United States: Distant Friend to Mideast Gulf Allies

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Attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure this week put US President Donald Trump's reluctance to play the decades-long role of Mideast security guarantor into sharp relief, with the Trump administration alternating in the first few days after the attacks between threats of military action and downplaying Saudi Arabia's role in global -- and the US' -- energy security. They also exposed the risks to a "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran that isn't backed by the threat of military action or diplomatic engagement -- and has no apparent off-ramp. These risks include the prospect of further such attacks, as well as wider fallout from the seeming implosion of the US deterrent. The US was "locked and loaded," Trump said shortly after the attack, while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly faulted Iran for what he called an "act of war" -- although neither US nor Saudi officials have yet offered evidence as to where they believe the attacks were launched from (related). Come Wednesday and Trump announced that the US would implement new sanctions against Iran. By itself, that's hardly an overwhelming response to the single-largest disruption in global oil supplies: Sanctions against Iran are already crippling, and the US has limited options for increasing their severity. But it's perhaps not surprising. Trump campaigned on promises of reining in US obligations overseas and keeping the US out of foreign wars. That thread has been easy to lose amid the Trump administration's apparent desire for the prestige of influence but not the hard graft or costs -- diplomatic or military -- that it incurs. That approach has seen vocal support for increased military spending and threats of military action, as well as the US' extremely tough line on Iran itself. Indeed, concern was high enough that Trump could be moving toward war that lawmakers this summer moved to block the president from conducting military operations in the region without congressional approval, although that effort failed, and the Brookings Institute's Scott Anderson says the administration has wide legal latitude for limited strikes. Yet apart from shooting down an unmanned Iranian drone that approached a US naval ship, Trump has refrained from military action throughout months of escalating provocations directed at energy infrastructure in the region. "The US is pursuing maximalist policies with a minimalist president" and Iran is responding through counterpressure of its own, Brett McGurk, who served in a senior national security position in three administrations, including Trump's, told Energy Intelligence. "This combination leaves US allies like Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab Emirates] exposed as Trump shies away from actual conflict or resorts to force in their defense." The traditional premise of any US retaliatory action would be that the US suffers if global energy security is hit. But Trump has repeatedly downplayed the role the region plays in US energy security. The fact that there were no casualties and that the outage looks to be short-lived also gives Trump a little more flexibility for a lower-caliber response, observers say. "If he's looking for an exit, an off-ramp, not having to do something militarily, this would be it," Stephen Seche, a former US ambassador to Yemen now at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington said. For some, the writing was on the wall even before the attacks over the weekend. "The United States is leaving the Persian Gulf," the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook wrote in Foreign Policy last month. "Not this year, or next, but there is no doubt that the US is on its way out." Several observers pointed out that process started under former US President Barack Obama, who shared the view that US dependency on the region's oil was waning and believed it would become more pronounced in a lower-carbon future. Gray Areas As the attacks in the region escalated in recent months, the US' Gulf allies seemed to reconsider their own postures. United Arab Emirates officials in July visited Tehran, and Abu Dhabi is drawing down its forces in Yemen, while in June it avoided explicitly blaming Iran for the tanker attacks off the coast of Fujairah (EC Aug.2'19). Analysts this week said that Saudi officials were signaling before the attacks that they did not want to see armed conflict in the region. Trump himself pushed back hard this week against criticism -- the most public of which came from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who proposed hitting Iranian oil refineries -- that by not taking action early he was ceding ground to Iran. "If you ask Lindsey, ask him: How did going into the Middle East -- how did that work out? And how did going into Iraq work out?" Still, there remain options in between a high-profile military response and low-utility new sanctions. Several analysts said that attacks with "plausible deniability" -- especially if it never becomes publicly clear that Tehran directed the attacks in Saudi Arabia -- could target Iranian energy infrastructure. US options may be constrained by its own reflexive hard-line policy on Iran, says a former senior Obama administration official. By quickly blaming the Iranians, Trump administration officials may have undercut their chances of building a broader coalition. "Instead Pompeo comes out hours after [the attack] and faults Iran. That puts the administration in a place where other governments would have trouble maintaining the fiction that the US government studied it," he said. "There was a larger opportunity to unify some folks around the degree to which this attack is deeply problematic, and instead they frittered that away." A critical question is whether the attacks prompt a major rethink of US Iran policy. Pushing Iran to the point where it felt it had no option but to break the sanctions status quo, no matter the risk, looks like a massive strategic misstep -- no matter Pompeo's attempt to square a circle. Speaking in Jeddah on Wednesday, Pompeo heralded US sanctions policy as a success for having slowed down Iran's ability to acquire "all the things that go into building out production-level threats to the world," even as he described Saturday's events as "an attack of a scale we've not seen before" (related). The latest Mideast Gulf escalation also comes as a blizzard of other pressures on both regional and global political economies are building up, be it the US-China trade war, the US standoffs with Russia and Venezeula, stop-start talks with North Korea, or the imploding war in Yemen (EC Aug.2'19). Something, somewhere, needs to ease up. This clear demonstration of the US' weakening deterrent means it might be Washington who has to move first. Emily Meredith, Washington, Amena Bakr, Jeddah, and Rafiq Latta, Nicosia Timeline of Energy-Related Escalation in the Mideast Gulf Apr 22 US announces end to sanctions waivers for Iran's oil customers May 5 Then-US National Security Adviser John Bolton says the US

Security Risk , Sanctions
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