HURT us, and we’ll hurt your friends. That’s been the apparent Iranian strategy since the US launched into maximum pressure mode, tearing apart the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and crippling the Iranian economy with debilitating sanctions.
Incapable of retaliating against the US – or, more likely, too scared of the consequences – Iran has punished American allies in the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia its main target. The objective has been to demonstrate that the pain of US penalties will be spread around. If Iran can’t sell oil, other producers, and the market, will suffer too.
That strategy appeared to work for a while: tankers in the Gulf were attacked, Saudi oil pipelines sabotaged and pumping stations damaged, all through carefully calibrated attacks by Iranian proxies and at little cost to Teheran. In June, a planned military strike by the US, in response to the shooting down of an American drone, was called off by Donald Trump, a US president more interested in ending wars than starting new ones.
On Saturday, however, Iran’s playbook was torn up. In a brazen attack, an Iranian-backed group struck at the jewel in the Saudi crown, the Abqaiq processing centre that handles half of Saudi production, as well as an oilfield. The impact was devastating, knocking off 5 per cent of global oil supplies and driving oil prices up 10 per cent. It was likened by some to the shock of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
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Whether the apparent drone strikes were launched from Yemen, as the Iran-backed Houthi rebels have claimed, or from Iraq by Iranian-allied militias, as some in the US claim, or even from Iranian territory is yet to be determined. Whether the strike was more devastating than intended or deliberate and ordered for maximum effect by Teheran might never be known. But whatever the answers, the responsibility will fall on Iran. This provocation was a step too far.
Yet the crisis should have been foreseeable, if only Mr Trump was not learning about the Middle East on the job. His withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the region’s only diplomatic achievement in decades, was motivated by a mistaken conviction that a deal struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama, was deeply flawed and that only he, the master dealmaker, could produce a better outcome.
His move ignored the Iranian regime’s ability to absorb pressure. It also failed to grasp that Iran goes on the offensive when it feels the need to defend itself. Its appetite for risk is greater than that of its neighbours. And the proxies it can use – from Yemen to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – provide leverage that cannot be matched by Gulf states.
Indeed, the attack on Saudi oil facilities has exposed not only the vulnerability of Saudi oil infrastructure, it has underlined the disastrous failure of Riyadh’s four-year military campaign in Yemen, intended to crush the Houthi rebels who may be behind the latest attack.
Some in the US administration, including the recently sacked national security adviser, John Bolton, might have had an endgame in mind: pressure would either collapse the Iranian regime from within or lead to a military campaign that accomplishes the same. That was never a realistic outcome. Mr Trump, moreover, was not in agreement with the plan, preferring to threaten war but not to fight one. His assumption has been that Iran will fold and agree to negotiations on his own terms.
Iran’s reaction has been to gain as much leverage as possible, prove that it will not be cowed and ensure that if it were to return to the negotiating table, it would not be on Mr Trump’s terms. That prospect looked more likely in recent weeks, with France leading efforts to bring the parties back to the table.
Whether by design or accident, Iran has now over-reached. So grave has the attack been that the US – and Saudi Arabia – have not rushed into a response. A military retaliation could come at any time but it would also expose Saudi Arabia to more attacks.
An uncontrollable Middle Eastern conflict is not what Mr Trump wants just as he heads into a re-election campaign. Not a student of history or a man of details, he is discovering the hard way that it is easier to start a crisis in the Middle East than to control it, let alone end it. FT