Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States will start a war on Iran following last Saturday’s attack on two Saudi oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais. The strikes, seen as the most devastating of a series of recent attacks, sent shockwaves across the world oil markets, as they knocked out more than fifty percent of the world’s top exporter’s crude output or five percent of the global oil supply.
If the US and the Saudis could afford to start a war with Iran, they could have done it long ago. If past tense situations were any indication of a behavioural pattern, there is enough reason to believe that this time, too, the developments, however grave they are, will not lead to a war against Iran.
Take for instance the tense situation in June this year. Despite strong predictions that the US would not allow Iran to go unpunished for downing a US spy drone, President Donald Trump chickened out at the last minute and abruptly called off preparations for an attack. Then there were incidents involving oil tankers in recent months. Two tankers came under attack in the Gulf while one was seized by the Iranians weeks after a British warship seized an Iranian tanker. Yet these highly inflammable incidents did not lead to a war with Iran.
The fear of the consequences or worries about their impact on the US interests in the region and the likelihood of world oil prices skyrocketing, bringing in its wake a global economic downturn at a time when US President Donald Trump is facing reelection, probably de-escalated the US war drive.
It should also be recalled that during the US’ standoff with Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear power programme, Saudi Arabia and Israel kept prodding the US to launch an attack on Iran. But the US did not attack Iran. President George W Bush and even President Barack Obama would only say that all options were on the table.
In 2001, Iran, together with Iraq and North Korea, was one of the three countries of President Bush’s Axis of Evil. Iraq was attacked and invaded, but not Iran.
This is because, in US assessments, Iran is not like Iraq. Iran has the ability to hit the US and its regional allies where it hurts, although it is only an average military power when compared to the US or even Saudi Arabia which spends US$ 65 billion a year on defence and has signed up to buy US$ 150 billion worth of arms from the US. Iran has, throughout the decades of US and international sanctions, developed strategic weapons capable of dealing a devastating blow to the enemy. Besides, it has built up a powerful network of regional allies. In Iraq, Iran acts as a patron to Shiite paramilitary groups that joined the government’s war against the Islamic State terror group in 2018. Numbering around 150,000 militias, these groups are a virtual arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In Syria, Iran has established a considerable military presence. In Lebanon, it has its proxy army – the Shiite militant group Hizbollah. In Yemen, it is the Houthis who are seen as Iran’s ally. Besides, in several Gulf states, Iran commands the support of the Shiite populations. In Saudi Arabia itself, the Shiites make up 10-15 percent of the population and they see the Sunni monarch as a persecutor and Iran as their likely liberator.
If war breaks out, Iran can mobilise these support bases to its advantage. Through diplomatic channels, Iran, while denying it carried out the attacks on the Saudi oil sites, has conveyed to the US that any military action against it will be met with an immediate response.
The US knows well the capabilities of Iran. Some 30,000 US troops are stationed in the Gulf region, 5,000 in Iraq and another 14,000 in Afghanistan. They all sit within the striking distance of Iran’s military.
This is why, even after Saudi Arabia displayed remnants of drones and missiles to back its claim that the attack was “unquestionably sponsored” by Iran, Trump said he was looking for options short of war.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted he had ordered the US Treasury to “substantially increase sanctions” on Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, rushed to Saudi Arabia where he described the attacks as “an act of war” on the kingdom.
Meanwhile, some analysts believe that Iran is being blamed because the US defence shield the Saudis have bought and installed had failed to detect and destroy the Houthi drones and missiles. So the arms suppliers to save their skin now say the missile came from the eastern direction indicating Iran or Iranian backed groups in Iraq -- and not from Yemen in the south.
However, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the attack, which if taken positively sends a powerful peace message that it is time to start talks on ending the war.
The international community needs to step in to make peace, instead of being a spectator in a bloody war that kills daily scores of children in Yemen, if not by Saudi bombs, but by starvation or diseases such as cholera. According to a 2018 Save the Children report, an estimated 85,000 children under the age of five had starved to death in the first three years of Yemen’s civil war.
But the world community’s indifference is appalling, even after the United Nations has described the situation in Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
Instead of compelling the parties to the conflict to come to the negotiating table and defuse the worsening crisis, the US, Britain and France sold Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates weapons which were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Yemeni children. A recent UN report warned that these western powers might be complicit in war crimes.
On Tuesday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told the media in Ankara where he met Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin: “The people of Yemen are forced to respond to all the violations and the flood of weapons from the US and Europe toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
The Houthis are willing to talk peace. They did not start the war. The war, which is into its fourth year, was made in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis did not want to see on their southern border an Iran-friendly Houthi-dominated state. The war is another human rights violation baggage Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, carries in his person, in addition to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia, it is learnt, has requested the Trump administration to facilitate talks with the Houthis. The Yemen war does not have a popular backing in Saudi Arabia or in the Arab world. Peace offers an opportunity for the Saudi crown prince to re-enter the world stage. For the starving and ailing children’s sake, let there be peace in Yemen.