Risky Gulf Arab strategy tested by assassination of Iran general Suleimani
Even when Gulf Arab states, like Israel, pushed hard for harsh U.S. sanctions and maximum pressure on Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have wanted to avoid a resounding war.
Friday’s airstrike that killed powerful Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani appears to have trapped U.S. allies in the Gulf unsuspecting. Now they’re trying to make sure that President Donald Trump’s escalation doesn’t drag them any further into the spotlight of rising tensions between Washington and Tehran.
Iran, which held an unprecedented multi-city funeral procession for Suleimani that lured millions of people to the streets to mourn it, retaliated early on Wednesday firing a series of ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq, where U.S. troops are stationed.
Trump noted that he would not retaliate militarily, but promised to continue his campaign of maximum pressure and economic sanctions against Iran.
As the region prepares for what comes next, Saudi Arabia and the UAE call for de-escalation.
Saudi Arabia sent Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman to Washington, where he met with Trump and the u.S. President’s face-law and white house adviser Jared Kushner on Monday. The kingdom says it discussed “efforts to reduce tensions and avoid escalations that could further destabilize the region in light of the provocations of the Iranian regime and destabilizing activities.”
Qatar’s foreign minister, meanwhile, traveled to Tehran the day after Suleimani’s assassination and also called for de-escalation.
“No one wants the outbreak of conventional warfare because when conventional warfare happens there are no winners, there are only a number of losers,” said Mohammed Alyahya, the Saudi editor-in-chief of the English-english news website Al-Arabiya.
This latest round of tensions has pushed oil prices up, with Brent crude trading around $70 a barrel. UAE Energy Minister Suhail Al-Mazrouei said Wednesday that there is no risk at this time for the oil movement in the region or for oil supply shortages.
However, he noted that Suleimani’s murder was “definitely an escalation.”
“Iran is a neighbor. We are (geographically) very close to Iran and the last thing we want is another tension in the Middle East,” the energy minister said, reiterating calls for de-escalation.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have long wanted the United States to strengthen Tehran’s drive to extend influence and power throughout the region, and Suleimani was central to Iran’s ambitions. Seen by Sunni Muslims in much of the region as a menacing figure, his role as commander of the Quds Force put him in charge of lethal Shiite representation militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen fighting the Arab interests of the Gulf. In Iran, he is hailed as a national hero who defied American pressure.
Even after Suleiman’s assassination, there is little indication that they have stopped skirting the dangerous line between maximum pressure and war.
Alyahya said the pressure strategy is still needed to stop Iran’s Quds Force, but acknowledged that “it’s a very risky game, and if it’s counterproductive, the consequences are serious.”
Robert Malley, who runs the international Crisis Group and served on Obama’s National Security Council, said The Gulf countries are probably satisfied that Soleimani was killed, but they are also concerned that Iran could inflict serious damage to their economies.
“I think they’re sending the message to the United States and others now: ‘Let’s not let this go too far because you’re living far away. we’re going to be the ones who’re going to pay the price and you won’t be here to protect us,” he said.
The Persian Gulf could be another target of Iranian retaliation. It houses more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers, including the 5th Navy Fleet stationed in Bahrain, the U.S. Army headquarters in Kuwait, and the extensive Al-Udeid air base in Qatar. The U.S. also has hundreds of troops in Saudi Arabia and advanced drones, F-35 fighter jets and several thousand service members at Al-Dhafra Air Base in Abu Dhabi.
Already during the summer, a series of attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf and a major missile and drone attack on Saudi oil facilities were blamed on Iran. Tehran denied responsibility, though he seized the oil tankers around the crucial strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf, through which 20% of the world’s crude oil travels.
Over the weekend, the United States warned U.S. citizens in Saudi Arabia of an increased risk of missile and drone strikes, particularly near military bases, oil and gas facilities, and other critical civilian infrastructure.
Since the September attack on Saudi Arabia, which temporarily halved its oil production, there appears to have been a silent effort of diplomacy between Iran and the kingdom to ease tensions. But there is no sign that either side would have come close to overcoming their rivalry.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi told Baghdad lawmakers on Sunday that he had been scheduled to meet with Suleimani the morning he was assassinated. He said Suleimani carried a message from Iran’s supreme leader in response to a Saudi message sent to Iran to Iran about “major agreements and progress in Iraq and the region.” Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia has confirmed Abdul-Mahdi’s remarks.
Alyahya called Abdul-Mahdi’s account “an intricate high tale.” Echoing the widespread Saudi sentiment, he said Suleimani was not a dove for peace.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also dismissed the notion of “propagandist” and suggested that the Saudis share their view that Suleimani was not in Iraq on a peacekeeping mission.
Complicating the calculations of Gulf rulers are questions about whether Trump’s decision to order the strike against Suleimani was done impulsively or is part of a long-term strategy.
Gulf allies have been questioning Trump’s reliability as a security partner. Although he has strengthened the U.S. military presence in the Gulf amid rising tensions with Iran, Trump did not push to militarily defend Saudi interests after the attack on oil sites and strayed from reprisals when Iran toppled a US surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz.
Speaking Wednesday, Trump stated, “We are independent, and we don’t need oil in the Middle East,” he said he would ask NATO to intensify its involvement in the region.
“The constant thing about Trump is that it’s unpredictable,” said Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdullah. “We didn’t do that I was going to do this. Now, we don’t know what he’s going to do next.
“Is America ready to take revenge on a guy who comes from Iran? Is the region ready for a steep climb?” asked Abdullah.