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Jordan between the Hammer of Economic Hardships and the Anvil of the “Deal of the Century”

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The public outrage seen in the Jordanian street has been growing louder, alongside the state’s failure to fight the country’s rampant administrative and financial corruption. The Jordanian government has of yet been unable to reform and change the status quo, and change the momentum of increasing economic hardships, income inequality, and inefficiency.

Jordan put forth an economic transformation program in 2008, to privatize their most successful firms in industries such as telecommunications, water and resource management, and trade facilitation. Since 2008, naturally, the government has lost billions of dollars in revenues. The loss was not just economic, but has also implicated political sovereignty: any country which loses control over its sources of return loses political power and influence internally, regionally and internationally.

After Jordan closed its border with Syria, Jordan faced a real threat with the rising unemployment rate and international pressure on the government and the people to accept new terms and conditions to harbor refugees from Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and other countries. This huge demographic bomb would be devastating to the original population of the country who would become a minority of less than 25%, and would deprive Palestinians and Syrians of the right of return to the homes.

Jordanian merchants and industrialists received threats from the US commercial attaché in Amman to stop trade with Syria, warning that if the demands were not obeyed, ac-cording to a law called “Ceasar,” Jordan’s position in the region would be aggravated. As a result, Jordan’s economic situation would continue to deteriorate, and unemployment rates would skyrocket, especially among the youth, which currently has an estimated unemployment rate of 40%.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund have demanded and exerted pressures on Jordan to impose more taxes and tariffs; thus, Jordan has lost a golden opportunity to change its foreign policy accordingly because of too much dependence on foreign aid which has twisted the country’s arm not to maneuver with its foreign policy. Economic hardships have overshadowed political ones which prevented Jordan from maneuvering East and West, seeking new alliances and playing geopolitical games to improve its negotiating status as Jordan rejects the idea of being a homeland for refugees.

Jordan rejects the “deal of the century” because it entails that the country relinquishes its religious and sovereign rights to Christian and Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. What other countries currently seek is to pressure Jordan by proposing both Morocco and Saudi Arabia to be supervisors along with Israel and Jordan on the holy sites in Jerusalem. For Jordan, that means political suicide. The reasons behind this are to undermine Jordan, in favor of the alternative homeland project to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict –at the expense of Jordan or, in fact, at the cost of trans-Jordanians, who are Eastern Jordanian tribes.

Sit-ins which broke out in the summer of 2018 have been a platform for demonstrators to voice their criticism of senior officials, who are seen as responsible for the deterioration in economic and political conditions in the country.

This prompted Jordan’s King Abdullah II to hold a meeting on February 18th, 2019 with several former prime ministers in Al Husainiyeh Palace in Amman. King Abdullah discussed with former premiers on a range of domestic issues and regional developments. The meeting reveals the monarch’s concerns about people’s anger, which is escalating day after day against government performance and incompetence due to growing frequency of corruption and nepotism. Some politicians interpret the meeting as brainstorming and diagnosis of ways out of current pending issues that Jordanians are undergoing, including poverty, inflation, unemployment, and the demise of the middle class.

Just the day before the meeting, the former prime ministers received the invitation to meet with the king. Some considered the invitation as protocol while others regard it as an urgent matter due to recent developments the country is undergoing: higher rates of unemployment and indebtedness, economic recession, mounting inflation, and taxation.

What reflects the urgency of the meeting, is that on the same day the king visited the Tafilah governorate where he met with representatives and dignitaries of the province before returning to Amman to meet the former premiers in his palace. The king was in casual clothes, unlike the other attendees, indicating that either the king had no time to change or that he seeks to convey to message that it is time for deeds and not words. The king called for self-reliance by providing a real economic reform process.

Such a meeting comes at a time the whole Middle East region is undergoing existential threats. The king recognizes that it is time to expand strategies to ensure the country’s national interests and secure its people against any future conflicts. King Abdullah expressed disappointed by some cabinets as they have not addressed people’s concerns and have not improved their quality of life. This could also be the reason for this urgent call for the meeting.

The meeting was attended by former prime ministers Zaid al-Rifai, Ahmad Obeidat, Tahir al-Masri, Abdul Salam al-Majali, Abdul Karim al-Kabariti, Fayez al-Tarawneh, Abdul Raouf al-Rawabdeh, Ali Abual Raghab, Adnan Badran, Maarouf al-Bakheet, Sameer al-Rifai and Aoun Khasawneh.

The briefing by Jordanian media was vague and provided somewhat insufficient information on the three-hour gathering. The king stressed that “talk about political reform is not a motto; there is a real will to develop political life in the Kingdom.” The monarch was referring to previous discussion papers about the necessity of political reform along with the economic transformation. He said, “We are all partners in achieving progress for the benefit of the nation, and we all have a responsibility to deal with the current situation and challenges facing the Kingdom.”

Notably, the king elucidated that the development of Jordan political life requires the cooperation of all Jordanians, principally the political elites. He referred to recent meetings with parliamentary blocs and civil society institutions, in which he aimed to motivate them to submit proposals determining political, economic, and social priorities for the coming years. The king echoed these same goals in his meeting with the ex-prime ministers, preparing them to adhere to their responsibility to make positive changes for the country’s future.

The frequent royal meetings with officials and former officials stand for a state of cooperation which the monarch strives to forge to enhance the dialogue among Jordanians to develop political reform. The meeting with the 13 officials is significant at this critical time, as the King briefed the audience in eight minutes about his perspective of the domestic and regional situation. He expounded that Jordan faces various security, economic, and social challenges that require everyone to stand together to confront these predicaments whether such officials are still in office or retired.

Amongst the top priorities for the King are the enhancement of the rule of law and integrity of the judiciary. Likewise, he stressed the commitment of all institutions concerned to achieve this by respecting the law, promoting integrity and increasing efficiency, not only in the security apparatus but in the judiciary system that disseminates parity amongst people.

The king called for the strengthening of the capacities of state institutions to develop their performance at all levels, including the implementation of a program to address corruption and administrative sagging. He highlighted that economic challenges are most pressing and stressed the role of the private sector to provide jobs and contribute to economic growth.

On the challenges facing the region, King Abdullah said that Jordan’s priority is to safeguard the country’s national interests. The most critical elements are the return of Syrian refugees and the reconstruction of Syria after reaching a political settlement. The King said that Jordan’s position is consistent with the Palestinian Authority and Amman will not be deviated from Jordanian-Palestinian interests, no matter how much pressure is exercised on both sides. He conveyed full support to Palestinian to establish their independent state on their national soil, with East Jerusalem as their capital.

Jordan’s concerns were elucidated in the Dead Sea meeting of the four Gulf countries, Egypt, and Jordan at the end of January 2019, two weeks before the Warsaw Conference on Security and Peace in the Middle East. They are wary of normalization between Arab states and Israel when it comes at the expense of Jordanian and Palestinian conflicts.

The changing shift of focus from Palestine to Iran burns Jordanian political cards. In the meantime, the King is trying to open channels with Arab countries, Tunisia, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. He bids to strengthen Jordan’s relations with these four states, willing to build a regional bloc of four countries soon after political settlement in Syria. This could provide Jordanian diplomacy with other cards to play with. By diversifying Amman’s strategic options without difficulty, they can follow a more balanced approach to protect the country’s national interests.

The royal meeting with former officials is of high importance at a time when the region is undergoing many political, security and economic transformations which could lead to further conflicts. Especially critical is the threat of more predicaments to Jordan, due to lack of regional and international financial support. The message of the meeting is that Jordanians should sit together at all levels to find a solution to their problems without depending on others to bail them out.

At present, Jordan is undergoing the most dangerous juncture in its history, and the country is now between the hammer of the Century Deal and the bids to deprive Jordan of the religious and sovereign right to supervise the holy sites in Jerusalem. Such a move would lead to internal mobilization and un-controllable escalation. The US should consider Jordanian people’s interest before the leap to the “deal the century.”

From our partner RIAC

President of the Jordan-based Political Studies of the Middle East Center, Founder of the US-based Geostrategic and Media Center

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JCPOA: Forward Into the Past

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In the last few months, the U.S.¬–Iran confrontation has been rapidly and steadily plunging the Middle East into the atmosphere of an impending armed conflict. The main stumbling block for Tehran and Washington is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the two states differed in their assessment of its terms. Iran believes that by becoming a party to the JCPOA it has already made significant concessions by voluntarily curtailing its sovereign right to develop a nuclear sector. Under the provisions of the nuclear deal, Iran undertook both to limit the pace of producing enriched uranium and plutonium and to grant IAEA officers broad access to its nuclear facilities. On the whole, Iran perceived these steps as a concession in the name of peace and the country’s economic prosperity. Donald Trump, on the contrary, views the Iran deal as a giant misstep by the Obama Administration. In his opinion, his predecessor both missed the opportunity to curb Iran’s policies in the region and helped lift sanctions from a state that the United States has recognized as the principal global sponsor of terrorism. Consequently, after many promises, the United States withdrew unilaterally from the JCPOA in 2018 and then resumed the regime of harsh sanctions against Iran. From the point of view of the Trump administration, the JCPOA cannot be confined to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear area only. On the contrary, the deal should extend to all of Iran’s activities that are directed against the interests of Washington or its allies. Additionally, Donald Trump also stated that the very restrictions imposed on Iran’s nuclear programs were highly unreliable and allowed Iran to secretly build up its nuclear potential. Consequently, from the point of view of the current U.S. leadership, the JCPOA should be revised and re-negotiated to be concluded on terms that would be more advantageous for Washington. Naturally, this cannot possibly sit well with Tehran, which already believes itself to be the affected party.

What Does Iran Want?

Iran was quite satisfied with the JCPOA. Naturally, it had to make concessions to the West and restrict its nuclear program, but in exchange, the harsh sanctions were lifted from Iran, which gave it new opportunities for trade and investment. However, the change of power in the US laid bare a new obstacle in the way of Iran’s politics: a new president in the United States means a new political course for the country. Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 elections put an end to the United States’ participation in the JCPOA and forced Iran to think about whether it is economically expedient to participate further in the nuclear deal. It both jeopardized the JCPOA and struck a major blow to the reputation of President Hassan Rouhani in particular, and of the supporters of Iran’s moderate politics in general. The current situation means that Iran agreed to make concessions to the West and never received what it had been promised. Despite its flexibility and tractability, Iran is again under harsh sanctions. And most of the country’s main trading partners comply with them. Thus, one of Iran’s most significant demands for the new deal should be to revise the mechanism for withdrawing from the deal in order to make this step as difficult as possible. One of the main reasons why Iran refuses to enter into talks with the United States is that Tehran does not believe Washington is prepared to follow through on the commitments it undertakes. Listing the reasons why Tehran does not accept Washington’s invitation to launch talks on a new JCPOA, Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei, among other things, said, “In the final stage, after receiving all the immediate advantages, the U.S. breaches their own promises: they forget their strongly verbalized promises. This is the U.S.’s method of negotiating. Now should we negotiate with such a sham of a government? Why should we negotiate? The JCPOA was a clear example. Even though I was very strict about it – yet, the red lines were not respected. Still, the other party acted in such a manner. So, it is impossible to negotiate with this government.” It is clear that this time, mere promises on the part of the United States will be insufficient to conclude an agreement, even if these promises take the form of the provisions of a new treaty. As far as Iran sees it, the United States can promise much, but without definite guarantees, there is virtually nothing that keeps it from breaking its word just as easily and dismantling the agreement. Thus, the new agreement should stipulate guarantees against the easy unilateral withdrawal by any of the parties from the treaty. Naturally, it is difficult to envision a mechanism that would completely rule out the possibility of breaching the commitments while at the same time not infringing upon state sovereignty, but the system of withdrawing from the treaty can be made significantly harder. In particular, the withdrawal should not depend solely on the executive branch.

It appears that this goal may be achieved by “tying” the treaty to the national body of laws in each state that is a party to the deal. For as long as the JCPOA is enshrined solely in a resolution of the UN Security Council, its provisions, despite their binding nature, still remain within the limits of international law. Experience shows that, if this is the case, it is very easy for a President of the United States to declare that his country shall unilaterally cease to comply with its commitments under the treaty, as there are no impediments to this at the national level. However, any international treaty can be incorporated into the national legislation, thereby making the application of domestic procedures of amending legislation a mandatory condition for amending the treaty. Thus, the new deal can include a provision that the treaty comes into force only after it has been ratified by each party. In this case, each state that is party to the treaty will be bound by its domestic system of amending legislation, and such a system usually involves complicated parliamentary procedures. Such a system would create a counter-balance for the executive represented by the president, as it would restrict the executive powers to withdraw from the nuclear deal. This may inspire confidence in Tehran that changes in power in the United States will not radically affect Washington’s membership in the new deal. Consequently, Iran can be certain that this time, its concession will not be in vain.

What Does the United States Want?

The Trump administration represented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a list of demands for Tehran which, once fulfilled, should lead to the sanctions being lifted. The list included 12 items (a 13th was added later on) calling upon Iran to withdraw its troops from Iraq and Syria; cease supporting such organizations as HAMAS and Hezbollah, etc.; grant the IAEA unqualified access to all its military facilities to conduct inspections; abolish its ballistic missile program, etc. Naturally, it is quite difficult to picture Iran complying with even a half of these demands, as it will seriously hurt the Middle East strategy the country has been building for the last 40 years. Thus, if the chance to find a compromise does appear, then the most serious concerns of the Trump administration regarding Iran’s politics should be addressed, otherwise, no deal can be concluded. Clearly, the greatest threat coming from Iran is the prospect of it developing nuclear weapons. When it comes to the nuclear deterrence with regard to Iran, two factors are important for the United States: the possibility of verifying compliance on the part of Iran with its obligations and the term of the JCPOA’s validity. At the same time, the demands of the United States concerning the provisions of the new treaty largely depend on the true intentions of the Trump administration. In that regard, at least two scenarios are possible.

The First Scenario

Donald Trump wanted to conclude a more advantageous deal on his terms, but since Iran proved to be intractable, he wants to reinstall at least those restrictions that had been agreed upon under the JCPOA in order to avoid having to solve the problem by force. In this case, Trump will have to both convince Iran to enter into talks again and draft a new deal in such a way as to “save face” in front of his voters and the global community in general. First, he needs to show that his entire “maximum pressure” campaign was not fruitless and did indeed prompt Iran to enter into talks with Washington. Second, Trump cannot just bring back the original JCPOA. A major part of Trump’s presidential campaign hinged on harsh criticism of the “nuclear deal,” which he called “terrible.” However, if Trump is willing to bring back the main JCPOA restrictions in order to conclude a new treaty, that would not be a political fiasco for his administration. It would suffice to make certain cosmetic changes that would be presented as significant concessions on the part of Iran and a victory of the “maximum pressure” strategy. In this case, the criticism of the JCPOA that underlay Trump’s electoral campaign should be used as a starting point. First, it is a fixed-time deal. Second, from the point of view of the U.S. administration, it allows Iran to secretly enrich uranium and further improve its nuclear program. In both areas, superficial restrictions may be introduced that are presented as radically new rules of the game for Iran. For instance, the IAEA can be granted some additional rights to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities. Naturally, we are not talking unqualified access to all military facilities, since Tehran finds this utterly unacceptable. It is, however, possible to reduce the time of advance notification that IAEA officers must give Tehran of an upcoming inspection at a particular facility. Introducing a new term of validity for the treaty would appear to be more complicated since Iran would never agree to the restrictions being indefinite. One option could be to extend the treaty by stipulating a period of gradual easing off of the IAEA’s monitoring of the nuclear program.

The Second Scenario

The Trump administration continues to assert the effectiveness of the “maximum pressure” strategy and still hopes to force Tehran to engage in talks on Washington’s terms. If the Trump administration continues to believe the “maximum pressure” strategy is a success, concluding a treaty will hinge on Iran making significant concessions. The question is what “red lines” Washington will draw for itself and what it is willing to offer Iran in exchange for the concessions required. If the United States continues to stick to its 13 demands, offering nothing but the lifting of the sanctions in exchange, the prospects of a new treaty are doomed, and it is highly probable that, sooner or later, Iran will start to work diligently on the development of its nuclear program. In this case, the only solution to the problem is the use of military force against Tehran. Trump’s readiness to start a new war in the Middle East is doubtful, especially since abstaining from needless conflicts is a key element of the politics of the current U.S. president. Consequently, the only way out of the current predicament is to look for a compromise that Iran could agree to and that could help Trump minimize the damage to his reputation as a competent president.

It is quite clear that the JCPOA if taken as an instrument of a comprehensive settlement of all threats coming from Iran, is far from perfect. It does not set any restrictions on Tehran’s military activities in the Middle East, it is a fixed-time deal, and it cannot prohibit Iran from extending financial and military aid to its regional allies. Nevertheless, the JCPOA did guarantee the main thing – that Tehran could not obtain nuclear weapons, the prospect of which far outweighs all other threats emanating from the country. Thus far, there is no alternative to this agreement, and no replacement appears to be in the offing. Despite the harsh economic sanctions and the real threat of an open military conflict with the United States, Tehran is firmly holding its ground and does not intend to engage in talks on Washington’s terms. At the same time, Iran continues to hide aces up its sleeves in the event that further negotiations take place as the country gradually resumes its military nuclear program. Sooner or later, the emerging situation will force the Trump Administration to make the difficult choice between the JCPOA and a new war in the Middle East. It is hard to say which is the preferred option for Washington, but it still seems that a bad peace is better than a good war.

From our partner RIAC

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Putin, clumsily, seeks to exploit mounting Gulf tensions

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Vladimir Putin, eager to capitalize on escalating tension in the Gulf, looks like he needs a marketing and reputation management advisor.

Mr. Putin recognized opportunity when he urged Saudi Arabia to move ahead with the acquisition of Russia’s much-touted S-400 anti-missile defense system after the kingdom’s six battalions of US-made Patriot batteries failed to detect drone and missile attacks on two of the country’s key oil facilities, knocking out half of its production.

“For self-defence, for the defence of one’s country, we are ready to provide help to Saudi Arabia, the political leadership of Saudi Arabia. It is enough to take a wise government decision…They will protect any infrastructure objects in Saudi Arabia effectively,” Mr. Putin said.

Russian efforts to capitalize on the mounting tensions are as much opportunistic as they are strategic.

The attacks, whether executed by an Iranian-backed group based on an decision of its own or at the behest of Iran or launched by the Islamic republic itself, sent a message not only to  Riyadh and Washington but also Moscow and Beijing: Iran and its allies will not sit idly by as the United States seeks to cut off Iranian oil exports, allow Saudi Arabia to gobble up Iranian market share and force the Islamic republic on its knees.

Leaving aside the veracity of Mr. Putin’s claim that Russian systems would perform against low-flying drones and projectiles where US systems had failed, the Russian leader didn’t necessarily inspire confidence by making his offer flanked, but two of Saudi Arabia’s foremost regional enemies and rivals: presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

As if to drive the point home, Mr. Putin pointed out while making his offer that he had already sold Russian systems to Turkey and Iran.

Saudi Arabia was careful to let Mr. Putin’s seeming faux pas pass. The kingdom has played its cards close to its chest by similarly refraining from responding to US President Donald J. Trump’s apparent rewriting of the long-standing US commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the attacks.

Mr. Trump’s emphasis on the fact that the attacks were against Saudi Arabia and not against the United States and that his administration would support a Saudi response or potentially act on its behalf against payment will nonetheless not have gone unnoticed in Riyadh and elsewhere in the Gulf.

Question marks about the United States’ commitment were first sparked by President Barak Obama when he paved Iran’s initial return to the international fold with the 2015 agreement curbing the Islamic republic’s nuclear program and his publicly expressed belief that Saudi Arabia and Iran needed to share power in the Middle East.

Gulf concern diminished with Mr. Trump visiting Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president months after assuming office in 2017, his withdrawal last year from the Iranian nuclear accord and imposition of harsh economic sanctions on the Islamic republic, and his defense of the kingdom in the wake of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

That started to change when Mr. Trump in June failed to respond to the downing by Iran of a US drone, reacted cautiously to attacks since on tankers in the Gulf, and Mr. Trump’s apparent transactional approach to the targeting of Saudi oil facilities.

Trump, in his response to Iran, is even worse than Obama. His inaction gave a green light to this. Now an Arab Gulf strategic partner has been massively attacked by Iran — which was provoked by Trump, not by us — and we hear Americans saying to us, you need to defend yourselves! It is an utter failure and utter disappointment in this administration,” said UAE political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

Gulf anxiety is further fuelled by a growing sense that the United States, no longer dependent on Gulf oil imports, is changing its perception of the Gulf’s strategic importance and has embarked on a gradual process of turning its back on the region.

The United States is leaving the Persian Gulf. Not this year or next, but there is no doubt that the United States is on its way out… Leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, and Muscat understand what is happening…and have been hedging against an American departure in a variety of ways, including by making overtures to China, Russia, Iran, and Turkey,” said Steven A. Cooke, a scholar at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Anxiety lies at the root of Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s more assertive posture that has led to several years of ill-conceived, erratic and largely failed disastrous political and military initiatives including the devastating war in Yemen and the debilitating diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.

In what may have been both an indication of changing Gulf attitudes towards the United States and a bow to US demands for burden sharing, Saudi Arabia has started in the wake of the oil attacks to reach out to other countries for help in bolstering its air defences.

South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had requested South Korean assistance in the strengthening of the kingdom’s air defense system.

The Pentagon, in response to a request from Saudi Arabia and the UAE and an effort to cushion potential Gulf doubts about the United States’ commitment, said it was sending an unspecified number of troops and equipment to the two countries to bolster their defences.

General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the US would help provide “a layered system of defensive capabilities to mitigate the risk of swarms of drones or other attacks that may come from Iran.”

Seeking to enhance Iran’s international isolation and share the burden, a first step towards reduced US engagement, General Dunford  said the US was looking “for other international partners to also contribute to Saudi Arabia’s defense.”

The US deployment followed a Saudi decision to  join a US-led maritime coalition to protect shipping in the Gulf.

Nevertheless, the US president’s limiting of his country’s commitment, anchored in the 1980 doctrine proclaimed by president Jimmy Carter that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf, could make elements of a Chinese-backed Russian proposal for a revamping of the region’s security architecture more attractive.

The proposal involves a collective security concept that would replace the Gulf’s US defense umbrella and position Russia as a power broker alongside the United States.

It entails creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolution of conflicts across the region and promote mutual security guarantees.

It would involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British and French forces and bases.

The proposal called for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions.”

The coalition, to include the Gulf states, Russia, China, the US, the European Union and India as well as other stakeholders, a likely reference to Iran, would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.

That could be the proposal’s Achilles Heel. It’s hard to envision Saudi Arabia, which has repeatedly stated that it would only sit with Iran at one table on conditions unacceptable to Tehran, reversing its position and joining a security pact that would include the Islamic republic.

To push its potential advantage, Russia’s state military exporter, Rosoboronexport, said a day after Mr. Putin urged Saudi Arabia to follow through on its intention to buy a Russian anti-missile system, that it would put its latest defences against unmanned aerial vehicles and other air attack weapons on display at the Dubai Airshow in November.

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

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Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.

For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.

The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.

No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”  

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

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