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The Saudi-Iranian Conflict Grows
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?Published in Foreign Policy
A good summation, and I agree with your conclusion. Let’s sit and wait and, if need be, cheer for the Saudis.
I think the chances of a shooting war are greatly increased. They are already in a proxy war in Yemen.
It depends on what the “worst” is. It also might depend on who the parties are. Straight up Saudi v. Iran is a different situation that a Saudi led coalition, or a Saudi Led Coalition with the support/ addition of Israel.
Being a part of a coalition against Iran might be helpful for our standing in the region.
Too bad they all can’t lose. But, yes, I’d like Iran to lose harder. Stay out.
Also, flyover country is going to boom (again) economically if (when) oil prices go up. North Dakotans will stay extra warm this winter.
Thanks for this post. Its post lile this is why I joined Ricochet. There has been a lack of intresting post for the most part since the Trump came to the political spot light.
Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia is a friendame. That is the government is nominally more receptive to us then the general population. (Iran is the opposite. Population is much more pro-american than the government.)
This is one of those examples where everything is a bad choice. So I think you’re right with your analysis. The least worst option is kind of change compared to what it was 30 40 years ago. We now be Saudi Arabia when it comes to oil exports.
Generally speaking the chaos of throwing down even a semi totalitarian government is almost always proven to be worse. Violence almost never ends up resulting in less violence and more freedom in the long run. So I agree support Saudi Arabia despite all of us faults. Because when you look at a track Syria I ran Libya. What we got is so much worse than we had before. Places support I mean non violent non military type support. The only thing we should be doing is using military to insure open free waterways.
Sorry but Mr. Miller is dreaming. This has nothing to do with the Saudis or American interventionism. This is all Tehran. They are a pirate state out to extort the world. This will never stop. If they were to topple the Saudis then Iran’s full Jihadist megalomania would go into high gear. The monster will never be satisfied.
No, sometimes you’re going to be forced to confront pure evil. This may very well be one of those times. Trump already got rid of his loose-cannon or someone who could be blamed as a loose-cannon. Mike Pompeo is as steady a hand on the tiller as you can imagine. If Mike knows that there is nothing else to do but confront them then that is good enough for me. It’s Trump & Pompeo’s call.
Sorry, but the world doesn’t come with a guarantee. Tehran has done about three acts of war in a row so I don’t think words are going to stop this. Miller talking about the Saudi’s poor choices is pathetic. The Houthis are Jihadists who have murdered their way to power. It isn’t Saudi Arabia that makes bellicose threats against Tehran. The Iranians have screamed their megalomaniacal psychosis for 40 years.
But as Zarif says, “We don’t seek war.” I’m sure Zarif imagines that Iran doesn’t seek war. However, the Iranians have an uncanny knack for finding it anyway.
As FNC notes:
Define “worst”! Define “intervene”!
The Saudis have one of the world’s best equipped militaries. They should be able to handle this themselves. And they can always ask Israel for help.
We can provide them with intelligence and advice, and let them purchase whatever spares they need to keep up the fight, but should not need to do much more.
Now , if the Iranians use nukes, I am all in on massive nuclear retaliation. To the extent that the Saudi and Israeli nuclear response leaves any targets, I would expect that the US takes care of them.
We can cheer, sell them weapons, give them advice, tweak here and there, and if it goes poorly do some real harm. Iran has made itself our enemy. It doesn’t have to be. It could get rid of the Islamists. Saudi Arabia pretends to be friendly so we should pretend as well, but they’ll not change as easily as Iran could. Our goal should be not to get involved but Iran isn’t going to allow that.
They have proven themselves unable to handle even the Houthi rebels.
The quality of their troops and training, not to mention their morale and motivation is highly questionable.
Anything resembling work in Saudi is done by someone else.
Saudi also has a huge problem with it’s domestic Shia population 15 to 20% of the population, concentrated in the Eastern province, right where the oil fields and production and transport sites are.
I certainly don’t want to see the Iranians succeed in anything, but my experience in Saudi makes me doubt that they will be up to this.
Those relate to an asymmetric ground warfare situation. The Saudi Air Force against Iran’s is the battle the Saudis would like.
Not a problem with prospects of getting better as long as the mullahs control Iran. Saudi needs to hit the IRGC hard enough to reduce the support that the IRGC can give to Saudi Shiite rebels.