25 September 2019

US-Iran. Will it be a direct war, through proxy or an economic one?

Sergiu Medar

Since the Trump Administration took over the White House, it seems that it has changed the way US reaches its national objectives in conflict areas. Trying to avoid as much as possible the military interference, the US is seeking economic and financial pressure options, which are part of an economic war. This method aims at increasing population’s domestic complaints, which, with US’s support, will try to overthrow their own regimes. The recent attacks on Saudi Arabia oil fields is questioning the method US will chose against Iran.

Image source: Mediafax

The tensions between US and Iran got even more complicated after the aggressive attacks on two locations, Abqaiq and Khurais, the biggest oil field in the world, which is on Saudi Arabia’s territory, a state that is now in Washington’s influence sphere.

The US is accusing Iran for these attacks, based on intelligence services’ reports, according to which the strikes came from different locations in South Iran. They used 18 drones and 5 cruise missiles to attack and it was claimed by the Houthi group from Yemen, which is supported by Iran. Both the drones and the missiles were coming from Iran. The high professionalism, proved by strikes’ precision, is creating doubts on whether they were launched by Yemeni and, therefore, supported by the Iranian experts. Using proxy to strike Saudi Arabia or to hide its direct actions could be somehow plausible for Iran, considering the pressure US put on it through sanctions.

The Saudi air defence system could not fight back as its systems were not able to detect the attack methods, which were flying at low altitude. Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, has recently visited Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss diplomatic matters which could prevent a possible intervention against Iran. President Donald Trump has underlined that he will not make any decision, besides increasing the current sanctions imposed to Iran, before Saudi Arabia ends its own investigation and presents its own conclusions on the aggressor.

This situation pushed each state in the region, as well as other US allies, to analyze their own interests and options.

Therefore, Iran, as the main target, started to think at the countries or groups it can count on. Without actually following the importance or values, we could mention the Houthi group, a Yemeni faction which depends on the armament and non-military products delivered by Iran. Their obligations are so big that they have claimed the attacks on the Saudi oil fields. Last month, Iran has accredited the Houthi ambassador to Teheran, which is something extremely rare in diplomacy, this way validating the rebel group as Yemen’s representative. Yemen’s geostrategic position and, implicitly, Houthi’s group as well, which can strike, using equipment provided by Iranian sponsors, any target in Saudi Arabia, is extremely important for Teheran and therefore Iran, through proxy, can pressure the Saudis. Also, the Houthi Yemeni can allow the Iranian ships, involved in navigation’s control in the Hormuz strait, to be placed in their ports.

Besides the Houthi from Yemen, Iran can also count on the Shiite factions from Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Through these groups, whose loyalty is religion-motivated, the Persian state that has mostly Shiite people among its population, can create its influence zone. This is where the authority Iran has as center of the Shiite Islamism comes from. Relying on the fact that the loyal factions are not representing the states they belong to, the Persian states are using them for their capacity to influence the decision, however, without that faction to have a determinant position in the decision process. In Lebanon, Hezbollah is even taking part to the decision, having members in the Lebanese government.

Iran did everything possible to a avoid having Sunni neighbors in the West and the corridor towards the Mediterranean Sea to be controlled by the Shiite. Its authority, many times supported also through financial, military or other type of help, was based on the connections with the Shiite Iraqi from the South Baghdad area, the Iranians from Syria together with the pro-Iranians Kurdish, Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Iran’s presence in Syria is quite vulnerable, as the territories it is controlling were the target of frequent attacks of the Israeli aviation. Also, Iran’s position in Syria is vulnerable thanks to the circumstantial relation with Russia or Turkey. Iran’s strongest support can come from the Hezbollah groups, which could militarily pressure Israel to not allow this state’s total commitment in a confrontation with Iran.

World states’ reactions at the terrorist attack on the Saudi Arabia oil fields depended on their interests in the region.

The US relation with Iran is permanently in a conflict wherein the adversity is purely instinctive. Hereof, one of the main missions US assumes is changing the Teheran regime, by imposing serious sanctions to provoke the population to react against the governors. Up to this moment, it failed doing so, as Iranians’ adversity against US is so big that this state’s nation prefers living on the edge of existence than doing what Washington wants. The US withdrawal from the nuclear Agreement did not happen because Iran was not following agreement’s terms, but because Washington was about to start a trade war with Teheran and it needed a reason to get freedom of movement on this matter. Imposing serious sanctions to Iran is just one of this war’s elements.

As for the US foreign policy, the economic war is a new offensive method by which Washington hopes to reach its objective: America is Great Again. This is the same method by which the great powers competition are acting in their fight with China, Russia, the European Union and Iran.

Washington’s interest in the region was tied, up to the beginning of 1990, to the oil resources. After the US exploited the schist gases and provided its necessary oil and gases quantity, their interest has slowly decreased. The US presence in the region, however, remained the same. This interest’s engine was that this area is supposedly the one which created terrorism in the world. Iran is now regarded as the main terrorism sponsor.

US has great difficulties in terms of understanding how the Arabs and especially the Persians thinks. These difficulties made them have a complex diplomacy, many times developed through original Arabs and Persians American diplomats. Therefore, the US made an anti-Iranian coalition, composed of Israel, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and other Sunni states. The foible of this coalition is Saudi Arabia, wherewith the US has a great relation, related also to the possibility of using the Saudi state as proxy in the conflict with Iran. Saudi Arabia is under internal pressures, related to the succession for the most important position in the state. This situation may weaken its position.

The attack on the Saudi oil fields has also revealed the vulnerabilities of the most sophisticated air defence system that Saudi Arabia has. The temporary interruption of oil deliveries has provoked Saudis’ funds and economy backlash. The dependency on a singular economic field is another of Saudi Arabia’s vulnerability. These aspects could encourage Iran to continue with the aggressive attitude on the Saudis. By attacking the oil fields, Iran has actually suggested: “if we do not export oil (due to US’s sanctions), they cannot do it either”. This logic is still in US’s favor, because its Middle East allies are depending on the Saudi or the Iranian oil. Its absence has strong consequences on this states, which are, for now, using the oils in the reserves they still have. US offered to provide oil from their own capacities. However, at the same time, Iran also hopes that this move will force US to cool down the imposed sanctions by drastically limiting the oil and gases provision. Furthermore, the one to get all the benefits from all this situation will be Russia, which US regards as a threat against its national security. Given these circumstances, together with the offer they have made for the oil production from their own reserve, US pressured and offered support for the oil production from Abqaiq and Khurais to restart by the end of September 2019.

Any of US’s anti-Iran option will not but escalate the conflict, this way affecting the oil production and, implicitly, world states’ economy. US’s possible moves against Iran will lead to a violent reaction on Trump’s allies in the area. Most likely, the first states to be attacked by Iran will be Israel and Saudi Arabia. Because it is the leader of the coalition against Iran, US has a responsibility on this states, hereof the escalation and multiplication of conflicts.

White House’s administration policy has changed through the fact that the US does not want to get involved in large, violent military conflicts. This is why they are using the economic wars strategy, by increasing export and import taxes or the economic sanctions. Thus, US would probably want to stay away from a direct war with Iran, and develop one through proxy, meaning Saudi Arabia, given that it will anyway be Iran’s first target. US has also stated, through the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that it is willing to negotiate with Iran, with no conditions. However, the Persian states does not want to start negotiation if the nuclear agreement will go on as initially, which is unacceptable for US. The recent strikes on Saudi Arabia may have been developed by Iran to get a better stance before these negotiations.

Another regional consequence that could be extremely important for the anti-Iran coalition is the fact that rumors on the Israel-Saudi Arabia cooperation are starting to transform into information. According to them, both states would have cooperated in the air strikes from Syria, Al Bukamal, at the border with Iraq. The information was not confirmed by these states, but it is a possible hypothesis.

According to Brian Hook, the US general representative for Iran, the Saudis have compared the oil fields attack on the Saudi Arabia with the 9/11 attack, but with no victims. This statement has bothered the US Congress members, which did not forget that 15 of the 19 terrorists from the 9/11 terrorist attacks were Saudis. It increases American people’s aversion on Iran and, implicitly, the American popular support on a possible military intervention.

Given the presented information, we can assume that a US military intervention against Iran is less likely to happen, but a military action using Saudi Arabia as proxy may take place. This could be militarily supported by US, through missiles surgical strikes. These actions could be developed along with an economic war on Iran.

Translated by Andreea Soare