passes) if Tehran were barred from using it and prevented from selling its daily exports of 2 million barrels.
The attacks are covert and their authors may be unidentifiable. Iran’s allies and partners are ready to stand by Tehran because their ideology and existence are on the line. But such replies to US threats are not going to be aimed at the US itself, in order to deprive Trump of any excuse to attack Iran. Such responses will, however, hit US allies and affect the oil price. They may not be limited to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates but may appear in other Middle Eastern capitals in coming days.