Tension in the Middle East The Groundwork Is Laid for a Vast New Conflict
The Middle East appears to be sliding into a war that may have already begun. At its center are archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, their proxies and U.S. President Donald Trump. Regional stability hangs by a thread. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
In normal times, the Officers Club on Riyadh's King Abdul Aziz Road is a rather secretive place. But last Wednesday evening, there was a line of visitors snaking away from its door. Arabic could be heard, along with English and a few fragments of French.
After the security inspection, visitors enter a darkened hallway, reminiscent of a movie theater, that leads to a lecture hall: blue plush seats in ascending rows facing a brightly lit wood-paneled stage. It is generally a place where senior military officers gather to discuss their secret plans, but last week, it played host to around 80 diplomats and several international journalists, there at the invitation of the world's most important oil exporting nation. Among them were high-ranking officials in flowing robes. It was a rather unique event: The Saudi military was putting its wounds on display to the world.
A half-dozen pedestals had been erected onstage to present evidence: large steel fragments that had been twisted and bent by the force of the explosion. The objects were the remnants of cruise missiles and drones, some of the weapons Saudis claim set the country's two biggest oil facilities on fire earlier this month.
The attacks represent an unprecedented humiliation for the Saudis and it quickly became clear in the Officers Club that the kingdom feels disgraced, angry and injured. It also became clear that the Saudis are certain who was behind the attack: "Iranian parts and components," says military spokesman Colonel Turki Al-Maliki as he walks briskly among the pedestals. It is, Maliki says, "without a doubt" that his country's archenemy on the other side of the Persian Gulf was behind the attack.
"How will you respond to the attack?" a journalist asked Maliki. Will it be a military response? "That is not for me to decide," the military man responded. At almost precisely the same time, though, a man who is instrumental to the search for a response landed in the coastal city of Jeddah, 950 kilometers (600 miles) away. And prior to his arrival in Jedda, that man -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo -- made it clear how he saw the attack. He called it an "act of war."
But what, exactly, will be the consequence?
It was three months ago that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shot down a $100-million American surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Washington initially planned a retaliatory strike, but President Donald Trump called off the operation at the last minute, supposedly because too many Iranians would have died as a result. Instead, the U.S. military reacted with a cyberattack against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Now, the biggest refinery in the world has been attacked, and even if there is no unassailable legal evidence, there is much to suggest that Iran was behind it. "I would say all the evidence points to Iran, not just forensic evidence, but logically," says Vali Nasr, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
The attack fits into the "pressure with pressure" strategy that Tehran has been taking against the U.S. since the spring. In recent months, tankers and container ships have been attacked in the Gulf of Oman, a U.S. drone was shot down and a British oil tanker was seized. And now, the attack on the heart of the Saudi oil industry. It is almost beside the point whether Iran led the attack or whether it was an ally from the region. What counts is that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. believe that Iran was behind it.
The Middle East appears to be sliding into a war and it may even have already started. It is a new kind of war, a 21st century conflict for which there is no formal declaration of war, no clear fronts and a wide variety of battlefields. There are attacks the provenance of which may never be known, and while some of the fighting is conventional in nature, much of it is not and involves drones in the air and viruses in cyberspace. More than anything, it is a confusing war, in which nobody really has control, not even those who are ostensibly leading it.
A satellite image taken after the strike on the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia.
A trio of leaders is in the process of setting the entire region on fire. It includes U.S. President Trump, whose aggressive and meandering policy has pushed the already fragile region into chaos. It also includes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS for short, a young and unscrupulous leader who is involved in a gruesome war in Yemen. Finally, there is Iran's revolutionary leader Ali Khamenei, a Shiite fundamentalist who has been toughened by the Islamic Republic's four decades of battle against the "great Satan" in Washington.
Trump had insisted that his strategy of "maximum pressure" would force Iran to its knees. Now that the country has reacted with counter-pressure, it is becoming clear that he has maneuvered himself into a corner. Trump cannot start new wars. If he wants to be re-elected in November of 2020, he cannot allow himself to be dragged into a bloody armed conflict in the Middle East. Thus far, he has not even delivered on his election promise to bring home the U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq.
On the other hand, Trump cannot look weak when the Iranians and their proxies seek to provoke, something that hawks in his party have made abundantly clear to him. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, recently tweeted: "The measured response by President regarding the shooting down of an American drone was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness."
The president is torn. Over a week ago Sunday, he wrote that the U.S. military was "locked and loaded." A day later, he said he had never promised to protect the Saudis. Then, on Wednesday, he threatened to use the "ultimate option" -- only to contradict himself one sentence later.
Does Trump even have to react? Striking back with military force goes against Trump's own political instincts, but the political pressure could become so intense that he no longer feels like he has a choice. The Pentagon has apparently come up with plans to attack Iranian missile launch sites and arms depots from the air. Another possibility, according to U.S. media reports, would be to attack the refinery in Abadan, which isn't far from the Persian Gulf and is one of the largest such facilities in the world. The Pentagon is also discussing sending more troops to the Gulf. Even attacking Iranian positions in Syria, like Israel has done in the past, would be a possibility.
This satellite image shows where the damage was done at the Abqaiq site.
But does Trump want to go that far? After the shooting down of an American drone in late July, the president decided against a military strike in favor of a cyberattack targeting computers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. This option is now on the table again. But, of course, Trump knows that the hawks in Congress would consider it weak.
On the other hand, Iran would hardly allow a direct attack to go unchallenged. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has already stated that an attack against his country would trigger an "all-out war." And Iran has no shortage of options to draw the U.S. deeper and deeper into a bloody military conflict. It could disrupt oil transport in the Strait of Hormuz with mines, or it could encourage Shiite militias in Iraq to set improvised explosive devices (IEDs) for U.S. soldiers. Hezbollah in Lebanon has rockets that can easily reach Israeli cities -- Tehran need only say the word. Any one of these contingencies would necessitate a response from the U.S. For Trump, it would be a nightmare.
The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has shaped the entire region for decades. On the one side is the Shiite-dominated Islamic Republic, which has been expanding its power in the region for years. Indeed, Tehran has been working to establish a continuous sphere of influence from Damascus to Afghanistan. To achieve its goals, it has aligned itself with regimes and segments of countries' populations that also adhere to the Shiite faith.
The Shiite are a minority in Islam, but they are spread across the entire Middle East, existing in Lebanon and even in Saudi Arabia. Tehran supports not only the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also the powerful Hezbollah militia, a kind of state within a state in Lebanon that deploys fighters to participate in wars and finances terrorists. Even the nuclear deal between Iran, Russia, China, the U.S. and the EU did little to diminish the group's influence and ability to create unrest in the region.
On the other side is Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed leader of Sunni Muslims. It justifies its claims by pointing to the fact that two of Islam's most important sites, Mecca and Medina, are within its borders -- and the immense wealth the country accumulated through oil in the second half of the 20th century. Saudi Arabia, too, has supported militias, states and terrorist organizations in the entire region. In that, the two rivals are the same. Militarily, however, Iran is far superior -- even despite the billions of dollars worth of armaments provided to Saudi Arabia by the U.S. Just how little Riyadh is capable of accomplishing with its army has been made evident by the Yemen conflict, which the regime has been conducting for four years with unthinkable brutality, but little success. Saudi Arabia fears Iranian hegemony in the region -- and is totally dependent on its American allies.
Houthi fighters in Yemen. The Houthis tried to take credit for the attack on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, but nobody really believes them.
In recent years, Riyadh has won another, rather unexpected ally: Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Sunni kingdom and the hardline conservative Jewish administration find themselves on the same side in their opposition to Iran. Israel is just as afraid of Tehran spreading its influence as Saudi Arabia is. This is why Israel has been waging a shadow war against Iran and the forces associated with it in the region for years, most of all in neighboring Syria. Netanyahu has been among the most vocal to call for American attacks against Iran's nuclear facilities and it is one of the reasons he has sought proximity to Trump.
Farewell from Tehran
Nowhere are the American president's contradictions more apparent than in the Middle East. Trump promised to end the endless wars of his predecessors, but at the same time, he abolished the Iranian nuclear agreement, which was supposed to bring peace to the region. He named the hawk Mike Pompeo as his secretary of state and he strengthened his country's alliance with Iran's archenemy, Saudi Arabia -- and didn't even waver when the crown prince fell under suspicion of ordering the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Together with Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump hopes to redraw the political map of the Middle East. But he can't be a commander and a peacemaker at the same time.
The attack against Saudi Arabia's oil fields came at a time when Donald Trump once again had to manage without a national security adviser. Mere days before the attack, the president fired the third person who had taken the job since Trump entered office, John Bolton, the cantankerous, mustachioed hardliner. Bolton has never been cagey about his preference for simply bombing the regime in Tehran off the map. In enlightened Washington circles, he is regarded as a trigger-happy hothead, though among many conservatives, he enjoys an almost mythical reverence.
The new national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, was until recently the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs at the State Department. He, too, is considered a hardliner, but he managed to ingratiate himself with Trump by apparently calling him the "greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States." When it comes to his stance on Iran, chances are O'Brien won't differ that much from Bolton.
The timing of the attack on the Saudi oil refinery -- mere days after Bolton's expulsion -- was interpreted by Bolton's fans as a farewell from Tehran. "Mr. Trump might also apologize to John Bolton, who warned repeatedly that Iran would take advantage of perceived weakness in the White House," wrote the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, which is typically loyal to Trump.
Wrong About MbS
For now, the U.S. government is desperately trying to form an alliance against Iran. The crown prince in Riyadh would, of course, be onboard; the Israelis probably would be too, maybe even a few European countries. "The attack on the refinery offers Secretary of State Pompeo the chance to join forces with the Europeans," says Peter Rough of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. This week, the international community has convened in New York for the UN General Assembly, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in attendance along with French President Emmanuel Macron. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is expected to address the assembly on Wednesday.
For weeks, Trump has been trying to arrange a meeting with Rouhani on the sidelines of the summit, but even if Rouhani were open to the idea, he can't do anything against the will of Ayatollah Khamenei. And the Iranians have made it unmistakably clear that they are not thinking of sitting down with Trump. "Such a meeting will not take place," a spokesperson in Tehran said.
The Iranians believe they have nothing to gain from a one-on-one with Trump. So why negotiate at all? They have not forgotten how they agreed to the nuclear deal, only to have Trump come in and declare everything null and void. Now they are demanding that Trump first loosen sanctions and return to the nuclear deal before they agree to any more talks.
Trump, though, isn't ready for that. But without doing so, it's going to be difficult for Trump to form a coalition against Tehran. Trump, after all, angered the Europeans with his withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, a deal that Great Britain, France and Germany had been trying to reach with Tehran for 12 years before finally drawing up a treaty, along with China and Russia, on July 14, 2015. Then along came Trump and destroyed their work with the stroke of a pen. When it comes to the conflict with Iran, Trump is now very much on his own.
There are also German-Saudi relations to consider. Ever since the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Berlin has been at maximum distance to Riyadh. Merkel had originally placed high hopes in the young crown prince in Riyadh, even visiting him at his private home in Jeddah. But then she watched with great dismay as the man known by his initials MbS -- letters that have come to stand for "Mohammed Bone Saw" since the Khashoggi murder -- began to eliminate his opponents with increasing brutality and wage a war in Yemen without any perceivable consideration for the population. "I must admit, we were wrong about MbS," says one of Merkel's long-standing top advisers.
A Transactional Friendship
Trump, on the other hand, can be very forgiving as long as the price is right. He doesn't require his allies to have moral principles; it's enough if they simply pay up. To be sure, Trump did say Khashoggi's death was a "terrible" crime, but business was more important. Saudi Arabia had agreed to invest $450 billion in the U.S., Trump announced last November, seven weeks after the murder in Istanbul. He said it would be "foolish" to cancel the contracts. As long as Saudi Arabia continues to buy American weapons, it can count on Trump's support.
This week, Trump again made clear what his friendship with Riyadh was based on: If he decided to respond militarily to the attack against the refinery, he said, he expected the House of Saud to participate. "They'll be very much involved, and that includes payment," Trump said.
But what good to Trump are a few billion dollars when presidential elections are next year? Trump's politics don't follow any principles, though he does have certain political instincts. Trump sensed that most Americans were sick of wars, especially as the reasons for waging them seemed to grow thinner with each new conflict. This was one of the reasons he was elected president in 2016.
There are still around 19,000 U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, a fact with which Trump will have to contend in the coming election campaign. The Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren announced last week that if she won, she would immediately withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. And now the country is supposed to defend the thoroughly corrupt royal house in Riyadh?
"Donald Trump doesn't want a new war in the region," says Peter Rough of the Hudson Institute in Washington. Trump wants to make deals -- with China, with North Korea and, if possible, with Iran. However, deals can only succeed if pressure can be exerted during negotiations. Trump's problem is that the intensity of the economic sanctions against Iran can hardly be increased -- and yet Tehran still refuses to sit down at the negotiating table, belying Trump's claims that the regime is desperate to make a deal.
In reality, the opposite appears to be true: It's Trump who desperately needs a deal that he can present to voters before the election in November 2020. But his Iran policy suffers from a seemingly irresolvable contradiction: He walked away from the nuclear agreement, yet he's not prepared to use violence if necessary to force the rulers in Tehran back to the negotiating table. In turn, the Iranian government is taking advantage of this weakness. "Trump has basically painted himself into a corner," Iran expert Nasr says.
America's Weakness Is Iran's Strength
When the missiles struck the oil fields of the state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco in Abqaiq and Khurais around 4 a.m. on Saturday, most people in Tehran were still sound asleep. In the past few months, the residents of this huge metropolis have grown accustomed to crisis alerts in their immediate vicinity.
Again and again, Iran's Revolutionary Guard or its allies have provoked the U.S. with pinprick attacks, but so far, Washington has yet to respond. In Tehran, despite the tense situation, there is no real fear of war breaking out.
Tehran is counting on Trump not being able politically to afford another war, which is why they believe they are in a position of strength. The Iranian regime, likewise, has nothing to gain from a major military conflict. The Islamic Republic would not stand a chance if it were to engage the strongest military power in the world in conventional warfare and Iran's economy has been crippled by U.S. sanctions -- a major concern for Iranian citizens, many of whom can't even afford to buy meat anymore. The U.S. has hoped this pressure would force the regime to the negotiating table, though so far these hopes have been in vain.
The power of the Iranian regime lies in the vulnerability of the Americans and their allies in the region. And they let Trump know it.
The president's policy of escalation over the past year and a half has only strengthened the hardliners in Iran. After Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May 2018, moderate forces within the Iranian government initially managed to implement a strategy of "strategic patience." They hoped the Europeans would take action that would mitigate the consequences of U.S. sanctions. When that didn't happen, the Iranians changed their strategy: Since the beginning of the year, Iran has been gradually backing away from the nuclear agreement.
- Part 1: The Groundwork Is Laid for a Vast New Conflict
- Part 2: Where the Real Power Lies