The Sept. 15 drone attacks against Saudi oil facilities have revived tensions between Saudi Arabia, which is backed by Donald Trump, and Iran. Although there is little risk of a war breaking out between Washington, Riyadh and Tehran in the short term, the situation is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, given the extent to which the three players remain captive to their own intimidation strategies.
A barrel of oil on a powder keg. As is often the case, the Middle East seems to be just one spark away from a flare-up that could be catastrophic, given the region’s significance as a center of religion and oil production, with one-third of proven reserves of the world’s most strategic raw material.
The worst-case scenario isn’t, however, the most likely one. An explosion of conflict has yet to take place, despite numerous incidents and provocations over the past five months in the Strait of Hormuz. The consequences of such a conflict would indeed be too disastrous for all the players involved: Riyadh and Washington on one side, and Tehran on the other. Despite purchasing sophisticated arms from Western nations, the Saudi military doesn't measure up to its Iranian counterpart, as demonstrated by its stalemate, along with war crimes, in Yemen. The mullah regime is afraid of losing key infrastructure in the event of a U.S.-led air campaign, even a limited one. And the U.S. doesn't want to conduct a military operation, with Trump repeating that his country is tired of “endless wars” and policing the world.
Washington also knows that a conflict could end up spreading to other arenas and without a doubt cause oil prices to suddenly increase as high as $150, or even $200 a barrel, which could in turn trigger a global recession. The drone and missile attacks against Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 15 exposed the complex's vulnerability and the ineffectiveness of its Patriot anti-missile system. This is an Achilles’ heel for the global economy, for Riyadh supplies one-tenth of the oil consumed on the planet.
Three Players at an Impasse
The fact remains that the current crisis seems inescapable and the three main players, Riyadh, Washington and Tehran, are caught up in a haka* with no way out. Each one is captive to a failed strategy that can't be abandoned without humiliation.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, essentially the regime's top leader, is banking everything on his ability to subdue the country's Persian, Shia rival, with disastrous results so far, as Iran is more active than ever in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, where its Houthi protégés head up the Riyadh-led coalition and, marked by dissension, a dozen Arab countries. Within the murky world of the Saudi regime, the crown prince is incidentally in the hot seat due to the fiasco resulting from his strategy to diversify the country's economy and welcome foreign capital, coupled with an illusory program of social modernization.
All the while, Trump’s strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran in order to bring the nation back to the negotiating table regarding its nuclear program and force it to reduce its regional meddling isn't working any better. Although impacted by shortages, inflation and various strikes, Iran's economy hasn't collapsed. Moreover, Iranian patriotism in Tehran silences anyone wishing to negotiate with Washington. Above all, Trump made the mistake of cornering Iran, telling it to either surrender or put itself in a financial chokehold. Black gold exports from Iran, which account for a vast majority of its foreign exchange earnings, were reduced fourfold in 15 months. As a result, Tehran was left with no other choice than to attempt to loosen the stranglehold, based on the idea that "if I can't export my oil, then nobody can,” and attacking or capturing oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Trump pushed his rival toward an aggressive response without being ready to retaliate, which consequently made him look weak. His strategy didn't produce glowing results.
How Much Further Can Iran Cross the Line?
For all its actions, Iran isn't in a better situation. Iran has no alternative to its strategy of provoking tension in order for Trump – and this is unlikely − to cancel U.S. sanctions and go back on its decision to exit the 2015 international nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that Iran’s demands as a precondition for engaging in any talks with Washington were “unrealistic.” And Emmanuel Macron didn’t succeed in his goal of obtaining a meeting between Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Above all, Tehran could cross the line even further sooner or later. Paris, Berlin and London, despite being receptive to a certain amount of leniency in order to save the JCPOA, deemed on Tuesday that the Iranian regime was responsible for the attacks on Sept. 15. And the fact is that Tehran fans the smallest of flames in nothing less than four arenas of conflict in the Middle East, a geopolitical “performance” that is, at this time, unrivaled in the world.
The West can't indefinitely let illegal acts, if not acts of war, be committed in the Strait of Hormuz, which is used to transport one-fifth of the world's oil, without reacting, as that would encourage Tehran to add fuel to the flames. Attacking the assets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, preferably those located outside of Iranian territory, would be neither surprising nor illogical. It remains to be seen if the various players would, following such a scare, sit down at the negotiation table to “jump at the same time into the swimming pool,” as Boris Johnson put it on Wednesday, or if a point of no return would be reached. The history books tell of a number of wars sparked by mistake and that nobody, in reality, ever wanted.
* Translator's note: Haka refers to a dance of intimidation originating among South Pacific islanders and made famous by New Zealand's rugby team.