‘Locked and loaded,’ US still reluctant to directly challenge Iran

Locked and loaded the US military may be but, as long as Trump remains hesitant, US Arab allies are left to their own devices.

By Ali Alfoneh
Source: The Arab Weekly
Mixed signals. US President Donald Trump (L) walks next to new national security adviser Robert O’Brien at Los Angeles International Airport, September 18. (AFP)

The United States is “locked and loaded,” US President Donald Trump tweeted after the attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil refinery complexes in Saudi Arabia but added: “[the United States is] waiting to hear from the [Saudis] as to who they believe was the cause of this attack and under what terms we should proceed!”

Responding to Trump’s tweet, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a circumspect statement indicating that Iranian weapons were used in the attacks but, instead of holding Tehran responsible, the Saudis said they would “invite UN and international experts to view the situation on the ground and participate in the investigations.”

The cautious Saudi approach is understandable. Addressing the media along with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa on September 16, Trump was asked if he had “promised the Saudis that the US will protect them in this case.”

In a bizarre response, even by this American president’s standards, Trump responded: “No, I haven’t. I haven’t promised the Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out and the Saudis want very much for us to protect them but I say, well, we have to work. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia and that wasn’t an attack on us.”

In other words, the president of the United States delegates decisions on war and peace to a foreign power and that foreign power, unwilling to get directly involved in war, and justifiably doubting willingness of the United States, under Trump, to come to its defence, pretends there is need for a UN investigation of the incident to identify the culprit.

A disappointment in Riyadh, Trump’s reaction to the attacks manifestly boosted the self-confidence of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Addressing theological students on September 17, Khamenei dismissed the idea of negotiations with the United States: “Negotiating with America means the United States imposing its demands on the Islamic Republic of Iran. Second, negotiation will demonstrate success of the maximum pressure policy of the United States.”

However, Khamenei also opened a path for Trump: “If the United States… returns to the nuclear agreement, which it has violated… then it can participate as the signatories convene to engage in talks with Iran. He, too, can participate in those talks, without any negotiation taking place between Islamic Republic authorities and the Americans.”

Khamenei’s dismissal of Iran-US negotiations must be taken with a grain of salt. Khamenei made similar statements when receiving Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in June. Those statements did not prevent Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif from pursuing the idea of a summit between the presidents of the United States and Iran.

In this light, the attacks against Abqaiq and Khurais oil refinery complexes in Saudi Arabia make better sense. Aware of Trump’s disinclination to entangle the United States in military adventures in the Middle East, Tehran is trying to improve its negotiating position vis-a-vis Washington. Iran and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps run the risk of crossing Trump’s redline and provoking a war with the United States, which Iran can ill afford.

For the time being, however, Trump appears as lax about his red lines, if he indeed has any, as his predecessor in office. This means more provocations from Tehran. Locked and loaded the US military may be but, as long as Trump remains hesitant, US Arab allies are left to their own devices.