17 September 2019   1 comment

The attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities has ramped up tensions between the US and Iran. The rhetoric of US President Trump was especially provocative: “Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Much will depend on what the investigation of the attack reveals, but initial comments from some officials, such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, clearly identify Iran as the attacker.

Initial reports were that the Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a drone attack on the Saudi installations. The Houthi have been a part of a coalition in Yemen that struggles for control of Yemen, a civil war that has been ongoing since 2011. The civil war became an international war in 2015 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began bombing what they regarded as rebels acting as a proxy for Iran. The US has supported Saudi Arabia with intelligence, logistical support, and mid-air refueling. The US has also sold a large amount of military equipment to the Saudi Kingdom: “Saudi Arabia is America’s No. 1 weapons buyer. Between 2013 and 2017, Riyadh accounted for 18 percent of total U.S. arms sales or about $9 billion.” The Saudi-led attacks against Yemen have led to a massive humanitarian crisis:

“That war has long since devolved into a humanitarian catastrophe. The United Nations stopped counting its civilian death toll two years ago, when it hit 10,000. An independent estimate by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which tracks conflicts worldwide, found that nearly 50,000 people, including combatants, died between January 2016 and July 2018. The war has also left more than 22 million people—75 percent of the population of Yemen, already one of the poorest countries in the world—in need of humanitarian aid.”

The US is an ally to a state which is conducting a war that is indefensible. The Human Rights Council of the United Nations issued a report on the war in Yemen and the laws of war on 27 September 2019. It concluded that “The Group of Experts found patterns of continued violations by all parties to the conflict, as civilians continued to be killed and injured by the fighting and to suffer violations of their most basic human rights.”

Iran is assumed to be an ally of the Houthis, although the specific details of the relationship are not at all clear. Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institute characterized the relationship: “With their own cities under constant aerial bombardment, the Houthis are firing missiles at Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, with Tehran’s technological assistance. The war costs Tehran a few million dollars per month, while it costs Riyadh $6 billion per month.”

The context of the attack on the Saudi oil facilities is therefore quite complicated. It may be the case that Iran did indeed sponsor the attack, just as the US has sponsored the Saudi attacks on Yemen since 2015. Does an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia represent a dramatic change in the dynamics of the conflict?

The answer to that question is actually quite straightforward. The US broke the nuclear deal with Iran. Under the Obama Administration the US signed the agreement and that signature was a sovereign declaration that the agreement would be honored unless its terms were violated. There is no evidence that Iran violated the agreement nor has the US asserted a violation. Moreover the Iranians adhered to the agreement for a full year after the US violated it.

But the US went further than simply leaving the agreement. With absolutely no legal basis for doing so, the US then implemented sanctions against Iran, threatening all other states with the loss of the US market if they traded with Iran. For most other states, the loss of the US market was a more severe penalty than the loss of the Iranian market, although it appears as if the Chinese continue to buy Iranian oil. The effects on the Iranian economy and the Iranian people has been devastating. The Arab Weekly describes the pain:

“As Iran’s revenues from oil exports, which used to account for approximately 40% of its income, began to nosedive, Rohani condemned the United States for waging “economic terrorism” against his country. The effect of America’s economic squeeze has been resounding on the Iranian economy, which is forecasted by the World Bank to shrink approximately 5% this year.

“When the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, the Iranian rial was trading at 32,000 to the US dollar. Today, it is more than five times that. Last year, currency exchanges were forced to close as the government attempted to control depreciation with a failed effort to fix the rate to 42,000 rials to the dollar. Now, Iran is mulling legislation that would cut four zeroes from its currency by moving from transactions in rials to tomans (one toman is worth ten rials).”

But perhaps more importantly, the US move kept almost 2 million barrels of oil a day from the market. Apparently, damaging the world petroleum market and all who rely on it is an acceptable price to pay to punish Iran.

The Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia should therefore be viewed as a retaliation. The US took Iranian oil off the market through non-violent but nevertheless illegal moves. Iran is trying to take Saudi Arabian oil off the market using violent but, within the laws of war, with legal violence. The Iranian attack should be viewed in this context.

Interestingly, however, Iran still holds some significant cards. The US can attack Iran and defend Saudi Arabia and Israel. But any US attack on Iran would roil the oil market significantly. Higher oil prices would damage President Trump’s chances of re-election. Iran will probably accept military damage, but it can disrupt oil supplies any number of ways. We shall see what Trump decides. If I were a betting person, I would predict that the US will more likely use cyberwarfare, not military action.

Posted September 17, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

One response to “17 September 2019

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  1. Welcome back, Vinnie! I hope you’re feeling better. I’ve missed your daily posts! There’s certainly a lot to catch up on.


    Ginevra Mastrobattista

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