The Middle East could be on the verge of catastrophe

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday, Sept 18, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/Pool Photo via AP)

It was a defining moment in the region when two of Saudi Arabia’s most critical pieces of oil infrastructure were successfully attacked a week ago, temporarily cutting the country’s oil production in half. Despite all the billions of dollars the country has spent on expensive US missile defence systems, they were unable to protect their most important energy infrastructure and were completely caught off guard. 

Months after US President Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Saudis spent an additional US$110 billion on US military hardware, but at the end of the day it was to no avail. Saudi Arabia seems to be just as vulnerable to attack as it ever was, and that has changed the political calculus in the region. When a combination of drones and cruise missiles could successfully hit the Abqaiq processing facility as well as the Khurais oil field, which is the Gulf’s second largest, Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability was fully exposed. 

Such a strategic attack on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq processing facility was always a nightmare scenario for the Saudis. Abqaiq is the world’s largest oil processing plant, processing two thirds of Saudia Arabia’s oil. Successive Saudi rulers have been concerned about the exposure of Abqaiq to sabotage or attack, as it would expose the vulnerability of Saudi energy security, and that of global energy security given that Saudi Arabia produces 10% of global crude supplies.

Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack, although forensic evidence is yet to prove from where the attacks were launched. But the Houthis have become increasingly effective at striking into the heart of Saudi Arabia as an act of resistance against the invasion of their country by the Saudi coalition, which has been prosecuting a brutal war since March 2015. The Houthis had fired a ballistic missile at Riyadh’s airport two years ago which had missed the target, but the Patriot defense system had not managed to stop them. Saudi Arabia has six battalions of Patriot missile defense systems produced by the US at a cost of US$1 billion each. The Houthis also attacked an Aramaco pipeline in May.

This time the attack on Saudi oil infrastructure involved cruise missiles and drones which fly closer to the ground and are harder to detect. It was a flawless attack in that it is estimated that only one of 20 missiles failed to hit its target, which in military terms is considered astounding. If it was the Houthis that launched the attacks, it would suggest that cheap drones used by non-state actors can penetrate the Saudi’s advanced defense systems. 

Even though the US media and the Saudis have been trying to accuse Iran of launching the attacks, it seems unlikely that with the sophisticated web of US and Israeli military intelligence in the region, and the sizeable presence of US naval ships, that missiles being launched at Saudi Arabia from Iran could have gone undetected, and been such a monumental surprise. If that was the case then what does it say about Western defense capabilities and equipment?

What is perhaps the most crucial lesson to emerge from the recent developments is that any future military conflagration with Iran would certainly result in the destruction of the oil and gas installations in the region, just as Iran has threatened. This explains why Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that the success of the recent attacks is a warning to the Saudis. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has threatened all out war if there is any retaliation directed at Iran for the recent attacks against the oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. The reason Trump has not already launched a retaliatory strike against Iran, even a limited one, is due to the realisation that it would have the potential of unleashing a massive military conflagration in the region, the consequences of which are too grave to fathom. 

Increasingly the Gulf states are realising that Iran is capable of inflicting serious damage to their economies, which explains why the United Arab Emirates has changed course in Yemen, and is no longer a prominent player in the Saudi-led coalition. The UAE partially withdrew its military contingent from Yemen in July, considering it necessary to protect the home front. The Houthi leader warned this week that UAE oil and cities are among its targets.

What is important to realise here is that Iran has suffered from the US’s maximum pressure campaign, and would likely consider that it has little left to lose. Unilateral US sanctions on Iran has shut down Iranian sales of oil, as the US has blocked banks from handling dollar based financial transactions with Iran which are required for oil sales. The US has also blocked Iranian ships, and eliminated inflows of foreign investment to the country. Other countries are finding it too difficult to trade with Iran, leading to a serious economic downturn. While the value of the Iranian rial has been slashed and the Iranian economy has been shrinking, the world has done little.

To continue watching Saudi Arabia sell its oil while Iran is prevented from doing so is an untenable situation for the Iranian leadership. With its back against a corner, Iran has assured that any attack on its territory will be met with a disproportionate response, and it would not hesitate to destroy the oil and gas installations in the region. Such a conflagration would also lead to attacks against Israel if not by Iran, but by its regional proxies, which would have no red lines.

Such a military conflagration in the region would have a truly devastating effect on the global economy, but it would not hurt the US to the same extent as it would have done decades ago. Unlike in 1973 when Saudi Arabia led OPEC in an embargo of oil shipments to the US due to its support for Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, today the US is self-sufficient in oil and gas, and is actually a net exporter. If Saudi oil exports are cut in half, it increases the market for US oil, and the US would be able to sell its oil at higher prices. In dire circumstances the US would also tap into its underground reserves of hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. The US is certainly far more confident and protected than it was in the past, and now Trump is even saying that the US does not have a mutual assistance treaty with Saudi Arabia, and does not have an obligation to protect Riyadh in the event of a war. 

Whatever path the US chooses on this issue, the rest of the world simply cannot afford a military confrontation with Iran. For as long as Iran continues to suffer economically under suffocating US sanctions it will also feel the need to change the cost-benefit calculus for the US and the rest of the world. Before the situation deteriorates further, there is an urgent need for dialogue between Iran and key international players, preferably brokered by the UN. For as long as South Africa has a seat on the UN Security Council it needs to push hard for such a dialogue to take place so that a political solution can be found. The alternative will weigh on our collective consciences for generations to come. 

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.