After the Trump Administration’s reaction to the attack on the Saudi oil fields last weekend, no one should assume that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East is based on geopolitical or security considerations. It is abundantly clear that Washington is not concerned about the foreign policy implications or diplomatic niceties. Only economic concerns and political self-interests motivate President Trump with respect to America’s leading allies in the region; Israel and Saudi Arabia. While this has been the long-standing incentive for Donald Trump with respect to Israel, it is now crystal clear as well with respect to Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi oil operations were clearly attacked by Iran or its regional surrogates in an effort to cause economic disruption not only to the Saudis but to many of the global nations which are dependent on Saudi oil production. As the U.S. at this point obtains less than 5% of its oil needs from the Saudis, the disruption to the U.S. is inconsequential. What was important for the President, however, was to demonstrate to the Saudi leaders how concerned the U.S. was about this attack; or war as both he and Pompeo called it.
Iranian-Saudi tension has been on-going now for several years in the Gulf, having been further intensified since President Trump opted out of the JCPOA nuclear weapons understanding which the P5+1 had negotiated with Iran under President Obama. Since the August G-7 meetings in France, there had been growing speculation generated by Trump, concerning a possible meeting between President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during the U.N. General Assembly meetings next week in New York. Both the Saudis and the Israelis, however, had indicated their displeasure with this anticipated meeting.
Since Trump left the JCPOA in late 2017, he has continued to ratchet up economic sanctions on Iran which have caused serious economic dislocation to the Iranian people and frustration in the Teheran Government. At the same time continued Iranian support for the Houthis rebels in Yemen has frustrated the Saudis. The growing threat imposed by the Houthis on the Saudis was dramatically escalated by the attack on the Saudi oil installations. Whether it was Iran who launched the drone attack or their clients, the Saudis had been sufficiently embarrassed that they compelled their American friends to rattle their own sabers against Iran. (President Trump once again talked tough and carried a paper stick. He dispatched Secretary of State Pompeo to the region to demonstrate U.S. solidarity with the Saudis; plus offering them—for cash payments–additional military “toys” with which they could flex their muscles.) Both the Saudis and the Israelis would like the Iranians roughed up, however, some sane voices in Washington appear to have made it clear to the President that any U.S. involvement or active participation in a retaliatory attack against Iran could very quickly escalate to a serious military confrontation.
For the Trump Administration, keeping the Israelis happy is beneficial to the President’s political supporters in the evangelical community as well as among the right-wing among American Jews. Israel also provides the U.S. with a potential surrogate of its own in the region and gives Israel a temporary ally within the Saudi regime. The problem with this arrangement is that Israel is being baited by both the Saudis and Washington with no clear understanding of any comprehensive strategic strategy on the part of the Trump Administration. The Saudis want the Iranians out of Yemen but are not capable of removing them on their own. Washington does not want a military confrontation but wants to keep the Crown Prince happy so he will continue to distribute his largess to the Trump hotel empire. All of these considerations do not suggest a ready solution to the regional tension.