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Can the US Accept That There Is a New Strategic Balance in the Middle East?

Burning oilfield during Operation Desert Storm, Kuwait
Burning oilfield during Operation Desert Storm, Kuwait in 1991. (Photo: Jonas Jordan, United States Army Corps of Engineers)

The Houthi drone strike on Aramco shows the shifting strategic balance in the Persian Gulf. It also shows that any escalation in this region threatens the global economy.

The intricate war dance among the U.S., the Saudis and Iran on the Houthi attack on Aramco oil installations may still not lead to a shooting war in West Asia. The Saudi defense ministry spokesman Turki al-Malki said the attack was unquestionably “sponsored” by Iran—quite different from outrightly holding Iran directly responsible. Even the U.S. is now using language such as Iran was “behind the attack,” and following up such statements with fresh sanctions on Iran. It is possible that the “locked and loaded” gun that President Trump had tweeted earlier may not now be fired.

Houthis have shown to the Saudis that their mastery over drones has created new conditions in the region. I wrote a few weeks back that drones and missiles with mobile launchers make it possible for weaker forces to inflict unacceptable damage on much stronger countries attacking them. This has shifted the strategic balance in various theaters of war, which countries with much greater firepower have yet to register. This is the new strategic balance between Houthis and Saudis; Hezbollah and Israel; and, on a wider scale, Iran-Hezbollah-Houthis and the U.S.-Israel-Saudis. None of the weaker forces have to win—they only need the ability to keep fighting while imposing unacceptable damage on the other side.

A Vulnerable Oil Market

The damage done to the Aramco facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais by the Houthi attack has taken out 5.7 million barrels per day—or 50 percent—of the Saudi oil production. The Saudis currently produce 12 percent of the world’s oil, and any long-term damage to their oil installations has huge consequences for the world’s oil supply as well its price. In spite of the Saudis saying that they have enough stocks to meet the shortfall of supply and the U.S. releasing its strategic reserves of oil to the market, the oil price immediately jumped up 20 percent. With continuing U.S. illegal sanctions on Venezuela and Iran, the world is now critically dependent on oil from the Saudis, who have promised to increase production to meet the shortfall. Any hit on this supply will have global repercussions and drive the world into a new recession.

For countries like India, the consequences are even more dire. India imports more than 80 percent of its crude oil and has cravenly followed the U.S. “orders” on Iran and Venezuela sanctions. The U.S. offer for shale oil is no solution to the Indian economy, as shale oil is much more costly and will drive India’s balance of payments deep into the red. Jettisoning Iran under Trump’s diktat could have serious consequences for India.

The Houthis have shown that the days when Saudis lorded it over Yemen’s airspace, bombing Houthi forces and civilian centers at will, have consequences. The Houthi drone strikes can now hit the soft the Saudi underbelly—its oil installations, power plants and desalination facilities. Armed by the NATO powers, Saudi Arabia has overwhelming air dominance over the Houthis. Its defense spending is next only to the U.S. and China, and more than India’s, which is in fourth place. The Saudis spent $70 billion on their defense, compared to Iran’s $6.3 billion, which is less than a tenth of the Saudi expenditure. Certainly the Houthis cannot defend themselves from Saudi air attacks, but neither can Saudi Arabia against drone or cruise missile attacks that hug the ground and defeat easy detection by radar.

After the Iraq war and the then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Oscar-winning performance on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction in the UN, the bible-thumping, current Secretary Pompeo’s claim that it was Iran who dunnit will carry very little conviction with the rest of the world. The coastline facing Iran has a very dense set of radar networks, the U.S. Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, the al Udeid Air Base in Qatar of the U.S. Air Force Central Command, as well as numerous Saudi radar installations. They should have detected such a strike coming over the open waters of the Persian Gulf. That the U.S. and the Saudis have produced no such evidence tells its own tale.

Who’s Supplying the Weapons?

The Saudis are now claiming that Iran was “behind the attack,” and have climbed down from blaming Iran directly. Their spokesperson, Turki al-Malki, in his press conference argued that the Houthis could not have launched the drone and cruise missile attack, as it did not come from the direction of Yemen. This is very thin evidence, as we know that a drone does not need to fly in a straight line, and can hit a target from any direction irrespective of where it originated. Neither does it prove that if it came from the north as he claimed, it could have come only from Iran. Even the BBC was forced to say that these claims ducked the central question: Were the weapons used in the attacks against the Saudi oil installations actually fired from Iranian soil?

While the Saudis have presented the debris of the missiles and drones, showing a fallen wing of a missile and calling it Iranian or calling the data inside the “computer” as Iranian, can at best prove that Iran did transfer drone technology to Houthis. To present this transfer of drone technology as somehow a smoking gun against Iran in the Aramco attack simply overlooks that it is not technology that the U.S., France and UK have transferred to Saudis but real aircraft, bombs and missiles that have devastated Yemen. Last year, one such U.S.-made bomb killed 40 school children. Yet we do not hold these countries responsible for the Saudi attacks on Yemen.

Most of the components used in the Houthi drones including the engine and guidance system can be procured easily from the global market. And putting it all together in workshops is well within the skills of the Yemenis. The attack from the Houthis on Aramco is not an isolated one. They have been carrying out a series of drone attacks on Saudi Arabia for the past year, testing their capabilities and probing the Saudi defense. Open-source information on the type of radar, air defense systems and the centers protected by Saudis shows that while the Saudis have some capability in defending against air attack by conventional means—bombers and other attack aircraft—they have very little defense against drone or cruise attacks. Most of their air defense is based on the assumption that the only serious threat they have is from Iran, that too using aircraft and conventional missiles. What the Houthis have shown is that in the age of asymmetric war, there are cheaper attack options using drones.

A number of people have written about open-source drones, their guidance systems and the small piston or jet engines that are commercially available. All these can be used to create a viable drone that can do what Houthis claim they have done—and all of it for about $20,000 tops. Of course, this does not take away the possibility that Iran could have helped the Houthis with designs and components.

Looking at the debris of the drones shown by Saudi Arabia earlier, the only evidence on view was that it was a copy of an Iranian design. Creating such drones might have required Iranian knowledge or technology transfer to the Houthis. But why exactly should Iran, under illegal sanctions from the U.S. strangling its economy, not arm the Houthis against the Saudis? Particularly, as the aircraft and missiles sold by the U.S., France and the UK have been repeatedly used against the Yemenis including their civilian centers.

Western Crimes Against Humanity

The Western media have extensively covered the UN Report that has talked about Iran’s involvement in the Houthi drone program. What has not found similar coverage is that the same report also shows that laser guidance missile systems from the U.S. and UK have been used in attacks on civilians that breach international humanitarian law. And they were launched from aircraft that only the Saudis possessed in the region. It is the NATO countries that have armed the Saudi air force in carrying out about 20,000 bombings on the Yemenis, and supplying the bulk of its $70 billion arms acquisition, with the U.S. alone supplying Saudi Arabia with more than 80 percent of its imported arms. The asymmetric nature of the coverage shows that the Western media are “manufacturing consent” on a worldwide scale for their military-industrial complex.

The importance of Saudi Arabia to the U.S. and its allies is that Saudi Arabia underwrites the dollar, and makes it possible for the U.S. and the Western financial institutions to control the global financial system. But the days of U.S. strategic dominance over West Asia are now over. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank, writes, “Looking further into the future, the strikes on Saudi Arabia provide a clear strategic warning that the U.S. era of air supremacy in the Gulf, and the near U.S. monopoly on precision strike capability, is rapidly fading.” Unless the U.S. decides to go to war against Iran, that is.

Yes, the U.S. can destroy Iran and its infrastructure. But if Iran is destroyed, the oil infrastructure of the allies in the region will not survive either. This is the new strategic balance, and the sooner the U.S. and its NATO partners accept it, the quicker can we look for peace in the region.

This article was produced in partnership by Newsclick and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Prabir Purkayastha

Prabir Purkayastha is the founder and editor in chief of Newsclick. He is the president of the Free Software Movement of India and is an engineer and a science activist.

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