Houthis Hit Aramco, Netanyahu Wobbles - Hard Times for the 'B' Team
Persistent lobbying by the Israeli leader to isolate Iran has boomeranged
Attack on Aramco, decline of Benjamin Netanyahu, John Bolton’s departure from the White House are all honeyed music to the leadership in Iran. In April, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was categorical during a talk at New York’s Asia Society: 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 team has disintegrated.
Many foreign technicians are engaged to operate oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. It is interesting that they were not hit. A loss of American lives would have provoked retaliation in Washington, though it would not have been the first time 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 being present on the land housing 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 deserts.
Since news of military reversals is never aired in a society as closed as Saudi Arabia’s, regimes end up underestimating their adversaries’ tenacity. Ingenuity comes in where military hardware is lacking. It was ingenuity which caused the great Mervaka tank in the Israeli armoury to look so vulnerable while confronting Hezbollah in the 2006 war in Lebanon. Likewise, just the other day 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 Buqyaq is devastating for the Saudis, of course. 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: can the trillions of dollars of Western arms we have bought over the years not 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, Bibi’s high tolerance level for the outlandish schools of thought of his projected partners was harmful for the Israeli image worldwide.
Further, persistent lobbying by the Israeli leader to demonise Iran has not worked. Indeed it has boomeranged, and he himself has had egg on his face, for instance at the high powered conference in Warsaw last February which had the known purpose of isolating Iran.
Russia slammed the planned meeting at the very outset as “counterproductive” because of its seeming 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.
Now with the elections in Israel, 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 Israel and occupied Palestine with my dear friend the late Eric Silver. Israel then was never the 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 increasingly 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, the 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 seem to 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 being 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. It 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, Hashd al-Shaabi (in Iraq) and the Houthis in Yemen.
Place the protagonists in a balance and you have a fair idea of who the victors and the vanquished are.