Small Wars Journal

The Prospects for Advancing US-Saudi Defense Alliance in the Shadow of the ARAMCO Attacks

Wed, 09/25/2019 - 12:16am

The Prospects for Advancing US-Saudi Defense Alliance in the Shadow of the ARAMCO Attacks

Irina Tsukerman

The Iran Way or the Highway

Following the recent attacks on Saudi ARAMCO oil fields, which according to US and Saudi intelligence assessments, involved both drones and cruise missiles, and most likely originated in Southern Iran, the future of the US-Saudi alliance has come into question as President Trump has been taking time to assess the nature of the threat and to decide on reasonable next steps that would deter Iran from further aggression in the region. While deliberating, the White House has faced an increasing pressure from the increasing number of isolationists among the President's base, libertarian elements on both the left on the right, and anti-war factions supported by Iranian lobbyists and left-leaning organizations not to take any military action or take any steps that would increase the likelihood of the US being drawn into war. The false dichotomy of "no response" to Iranian aggression in the Middle East, which has grown substantially since the administration has canceled oil waivers f or its top trade partners and designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization, or "a total nuclear holocaust" has plagued the administration, and before that had been used as an argument in favor of US entry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ("JCPOA" or "the nuclear deal".)

Indeed, the same actors who have pushed for the nuclear deal, including the unregistered Iranian lobby group NIAC, and its founder and former Executive Director Dr. Trita Parsi, have been vocal in making the dubious claim that even limited military strikes to undermine Iranian capabilities would bring US into a full military confrontation and costs untold amount of money and many American lives. None of this has been substantiated by specific numbers or details; the unlikelihood of this scenario is that quite simply, even Iran's best naval forces, the IRGC boats geared towards asymmetrical warfare, are substantially inferior to even a fraction of the US forces. The more realistic threat is not that Iran is a direct and serious threat to the US air force or navy but that many of its proxies in the region are armed with hundreds of thousands of missiles and are willing to sacrifice themselves to make the potential conflict as bloody as possible.

Still, ultimately, it would be a Pyrrhic defeat even for Hezbollah and assorted militias spread throughout Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Furthermore, even if Iran's goal is to goad US into a long and costly dead end conflict, such as the apparent quagmire in Afghanistan, upon closer examination US forces are capable of decisive defeats even in asymmetrical operations; lack of political will, poorly articulated, vague, and shifting goals, incoherent strategy, and unwillingness to confront state actors behind assorted asymmetrical conflicts created  the quagmires. If Iran is counting on the muddled thinking in US political circles, then perhaps, it is on the right track after all; short of that, however, the military discrepancies alone are not something any serious analysts should spent much time debating.

The alternative to the doom and gloom appears to be either taking no action or lifting sanctions and in general following Iran's uncompromising and self-serving demands -without getting much in return. As Israeli intelligence and others have shown, even while the US had been fully compliant with the terms of the JCPOA, Iran was already violating the terms of the deal, as was apparently its intention from the start. If Iran's goal the entire time has been regional hegemony and the return to the borders of the Persian Empire, along with the ideological conversion of its future subjects to Khomeinist Shi'a Islam, its pursuit of nuclear weapons has been nothing more than one of the scare tactics to gain additional concessions from the West and to subdue its regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia.

However, the argument against any sort of strong response to Iran furthered by this coalition of the unwilling rests on another pillar: even if the risks of bloodshed and difficulties for the US are relatively limited, KSA is simply not an ally worth defending or enduring any sacrifices for. Some more extreme voices, such as Ben Rhodes, one of the chief proponents of the nuclear deal, and Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has been staunchly critical of US defense relationship with Saudi Arabia, have claimed, following the Aramco attacks, that Saudi Arabia is not an ally at all. That sentiment has echoed with the population at large - in part due to cultural and religious image of Saudi Arabia as fundamentalist, tribal, and alien to whatever is associated with the "Western civilization", in part due to its association with 9/11, and in part thanks to the media and political smear campaigns against its leadership and more recent events, including the death of former Saudi intelligence officer and spokesman Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi operatives. All of this puts US in a complicated bind of trying to figure out the path forward and whether its relationship with Saudi Arabia is worth preserving and growing - and are these events about Saudi Arabia at all?

How Iran Has Used the Image of 9/11 to Undermine KSA’s Reputation in the US

There is a growing body of elements that the Islamic Republic of Iran has made an alliance and promoted Sunni Islamists and assorted other extremists long before it gave cover to Al Qaeda operatives to prepare, carry out, and retreat following the September 11 terrorist attacks. These political revolutionary movements loosely based in Islamic theology and borrowing heavily from the Jacobins and the Russian revolutionary ouevre, have made common cause in pushing political agendas in Muslim majority countries, and destabilizing monarchies. Ayatollah Khomeini had translated and distributed the works of the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Hassan Al-Banna throughout Iran - and they enjoyed great popularity. Sunni Islamists have also appeared willing to put aside ideological differences and to cooperate with their Iran-backed counterparts against the common enemy in Western countries, such as the United States, through joint action and political campaigns by similarly structured not-for-profit organizations.

Terrorizing the Western public and changing mindset has certainly been one of the goals of this alliance of strange bedfellows; undermining US relations with other Middle Eastern states was another. The Muslim Brotherhood affiliates spread conspiracy theories that 9/11 was an inside job, whitewashing Al Qaeda as an organization run by a Saudi dissident; it also spread strange stories about Israelis who supposedly knew of the operation but failed to warn the United States. However, by far the bigger appeal has been to create the impression that Saudi Arabia's government was somehow involved in planning, funding, or giving cover to Al Qaeda terrorists in attacking the United States. The idea of the King of Saudi Arabia (consistently a far more liberal force in the country than the clergy or even the institutions) would order or approve of such an action may seem preposterous to those familiar with the region; that Saudis would be willing to overlook a few bad apples in the political circles is a more credible theory.

Prince Mohammed bin Naif who had been the chief counterterrorism interlocutor with the US was known to have been surrounded by Muslim Brotherhood supporters; under his watch, the Mecca-based NGO, responsible for interfaith outreach, the Muslim World League, likewise made alliance with Muslim Brotherhood, anti-Western ideologues;  Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Machiavellian former Chief of Intelligence, has been known to sent Jamal Khashoggi to negotiate with Obama bin Laden and to ensure that Saudi Arabia would not be attacked. There were ideological extremists in various positions of the government; Saudi Arabia in the past had been asked by the US to push Salafist education globally to counter the atheist Communist threat. None of that, however, amounted to the accusation leveled by the Iranian propagandists that Saudi Arabia's government was in on some sort of a grand conspiracy with Al Qaeda and/or in any way supported these terrorist attacks.  Indeed, the evidence of a planned role in these attacks rather points to Iran's government - and that role was never fully investigated. In other words, while Iran has played a significant role in state sponsorship of the 9/11 attack, the congruence of bad optics and successful propaganda operations created the impression that Saudi Arabia as a state was inculpated in this matter.

The shift in succession inside the Kingdom has done little to repair the damage or to change the view of most Americans with regards to Saudi role in 9/11. Despite the fact that the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as the Crown Prince literally removed Mohammed bin Naif from power (he is said to be under domestic arrest) and put a decisive end to collaboration with Muslim Brotherhood elements, the current government continues to be blamed for 9/11, as if there was a continuity in policies. Saudi Arabia, in light of these events, continues to suffer from a dual image problem as a US ally: first, it was not a top-down government decision to give any support to Al Qaeda to begin with; and second, anyone who has been in any way ideologically inclined or implicated has been removed from power - and yet these two factors are largely disregarded or even denied by the critics of US relationship with the Kingdom. Likewise, Saudi Arabia's shift away from the support of Salafist outreach in Western educational systems and mosques is either not widely known or doubted by the same coterie of people who have inherited the memory of Saudi Arabia's part in the oil boycotts of the late 70s.

Ironically, Iran has been implicated in additional American deaths, including hundreds of targeted lethal targeted attacks against American troops (not just the well-known Beirut terrorist attack by Hezbollah in the 1980s.) As many as one in every six US troops killed in Iraq has been at the hands of Iran. Although Pentagon has recently revealed the full extent of these operations, the perception that the Saudi government, rather than the Iranian regime, bears greater responsibility and for more American deaths, remains widespread and detrimental to popular support for advancing the relationship between the US and the Kingdom.

The Impact of anti-Saudi Media and Political Campaigns on Congress

Saudi failure to respond to effective media and political campaigns attacking its image, policies, and the reputations of its leadership contributed to the deteriorating support in Congress and among pro-nuclear deal career officials in the executive branch.

The most significant impact of these campaigns has been on the votes related to the war in Yemen. Pro-MB and pro-Iran groups have organized effectively to lobby Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian members of Congress in both houses for the past 3 years resulting in increasing number of votes in favor of withdrawing US forces from Yemen altogether. Some of the sentiment was closely tied to opposition to President Trump and the resentment over unrelated matters. However, following the death of Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, the increasing hostility to Saudi Arabia in Congress was tied explicitly to that event. What's the connection between Saudi Arabia's campaign against Houthis and the dead ex-spokesman from Saudi Arabia?

First, Khashoggi himself in his columns had been an explicit critic of the war in Yemen. Second, Khashoggi, who, in his last year, was a columnist for Washington Post, had an explicit connection with Qatar Foundation International; after being asked to leave the coalition, Qatar had turned to undermining the Saudi-led effort through funding media and political campaigns.  Furthermore, Qatar has become a close ally of Iran, which backs Houthis, as well as Muslim Brotherhood brigades within the Coalition itself, and has been known to fund efforts to undermine the Saudi and Emirati alliance. The absence of effective lobbying on Saudi part contributed to the recent votes in House and the Senate that would have withdrawn the US from Yemen. However, President Trump vetoed the bill.

The opponents of US relationship with Gulf States, however, continued in their efforts. A new effort to withdraw US from Yemen is under way already; the libertarian Senator Rand Paul, who has recently contributed to US policy on Iran in favor of less aggressive measures, had proposed several bills that would have banned sales of weapons to Bahrain and Qatar. Both were voted down; however, the critics of arms sales to Saudi Arabia did block the expedited delivery of an emergency package of weapons that President Trump attempted to provide to KSA and UAE in light of repeated acts of aggression by Iran and its proxies in the Gulf. The Democrat-led House insisted on reviewing the billions of dollars’ worth in sales, despite having had an ample opportunity to do so since President Trump has committed to the relevant deals in March 2018.

This vocal and bipartisan opposition to these deals has prompted Saudi "pivot to Asia", and increasing willingness to purchase weapons from Russia and China, where there is no obstruction based on alleged humanitarian or human rights related grounds or on political bickering. It has not, however, yet committed to purchasing the S-400 from Moscow, which would have endangered its pending purchase of the THAAD missile defense system from the United States. Furthermore, a long-term strategic alliance with either country is unlikely, given their proximity to and open support for Iran.

In the aftermath of the ARAMCO attacks, Russia quickly expressed support for the Islamic Republic, criticizing President Trump's decision to increase sanctions on Iran; it has set up multiple upcoming summits with Turkey and Iran concerning the future of Syria, and other issues.  For that reason, Putin's buy-in into an international coalition to investigate and respond to the cause of the attacks sought by President Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely, to say the least. However, at strategic moments Putin has given just enough of a nod to the Crown Prince to incense further negative sentiments against Saudi Arabia that have been plaguing Congress in light of the Trump-oriented Russian probe and general public backlash. China's response to recent Iranian aggression has been telling -it chose to invest $400 billion into the sectors of Iran's economy that have been targeted by the US sanctions, also making it an unlikely partner in any defense coalition to respond to Iran's presumed attack on Saudi Arabia.

KSA Status as an Ally Under Attack

Following attack on the ARAMCO oil facilities, media attention turned not so much to Iran's aggression in the region but to placing the blame on Saudi Arabia. Rather than acknowledging the fact of the attack, multiple articles criticized any US defense of its regional ally and essentially dismissed the longer-term regional and global implications of excusing and justifying terror and aggression. Meanwhile, Vanity Fair, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, published an unsubstantiated article by a former Al Jazeera reporter claiming that Saudi Arabia is "disappearing" critics and activists; the effect of such an article could only be to show that KSA is an unworthy ally, and should be abandoned, and that at the very least it is as "bad" as Iran.

Many other articles and op-eds distancing US from Saudi Arabia and questioning its value as a US ally appeared in many other mainstream publications. The tone of these publications has been nearly identical and brought into mind the mass media hysteria following Khashoggi's disappearance. The fact that US media spoke on this issue in one voice suggested a coordinated campaign to detract from Iran's aggression and to bring Saudi Arabia's imperfections into limelight when the country is at its most vulnerable. Some outlets and spokespeople have gone as far as to claim that KSA is not an ally at all. More analytical commentary justified this in the context of the limits of the US defense relationship, in that KSA is not a "treaty" ally.

Indeed, KSA and US do not have any mutual defense treaties; most of their cooperation lies in the realm of counterterrorism and security, such as recent joint financial action against Hezbollah funding. US has agreed to provide logistical and intelligence assistance to KSA in Yemen, and has positioned 500 US troops at the US base in Saudi Arabia following a wave of Iran-backed aggression in the region this past summer. US and Saudi Arabia are involved in many joint training exercises; US is training Saudi Arabian air force in avoiding civilian casualties in Yemen.

SInce 2017, there have been billions of dollars’ worth of sales in missile launchers, defense systems, airplanes, radars and support equipment, as well as a commitment to modernize the Saudi military. Close examination of these relations shows that they indeed full woefully short of an effective alliance - but it is not necessarily for lack of Saudi interest or commitment to US security. At the height of nuclear deal negotiations during the Obama administration, US-Saudi relations have cooled substantially as the Obama administration froze weapon sales and pivoted towards "balancing the regional powers" - a euphemism for a pivot towards Iran.

Still, neither before nor after President Obama left office has there been a close long-term strategic coordination between the US and Saudi Arabia on major defense issues. Indeed, it appears that the "cooperation" between the two countries was largely a financial arrangement of demand and supply, resting precariously on the understanding that US will play the dominant role in the Middle East, guaranteeing the security of KSA and smaller Gulf States, in exchange for a relatively hands-off approach by Riyadh. The reasons for this 70-year status quo were twofold:

Until recently, US preferred to play a central role in the Middle East, at least in part in order to counter the Soviet influence, and later other threats, and increasingly as an effective force against various terrorist groups and Iranian aggression. For that reason, other countries did not have the need to advance their own militaries or to work with the US in any strategic sense.

Dependency on US, aside there were long term cultural and structural reasons plaguing Arab armies in general and the Saudi military in particular, that even with the finest weaponry purchased from Western powers, prevented it from becoming an effective force in its own right. These issues include bureaucracy, government corruption, the nepotistic effects of tribal social structure, a rigid hierarchical approach to governance that discourages initiative and creates a culture of fear of failure, a "shame culture" where the risks of losing face in a social setting outweigh a healthy assessment of shortcomings, lack of effective military leadership, and a shortage of social resistance. These, and other long-term problems are discussed by the former CIA analyst Ken Pollack, who contrasted these failings with the successes of the Israel Defense Forces in his book "Armies of Sand". None of these factors will be eradicated overnight - or at all, if there is no firm commitment to address these issues, and no willing counterpart who will help shoulder the burden that comes with the growth pangs in the process of reform.

The concern over maintaining Israel's military "strategic superiority" in light of the Arab oil boycotts in the late 1970s and multiple wars against Israel, caused Western countries concerned about the possibility of Arab aggression to discourage them from developing effective militaries, contemporary intelligence apparati, or becoming more involved in strategic operations in their own region. Although Western ex-military leaders complained about the difficulty of training Arab soldiers, the reality at least in part was that there was a lack of interest in seeing the success of these initiatives. Some of it is evident in the attitude of those who both want to prevent the US from selling advanced weaponry, such as F-35 planes, to Saudi Arabia and expect it to carry its own financial and military burden in Yemen and against Iran, despite Iran's far superior asymmetrical warfare capabilities and multinational proxies spread all over the region.

More recently, President Obama's and President Trump's administrations both signaled an interest in the US playing a lesser role as a "world policeman", bowing to the pressure from their respective bases and seeking to withdraw from US participation in many long term military operations, which seem cumbersome, costly, and have no definitive end. However, as President Trump has signaled US withdrawal from various areas in the region that would affect Saudi security, he has failed to coordinate with Riyadh, and in some instances, such as the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, essentially misled the Saudis. And while he has demanded the Saudis to meet the high costs of US presence in the Middle East, he has ultimately failed to defend them from attacks in any meaningful way, nor to deter their many enemies, all related to Iran, from aggression.

Complacency and cultural miscommunications on both sides and led to mismatched expectations; none of this has been communicated to the public

Despite an obvious lack of Saudi participation in US-led military operation and the non-confrontational nature of that society as a whole, it's hard to deny that the country is overall supportive of the US efforts (excepting the displacement of Saddam Hussein) against terrorists, and despite various differences over the backing of groups and political actors over time, would be open to closer collaboration.  However, the nature of the political dynamics between the two countries appears to have been stymied by "soft bigotry of low expectations" on the part of the US officials, as well as the habituation of past history which made it difficult to advance clear goals and articulate an interest in advancing these relations towards a real alliance where Saudis would be consultant as partners, rather than a "client state", and where Saudi strategic interests which might not always coincide with the US view of the region, would necessarily have to be taken into consideration. It is also hard to deny the sentimental and fond memories and personal commitment of the many Saudi military personnel that has trained with the US and international forces in the US.  While they may not see the country as being on the front lines of military campaigns, their sense of camaraderie with their American counterparts appears to cement a relationship that goes beyond mere training.

Furthermore, KSA has proved a valuable ally in other respects: it has only accepted US dollars for their and OPEC's oil since the Nixon administration, and lowered or changed oil prices at the request of US administration, often to the detriment of their own interests.

The Specter of US Inaction Haunts the Region

However, perhaps it should be the US status as an ally that should be questioned instead. Saudi Arabia, despite the many  misgivings and the complications of having to deal with domestic reforms, a lack of effective PR apparatus, abandonment of many Western allies in the aftermath of the Khashoggi debacle, the costly war in Yemen, various internal and external attacks, a media campaign, the deteriorating relationship with Congress, the Gulf crisis involving the boycott of Qatar, and the financial burdens of having to quickly develop alternatives to oil dependency while dealing with the complexities of the ARAMCO IPO, the economy slowdown, high youth unemployment,  and stumbling blocks in the path towards privatization..... has nevertheless been stepping up to the plate and showing decisiveness in the face of the growing Iranian threat. Most recently, for instance, it has participated in a number of bombardment campaigns against Iran-backed Shi's militias on the Syria-Iraq border and in Eastern Syria, jointly with another country's air force, which has been interpreted to be Israel.

US, on the other hand, has been waffling throughout the Trump administration, and the indecisive and incoherent nature of its policy became even more obvious since the uptick in Iran-backed aggression in recent months. Part of this dichotomy may be due to the fact that President Trump may in fact be trying to placate two polar opposite political constituencies: the hawks, who have pushed for the US withdrawal from JCPOA and for isolating Iran,  and isolationists and others, who wish to see nothing more than US playing less of a role in global affairs, including in the Middle East, and seek to preserve the central elements of the deal as a way from redirecting the responsibility for dealing with Iran elsewhere. Nevertheless, while the administration and its supporters have demanded a greater accountability of its allies, they have failed to provide accountability for its own existing commitments.

Despite the fact that US has no written agreements with Saudi Arabia concerning US guarantee of its security, we have had an unwritten historical understanding going back 70 years, on which not just the leadership of the country, but its people have come to rely. Breaching trust without first building a foundation for a change in relationship and abandoning the Saudis to the aggressors does not make US a stronger country, nor does it show a penchant for self-interest. In any future political and military crises, other allies are less likely to be flexible in meeting US needs if it is seen as betraying the trust of the countries in which it has close relations.

The nature of the relationship with Saudi Arabia needs to be reevaluated, but not in a way that most people would think. Complete isolationism is unrealistic; global oil markets and other interests require the protection of multiple actors, and coordination between the East and the West. Saudi Arabia needs to be independent of US protection particularly if it wishes to play a leading role in the region; however, that will not happen on a whim or overnight just because President Trump has gotten tired of being around. Indeed US-Saudi alliance is and should be about a lot more than just US or Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman's aggressive leadership shows an interest in Saudi Arabia becoming a regional force to be reckoned with and a guarantor of security in the region; the dedication is there.

Saudi Arabia has already taken steps to develop its own defense industry. The US could be playing the role of a partner and benefiting from this development. The relationship with Saudi Arabia, including in defense trade, does not have to be a one-way street. The United States, however, is ambivalent; it cannot seem to decide what it wants from its Gulf counterpart. If US does not trust the Saudis, it should perhaps continue playing a role in the region until the foundations for such trust are built; if on the other, hand, the administration sees Mohammed bin Salman as a leader, then it should provide him with the tools that he can use to succeed - which includes the sale of the most advanced weapons that can meet the needs of the moment against Iran's aggression; the commitment to training the troops in the effective use of such defense systems, and a pivot to a more strategic relationship, which includes honest conversations about mutual expectations, commitments that are met by both parties, and a greater US involvement in building Saudi structures that can function and assist the US in the future, which includes a viable navy and intelligence agencies. All of that, however, takes patience, commitment, and trust. Bigotry against Saudis stands in the way of developing an effective, functional alliance and in meeting the immediate US goal in making Saudis less dependent on the US or minimizing the need for US presence in the region.

The question, then, is not whether Saudi Arabia is a US ally, but whether the US wants it to be.

So far, US has not committed to implementing its own policies for the sake of its own direct interest, much less developing better relations with others.

President Trump, for instance, has not only not responded to the downing of a US drone by Iran, but in fact praised Iranians for not doing worse. That signaled weakness and loss of faith to allies and adversaries alike.

The response to the ARAMCO attacks, which implicated the US interest in stable oil markets, has likewise been fumbling, mercurial, and lackluster. The White House repeatedly indicated that it does not wish to go to war and that there are many other options on the table; however, instead of considering the stronger enforcement of existing sanctions, such as preventing FM Zarif from entering the US for UN General Assembly after he was designated as a supporter of terror and effectively threatened war in case of any military action against Iran, US has issued a visa to him and to other high level Iranian officials. No cyberstrikes that would deter Iran or its proxies from further missile or drone strikes have been conducted; no coalition has called for treating Iran as an outlaw nation has appeared before the UN Security Council. President Trump's call for increased sanctions on Iran is unlikely to leave a strong impression on the Islamic Republic for the following reasons:

  • Sanctions need to be fully enforced in order to be effective
  • Sanctions alone do not deter rogue aggressive states
  • China is infusing Iranian economy
  • Shadow economy guarantees other sources of income
  • Hezbollah and the Houthis have been fundraising on Iran's behalf

The regime does not care about its own people and will spend all the money it has on terrorism and military adventures, as has been proven time and time again.

Worse still are other fumbling statements coming out of the administration, such as the "hope for a peaceful resolution", which was articulated by Secretary Pompeo as he visits the attacked country. And calls for an international "coalition of the willing" by the administration seem remarkably like the fruitless and embarrassing effort by the Bush administration to make its case before the UN and gather an international coalition to topple Saddam Hussein. In this case, the optics are even more absurd since many of the actors being approached by the US and Saudi Arabia, such as France, have a financial stake in Iran; France had just given Tehran a $15 billion bailout. Asking countries that have repeatedly sided with Iran to join any response coalition is like asking a fox to guard the chicken coop.

The failure of US leadership on this matter is apparent in other factors:

  • As Yigal Carmon explained in his piece, US Patriot system used by the Saudis, even in light of their shortcomings with respect to deployment, was technologically flawed and failed to intercept the missiles.
  • All of US many intelligence agencies failed to do the obvious and gain any information that could have foretold or prevented such an attack, even though all evidence pointed in the direction of such an occurrence.
  • US failed to intercept the missiles and drones despite having multiple stations in the Gulf that should have been ready for such an attack long before it reached Saudi Arabia.
  • US policy appears to be appeasing Iranian leadership, and the downing of the US drone was just one such detail. US has failed to respond effectively to Iran's aggression elsewhere, including passing any laws that would penalize the country for the political hostage taking of Americans and other Westerners and dual nationals.

The day of the attack, Iran appears to have hijacked an Emirati oil tanker and has arrested its crew. Iran accused the vessel of smuggling oil; however, it was going in the direction of UAE which has its own oil; furthermore, other Iranian ships that had been "intercepted" in order to recover the oil had been quietly allowed to offload their burden to the Chinese or private boats in the region.  The arrest looks more like an act of aggression than another Iranian smuggling operation.

Iran has not been effectively delegitimized; US government speaks of diplomacy and political resolutions to an unbridled aggressor which has no reason to stop its attacks on Saudis and others, even with the limited pushback in the face of Saudi and ISraeli air strikes. After all, Hezbullah and other militias are armed with hundreds of thousands of missiles, ready to be deployed at any moment. And armies of media and propagandists are whitewashing Iran and casting aspersions on Saudis, without any effective response by the US government. Furthermore, a number of countries, such as Japan, despite evidence released by US intelligence and by the Saudis, openly denied Iran's involvement, instead casting blame on the Yemeni Houthis, who are also backed by Iran.

The Houthis, meanwhile, threatened to attack the UAE targets, with no response from the United States. Instead, even recently the US government looked to engage with the Houthis in direct talks.

How the War in Yemen Complicates the Mission

KSA has invested billions into Yemen, both in terms of humanitarian aid, much of which has been hijacked and diverted by the Houthis and various other terrorist organizations - and in terms of financing the weapons, the training, and the subsidies for the Hadi government, which has been largely absent from active combat. Having shouldered the bulk of the burden for the war, KSA is now left almost completely alone as the Houthis and various terrorist organizations have pushed effectively to drive out UAE out of the country, and other coalition members have left for various reasons long before. Much of the ground fighting is now dependent on the unpredictable mercenaries of varying degrees of effectiveness.

Furthermore, while Iran has dispatched a portion of the Hezbollah to train the Houthis, KSA has had to deal with internal and maritime security issues in addition to the Yemen front. Iran outsources its diversions to its proxy group, effectively dispersing IRGC overlords to strategic priority areas. KSA has had to dedicate the bulk of its cadre to Yemen; its air force is now being torn between Yemen and the Syria operations against other militias - exactly the way Iran would wish it. On the ground in Yemen, KSA has to deal with the chaos of coalition infighting, Yemeni government corruption, return and proliferation of assorted terrorist groups, famine, cholera, dysentery, lack of access to fighters comfortable with the terrain, power failures, sophisticated weapons provided by Iran, crime and contraband of all sorts, human shield optics perpetrated by the Houthis, and communications challenges.

An effective response to Iran would require KSA to open at least another front; a small operation may either fail entirely or prove ineffective in stopping further Iranian incursions. Furthermore, Iran, if threatened, will likely mobilize its various and increasingly integrated proxy groups and brigades to launch multiple debilitating attacks against anyone who wishes to oppose that, thus seeking to distract them or engage them in an undesirable long term confrontation. Without a viable strategy in Yemen, it will be hard for KSA to present itself as a credible partner in any confrontation with Iran; without being ready to address Iran's proxies, the war in Yemen is likely to last indefinitely, as Iran and Qatar both are intent in keeping the fighting going and play off every one of KSA's weakness. Intelligence disparity is also a challenge; Iran seems to have assessed KSA's military capability whereas Saudi Arabia does not appear to have a clear picture of Iran's modus operandi, which is based off bluffery, intimidation, deception, and psych-ops more so than even terror attacks or any actual fighting. Furthermore, Iran is adept at dividing and conquering and has been doing everything possible to isolate Saudi Arabia from its partners in the Anti-Terrorism Coalition and from the United States.

The US has taken a passive role in Yemen focusing its combat capabilities on eliminating Al Qaeda and ISIS and providing support to the Arab Coalition. However, it has yet to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization; nor has it taken any significant action to crack down on Iranian contraband of weapons into the country. There has also been no political movement to include Hezbollah and Houthis under the existing AUMF; "political climate" is allegedly responsible for aversion to a new AUMF based off emerging threats and the new reality on the ground. However, there is increasing evidence that Houthis are being molded into another transnational force modeled after Hezbollah; if so, it is only a matter of time before they become a direct threat to the US troops in Yemen just like the Shi'a militias in Iraq have become a danger to the American forces there.  The Coalition could be a much great success with more US diplomatic and political involvement in alleviating miscommunications and mediating between its members; cooler, objective heads are desperately needed to bring the parties to the same page.

For whatever reason, the US continues treating the Houthi issue as though it is distinct and separate from all other Iranian activities; in fact, it continues to ignore the increasing coordination between various Iranian proxies - perhaps because US agencies are focused on dealing with individual countries and are hard pressed to separate distinct insurgent groups from the governments of those countries, and rather to analyze them as part and parcel of Iran's or other actors' global strategy. The War in Yemen is largely being treated as a civil war, an internal matter, that has spilled over into Saudi security issues. So long as the US turns a blind eye to the fact that the foreign interventionism in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and other places is not just an additional external problem but part of an extensive network that should be viewed as a whole and where international coordination is required rather than limited action to contain the problem to each location, Iran\s proxies will continue on their March, complementing each other and flowing in and out of different locations as needed.

Missteps Can Be Turned Into Opportunities

Thus far, US strategy to counter Iran has focused on internationalizing this operation. Both such efforts have been of dubious value; one was short lived; a third is on the way.

MESA or "the Arab NATO" was an attempt to bring together Arab States to counter Iran, with the idea that Arab countries should be in charge of their own security, but that the United States would facilitate the training.  This ill-fated coalition never really got off the ground. The discussions with Saudi Arabia did not reach top level defense officials; furthermore, US seemed intent on bringing in Qatar despite its security and foreign policy differences with a number of the participants, and in leaving out Morocco, with its well-trained and experienced army. The mission in countering Iran was overly broad and poorly defined; the mechanisms for internal coordination, conflict resolution, and overcoming cultural differences and miscommunications was never firmly established. MESA may have given up the ghost for now after Egypt withdrew to focus on its real security priorities - Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, the idea of such a coalition, if properly thought out and executed, is not outlandish. Still, it should focus on a few well-chosen actors and on a narrow, specific mission everyone can get on board with, at least for a start: such as weakening or eliminating Hezbollah, designated as a terrorist organization by everyone involved, and an essential pillar to the implementation of Iran's aggressive global policy. With Hezbollah distracted, weakened, financially drained, or outnumbered and outgunned, Iran will be hard pressed to continue its involvement in many of the ongoing operations. The other pillar of Iran's worldwide piracy and skullduggery, the IRGC, should be the next on the agenda for the same reasons - it is the centerpiece of Iran's naval strategy, intelligence, sabotage operations, information warfare, and asymmetrical attacks.

Saudi Arabia volunteered for the US-backed "Sentinel" mission consisting of a few navies guarding and escorting oil tankers in and about the strategic chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz. The other participants are the US, UK, Australia, Bahrain, and reportedly, Israel. Saudi and Bahraini navies, despite the courageous initiative, are symbolic and are not known for their prowess, which means, if attacked, they may be speedily dispatched. The good news is the Iranian navy is nothing to write home about either; the bad news is that the better funded IRGC contingent is well trained in asymmetrical warfare and in closing of the Strait of Hormuz; the Saudi fleet, on the other hand, is not known to be particularly battle hardened.  The "Sentinel" mission, overall, is repeating the mistakes of the "Arab NATO", though where MESA was overbroad, the Sentinel is too narrow and defensive in scope, which means Iran will not be ultimately deterred. However, Saudi Arabia's involvement brings the relationship with the US one step closer towards being a full-fledged defense alliance (and not merely cooperation or trade or protection status), and gives KSA an opportunity to train in small missions alongside stronger navies.

The US has an interest not only in preserving the existing trade deals out of financial consideration but advancing the relationship and preserving and building trust between both the governments and the peoples. Unfortunately, President Trump has emphasized the transactional nature of the alliance with Saudi Arabia in his meeting with the Crown Prince in 2018, thus signaling to friends and adversaries alike that this alliance could be easily exchangeable and only existed because of an opportunity to make money or get top notch technology. Even by those parameters, however, the administration has hardly been doing enough to preserve even the narrow confines of these circumscribed interactions. For instance, where the Saudi Arabia failed to develop an effective lobby, the US still had a responsibility to preserve US side of the interests in joint security operations in Yemen and the smooth procedure of arms sales.

The administration, though vetoing Congressional steps to undermine these engagements, has not been vocal to assert a positive relationship and a pressing need to assist in these endeavors; it has not articulated the importance of the US involvement or the opportunity in helping make KSA a more effective partner. It has not gone to bat pushing Congress to change its positions on weapons sales, and even the push to recognize presidential emergency powers had more to do with the power play between the White House and Congress than with the effective assertion of an urgent security need that spoke directly to US interests in the matter. The arms that were blocked included Paveway precision-guided munitions and F110 engines for F-15 jets for Saudi Arabia. The deal includes a coproduction provision that allows Raytheon, a top U.S. weapons manufacturer, to team up with Saudi Arabia and build high-tech bomb parts. In other words, it would have potentially made Saudi Arabia LESS dependent on the United States in the long run, even without introducing any new technologies or capabilities (which KSA, should it so choose, could probably develop otherwise or procure with help from others).  Perhaps that would have collided with some interests in the US which wish to see KSA be less developed and more dependent on US judgment.  Moreover, by putting obstacles in the path of such developments, Congress was losing out on the opportunity for US oversight over the production of these technologies, and their implementation. In reality, the White House needs to resolve the security dilemma facing the opponents of its policies: One cannot simultaneous expect not to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and to withdraw from protecting an essential partner in economic and energy issues and various other security matters. Congress and media who are pushing these contradictory policies should be held accountable in public for their bigotry and for putting personal agendas above US security needs.

The THAAD related build up and delivery, part of an arms deal negotiated and approved by State Department and Congress in 2017, and part of a ten year commitment agreed upon in 2018, has been launched by Lockheed, however is not due to be completed until 2026. In the meantime, the Patriot missile defense system has shown itself to be perilously flawed; it may not have been correctly deployed to begin with; and the attacks by Iran and its proxies show all signs of continuing well into the near future. The United States and Saudi Arabia should formalize an interim defense agreement that would provide for security assistance until more modern equipment is ready to be install and deployed. The US should also commit to providing assistance with fixing the flaws related to the Patriot, considering that US-owned oil companies could be targeted next, to train Saudis in effective use of their sophisticated equipment, and provide assistance in intercepting future deployed missiles or drones from other locations if possible. Saudi and US intelligence, aside from the increase in intelligence sharing, should work together on gathering intelligence related to mutual interests such as the type of information that would have allowed for preventative measures to these attacks.

The US and Saudi Arabia should formalize written treaty-level agreements related to specific defense issues that make sense for both countries and that can improve their ability to coordinate action when need and eliminate potential for miscommunication over expectations in critical situations. These agreements could be narrowly tailored to meet specific security need, and expanded as the trust-building measures between the two states create ground for closer cooperation. At the very least, however, if the United States wishes to see Saudi Arabia more involved in its own security and if it wants a better partner, there should be a formal discussion and an understanding about how to make it happen that could also allay the concerns of those who have not found any reason to trust Saudis to act responsibly up until this point. Ambiguities in terms of status of a relationship create more tensions and problems than they create any flexibilities in the matter. Having at least a base level of understanding will make both the communications and joint action possible and effective.

If the US expects to see Saudi Arabia take more individual defense action in the region, it should work closely with the Saudi defense to develop effective strategies that work in terms of existing Saudi capabilities and that can be utilized to minimize civilian casualties, avoid bad optics as well as the mistakes made in Yemen. Saudi Arabia should be asked more frequently to join defense-related best practice working groups and over time integrated into US international coordination on regional defense issues beyond political meetings or joint training exercises.  Furthermore, in the future, if Turkey continues presenting a problem with Russia, and production of the costly F-35s becomes a liability, Saudi Arabia could be invited to join the project in its stead provided it has met particular security benchmarks by that point. (Given that Israel is one of the partners in the agreement, addressing related security concerns would be a necessary condition). Furthermore, the US and Saudi Arabia should make a joint assessment of specific defense needs in order to engage in more effective future defense trade. A priority should be placed on developing Saudi naval capabilities and deterrence, including in particular naval demining and developing effective asymmetrical warfare techniques. Saudi land mine removal in Yemen has proved to be successful,  with over 26,000 mines planted by Houthis having been removed, (that project is known as "Masam") but little of that success story has been publicized. That is another area for potential joint cooperation, which underscores that Saudis should not be dismissed as allies.

Joint hybrid/information warfare and cybersecurity training is par for the course, given that both countries have been targeted by Iran and Russia-backed hackers, and given that Iran has been using hybrid warfare methods such as GPS jamming to hijack tankers and other vessels in the Gulf. That is a security issue where coordination could be helpful, particularly in messaging, communications, and understanding the psych ops aspect of Iran's techniques. Furthermore, Saudi cybersecurity is weak in general, and there is a great deal of room for collaboration.

The US should further include Saudi Arabia in various small security operations, including counterterrorism operations as practice runs for future greater engagement and integration. MESA or any version of such an alliance, would never succeed without countries with experience in direct confrontations, strong ground game, reconnaissance, and asymmetrical operations. Saudi Arabia already appears to be conducting small air force trial runs with Israel, albeit belatedly. There are still other things Riyadh can improve on that will make the country less dependent on US, a stronger ally, and a more credible regional leader. These include developing a strong information warfare apparatus to combat media and political campaigns launched by its enemies, and to combat military disinformation; building up a flexible and not overly burdensome intelligence apparatus and taking the time to learn and understand internal cultural and political nuances of its adversaries; using hybrid methods of persuasion and development aid as the carrot alternative in assorted challenging places to avoid constant confrontations and undesirable predicaments; learn to develop long-term plans in close coordination with other regional state and non-state stakeholders and improve communication system with other allies to avoid tensions and avoidable misunderstandings.

About the Author(s)

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer and analyst, who has written extensively for a variety of domestic and international publications on strategy, geopolitics, and security in the MENA region. Her work has been translated to many languages, including Arabic, and she has been interviewed and cited in a variety of Arabic-language media. Follow Irina on Twitter @irinatsukerman.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 9:53am

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