Ill Wind For West: Houthis Hit Aramco, Netanyahu Wobbles
Attack on Aramco, decline of Benjamin Netanyahu, departure of John Bolton from the White House are all honeyed music to the leadership in Iran. In April, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a talk at New York’s Asia Society, was categorical: dialogue with Washington was not possible because the “B” team wanted war with Iran. The “B” team was Bolton, Bibi Netanyahu, (Mohammad) bin Salman and (Mohammed) bin Zayed. And now the “B” team has disintegrated.
Many foreign technicians are engaged to operate oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. It is interesting that they were not hit. Loss of American lives would have provoked retaliation in Washington. This, though, would not have been the first time the US and British personnel were killed. Over 30 foreigners lost their lives when Islamist extremists attacked three compounds in Riyadh in May, 2003.
That however was a totally different circumstance. There was anger at foreign military personnel on the land which houses Mecca and Medina. The attacks took place within a month of the US occupation of Iraq. The Saudis involved in the attack on the Riyadh compounds were no different from the ones who flew into the twin-towers on September 11.
This time the Saudis who have been relentlessly pummeling Yemen for nearly five years, creating a humanitarian catastrophe of unspeakable proportions are getting their just desserts.
Since news of military reversals is never aired in a society as closed as the Saudis, regimes end up underestimating the tenacity of their adversaries. Ingenuity comes in where military hardware is lacking. It was ingenuity which caused the great Mervaka tank in the Israeli armory look so vulnerable while confronting the Hezbollah in the 2006 war. Also, just the other day, on June 20 to be precise, an inexpensively configured Iranian drone brought down a $15.9 million US drone in the Gulf.
The drone attack by the Houthis on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil processing facility in Buqayq, is devastating for the Saudis, ofcourse. But it is much more worrying for the American military industrial complex. The question uppermost in the minds of the Saudi ruling elite will be: Western arms worth trillions of dollars which we have bought over the years cannot protect “our crown jewels?” The US arms market may take a profound hit worldwide, not a happy development when Trump is looking for deep pockets to clean out the Chinese in the trade war.
A weakened Netanyahu is further bad news for the “B” team. No cooing dove himself but his high tolerance level for outlandish schools of thought as his projected partners was harmful for Israeli image worldwide.
Netanyahu is not a very “likeable” person. This was seen as one of the ingredients in the anti-Semitism sweeping through the western world. The persistent lobbying by the Israeli leader to demonize Iran has not worked. Indeed, it has boomeranged. In fact, he himself has had egg on his face as, for instance, at the high powered conference in Warsaw last February with the known purpose of isolating Iran. Russia slammed the planned meeting at the very outset as “counterproductive” because of its obsession with Iran.
The conference collapsed after Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, crossed all possible diplomatic red lines. “Poles suckled anti-Semitism from their mother’s milk” he accused his hosts. The conference was in tatters. A meeting scheduled in Jerusalem to carry forward ideas from Warsaw was cancelled. Can you blame Poles for nursing a guilt for which they are so publicly insulted?
Here is an opportunity for the leader of Blue and White party, Benny Gantz to make Israel not just feared but also loved. I have in years past travelled around the length and breadth of the Israel, Gaza and the West Bank with my dear friend, the late Eric Silver. Israel then was never a harsh, forbidding place it appeared to be in the Netanyahu years.
Just after Trump was elected President, two grand old men, leaders of the strategic community, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski turned up in Oslo as guests of the Nobel Foundation. I could distil two points from their punditry: that the principal task of US foreign policy was to keep two points of the compass, Beijing and Moscow, as far apart from each other as possible. It is clear as daylight that not only are the two points not far from each other, but they are getting increasing intertwined. The second point had even greater urgency. The Arab-Israeli faultline was losing saliency to the Shia-Sunni faultline. There was an assumption that the Sunnis, being numerically superior, would in the end prevail. And with US and Israeli support, they could ask for the moon.
To get the calculations right, one must set aside Indonesia, world’s largest Muslim country and Malaysia, both Sunni but different from the Arab world. In Indonesia, particularly, there is a quaint coexistence of Islam and Hindu culture. Even though Islam is the religion of an overwhelming majority, Mahabharata and Ramayana define the nation’s culture.
The Gulf Co-operation Council or the GCC put their heads together largely in response to the Iranian revolution of 1979. But it is far from a Wahabi-Salafi dominated homogenous group. In Bahrain, the conflict is unique: an 80% majority Shia population is treated by the Wahabi ruling Sheikhs as the only opposition. In 2011, when the Arab Spring was in the air, US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman had very nearly worked out a power-sharing arrangement between the Sheikh and the main opposition. The arrangement was scuttled by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia who saw any arrangement with Shias as a compact with Iran and therefore the devil. He saw Iran as “the head of a snake which had to be cut off.”
Has this approach worked for the Saudis? They are sitting on a heap of rubble in Yemen, in Aramco and in Syria. Iran, meanwhile, has consolidated itself with Hezbollah in Beirut, al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. Will this be sufficient provocation for the scattered “B” team to regroup?