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Paul D. Miller is a Middle East expert paying close attention to the growing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On Monday, he wrote a Twitter thread explaining the situation. Here it is in story form:
As you read all the hot takes about the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and the U.S.’s purported plans to respond, here are some things to keep in mind:
It would be unprecedented if a non-state actor were capable of pulling off an attack like this without state support. The Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility and Iran has denied any role. I say “Big, if true.” I don’t buy it.
Remember those attacks on shipping in the gulf earlier this year? And the U.S. non-response to Iran’s shoot-down of an American drone? Perhaps Iran took the lesson that the U.S. lacks the inclination to respond to incidents in the Gulf anymore.
To be clear, that’s just speculation at this point, but it is reasonable speculation.
Assume for a moment Iran is responsible, directly or indirectly. Does that mean the U.S. should respond?
Saudi Arabia is not an “ally” of the United States. We have no mutual defense treaty with them and no president has ever designated them a Major Non-NATO Ally. We have exactly zero obligations to defend the Kingdom.
Why do we treat them as an ally? 1. The Carter Doctrine said the security of the Gulf is essential to the security of the US in 1980.
Even further back, 2. FDR designated Saudi Arabia essential to the defense of the US in 1943 to qualify it for lend-lease aid.
So let’s examine that. At the height of global war, FDR recognized the vital importance of Saudi oil and transit routes. Later, at the height of Cold War, Carter said pretty much the same thing. Neither were meant to be timeless, unchanging truths of geopolitics.
(I’ve seen some hot takes blaming the attacks on Trump’s Middle East policy. It seems a little presumptuous to assume this decades-long regional rivalry is the fault of whatever the Americans have done in the past 3 years. If you want to blame the US, blame FDR).
The energy markets have changed drastically since 1980, let alone 1943. Middle Eastern oil doesn’t have the same leverage it did when the oil embargoes of the 70s wrought such damage on the world economy.
Bottom line: Saudi oil is less important than it used to be.
Does that mean we can ignore the region while Saudi and Iran inch closer to war? Of course not. A war in the Middle East between the region’s two largest powers for hegemony would be both big and bad. Just keep it in perspective.
But there are no good guys here. Iran sponsors terrorism, exports insurgency, and proliferates WMD. Saudi is a totalitarian quasi-theocracy whose political and religious culture were the enabling milieu for al-Qaida’s origins and recruitment. And that was before Khashoggi.
Saudi is slightly less bad than Iran, but that is to damn with faint praise. If war comes, root for them. But they already have ample ability to defend themselves because we’ve armed them to the teeth. One-fifth of all US weapons sales *ever* have been to the Kingdom.
Most of the time I worry about the US not being involved enough, wanting the US to exercise more leadership abroad. But maybe here “leadership” means letting the Saudis do their own dirty work, learning to provide their own security, and seeing the cost of their own poor choices.
What do you think the chances are of a Saudi-Iran shooting war? And, if the worst happens, should the US intervene?