Thursday, 25 April, 2024

Saudis In Spotlight

P Kharel

In the wake of September 14 drone attack on a number of Saudi Arabia’s major oil facilities, the kingdom’s oil supply capacity was temporarily reduced by more than 40 per cent. In an inkling of the situation’s gravity, oil prices jumped overnight. Were the consequent mounting tensions to precipitate in a sustained manner, the lifeline of Iranian supply would also be badly punctured. But this is unlikely in that surreptitious drone attacks are not a routine affair without irrefutably identifying and pointing fingers at the source of destruction.
Riyadh’s close ally, the US government, has been quick — quicker than the Saudi royalty—in accusing Tehran of last fortnight’s destruction of oil facilities. Tehran has denied the charges whereas the underrated Houthi rebels in Yemen have come up with an assertive claim of having done the act. Riyadh itself exercised a relative degree of caution in assertively reiterating Washington’s claim.
The US strategy could be exerting yet another spell of ‘maximum pressure’ on the Iranian rulers. This could, however, backfire. Aggravation of the situation will not deliver the much sought-after dialogue and drastic reduction in Washington-Tehran course of confrontation following the US President Donald Trump’s declared conclusion that Riyadh would have to bear the consequence of his accusations. But he seems to be planning to confine the action to stationing of additional troops in Saudi Arabia.

Grave risks
A flare-up between the superpower and West Asia’s military might turn out to be a protracted war with unpredictably staggering losses, particularly to those in Iran’s neighbourhood. Riyadh is no pushover. The manner in which its youth brigade in 1979-80 held American hostages in Tehran for 444 days with the Jimmy Carter administration not being able to do much cannot be forgotten. Shortly after, non-aligned and oil rich neighbours both, Iran and Iraq were locked in a horrendous war for the next eight and a half years.
Just as Washington wanted its superpower rival Moscow to suffer embarrassment and difficulties in connection with the latter’s troop presence in Afghanistan, the Soviets had the incentive to take satisfaction over the daily embarrassment its ideological opponent suffered even if through an indirect route. In effect, the two superpowers were engaged in proxy wars out of spite and/or perennial rivalry created by what the West termed Cold War.
The American press used to lambast the Soviets for engagement in the decade-long Afghan war, which started in the December 1979, entrapping Moscow for a full decade before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev convinced his communist colleagues on the need to recall their soldiers home from Afghanistan. Sermons are easier to administer than putting the same into practice, as Washington seems to realise from its bitter experience in, of all the places, Afghanistan—that too, for 18 years and without any definitive indication of the war’s end any time soon.
Trump risks limping in the 2020 presidential polls when he formally seeks a fresh four-year terms. He makes no bones about craving for prolonging his stay at the White House he came to occupy three years ago, despite prophets of doom, who predicted the certainty of an outright defeat. The eventual events proved them wrong even if it was a close call.
With less popular vote than what his Democratic Party opponent Hillary Clinton polled, the Republican candidate won the majority support of delegates constituting the Electoral College—a rare but constitutionally correct procedure. The latest opinion polls reconfirm consistent indications of Trump’s approval ratings at the level recorded in 2016. In other words, his core support base has not wavered. He leads significantly in the polls covering popular support when he is pitted against any of the dozen or so aspirants for the Democratic Party ticket.
Power, more than practice of principles, is what guides politics, as reiterated so persistently down the ages. Trump, by any measure, is no exception. To cut a long story straight and short, the US president has too much at stake to risk being seen as a leader initiating a new war at a time when US involvement in Afghanistan has inflicted stupendous embarrassment and loss of credibility in its international reputation.
The past 18 years stand as a devastating testimony to a calamitous involvement that has failed to achieve the invader’s covert objective of military incursion into the poverty-ridden landlocked Muslim nation. Iran cannot at all be compared with Afghanistan from where the US finds pulling out so strenuous. Iran is a tough nut to crack than is Afghanistan. Starting a war with Iran could create consequences Washington might face too exhaustive drastically dimming its international image and stripping it of the undisputed superpower status it holds since so long.
Accelerated fighting and more destructions in Afghanistan will not produce a decisive outcome that has eluded the foreign forces, especially the US, since nearly two decades, when 100,000 casualties and one trillion dollars have not produced a breakthrough.
Rhetoric Vs reality
A tone-down in rhetoric might ease things. If the exercise is only a strategy to return to tough talk and sanctions amid sponsored sabotages, West Asia’s reputation as a potential flashpoint for a war engaging a great many countries will send severe shivers down the spines of sane minds and saner leaders across the globe. A full scale war with Iran could reduce Trump to being the fourth president post-World War II like Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and George Herbert Bush to be confined to only a single term in office. Gerald Ford, who stepped in after Richard Nixon stepped down at the height of the Watergate phone tapping scandal, failed to win any fresh term.
Washington might like to be seen as an assertive Saudi ally in the eyes of the world but it would be imprudent to do anything more than make a few surprise strikes against Iranian installations and return to no-action position. A full scale armed conflict with Tehran War would shake and frighten the small oil-states in the region, fearing repercussions from confrontation between Washington and Tehran—even obliteration.
Iraq haunts Washington which claimed Saddam Hussein possessed banned weapons of mass destruction that never existed. Afghanistan is a daily reminder of its folly. Hence Iran cannot be dealt with casually. Restraint is called for even on a superpower like the US.

(Former chief editor of The Rising Nepal, P. Kharel has been writing for this daily since 1973)