The attack on the two Saudi Aramco facilities on 14 September has raised tension in the Middle East. Although Yemen's Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility, Washington is accusing Iran of being behind them, allegations that officials in Tehran continue to reject.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travelled to Saudi Arabia a few days ago to meet the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said that Pompeo and Bin Salman "discussed the need for the international community to come together to counter the continued threat of the Iranian regime and agreed that the Iranian regime must be held accountable for its continued aggressive, reckless and threatening behaviour." Does that include a military option?
President Donald Trump seems to be putting the ball into Saudi Arabia's court. In a tweet on 15 September, Trump said: "Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!" This suggests that Riyadh has to make its own mind up on the next steps it would like to take before Washington moves.
Moreover, in response to a question after a meeting with Bahrain's Crown Prince on 16 September, Trump said that he had not promised to protect the Saudis: "No, I haven't. 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." The recent attack, he noted, "was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn't an attack on us." He went on to say: "But we would certainly help them. They've been a great ally." This reflects the pressure that he is placing upon the Saudis themselves.
The US imposed sanctions on Iran's Central Bank on Friday. Although Trump said that this is the 'highest sanctions ever imposed", it is not a new strategy for Washington in its "maximum pressure" campaign against the Iranians. It is, however, unlikely that the US will escalate the situation further and get involved in a war. There may be some hawks in the US looking for that to happen, but his positions on Syria and Afghanistan suggest that Trump does not favour wars in the Middle East. He will not risk making such a promise given that he has said that he will get the troops home at a time when the US presidential election is taking place next year.
If there is a red line for Trump, then that seems to be American lives. When the Iranians shot down the US drone in June, the President was emphatic that, "We had nobody in the drone. It would have made a big difference, let me tell you. It would have made a big, big difference." As long as no Americans are killed, then he is unlikely to get involved.
Furthermore, on 19 September, Pompeo headed to the UAE, where he met Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. His tone there was less belligerent, saying that Washington is seeking a "peaceful resolution" to the crisis in the region after the Saudi attack. This suggests that the US is not willing to take military action, regardless of what some hardliners may think.
Furthermore, although US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said on Friday that the Pentagon will deploy American troops to the Middle East, that could be looked at as rhetorical pressure against the Iranians as well as a reassurance to the Gulf countries rather than a demonstration that it is seriously willing to take the military option. This doesn't, of course, rule out the fact that Trump can be unpredictable.
For its part, Saudi Arabia may have been uncertain how to respond. On 18 September, Defence Ministry spokesman Colonel Turki Al-Maliki displayed the wreckage of the "Iranian" drones and cruise missiles that were allegedly used in the attack, but he did not name the location from where they were fired. The attacks were "unquestionably" sponsored by Iran, but investigations are still ongoing to pinpoint the exact launch location, Al-Maliki told a press conference in Riyadh.
In addition, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel Al-Jubeir, said on Saturday that the attacks were undertaken with Iranian weapons and it was for this reason that Iran should be held accountable for the incident. "We are certain that the attacks did not come from Yemen but from the north," he explained. "Investigations will prove that."
The question is, if Iran is proven to be behind the attack, how will the Saudis respond? They have failed to contain the Houthis in Yemen with the help of a coalition of several countries, plus US weapons and logistical support. If they couldn't do that, how will they contain Iran if they respond on their own? It is impossible for them to enter such a conflict without help. Trump, though, is unlikely to get into a war, and the same can be said about the UAE, which has been getting closer to Tehran.
Some may argue that even if the US enters the conflict, Riyadh is aware of the consequences. "Mr. Trump may have developed a vicarious delight in warfare by playing with toy soldiers as a wealthy child," former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman told me, "but he applies an economic yardstick to war and, correctly, judges it to be more costly than beneficial. Saudi Arabia has just been reminded that a war with Iran, even if conducted by the United States and/or Israel, could jeopardise its very existence."
The former diplomat added that, "Insanity is not unknown in statecraft these days, but my guess is that no one will be mad enough to trigger the sort of general warfare in the Persian Gulf region that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has forecast."
If there is to be a Saudi military response, regardless of who was really behind the Aramco attack, then it may be against one of Iran's proxies. This seems evident from the way that the Saudi-led coalition launched a military operation on Friday against "legitimate military targets" to the north of Yemen's port city of Hudaydah. It would, however, be difficult to imagine such an attack being on Iran itself, as the predicted consequences for Saudi Arabia will be massive.
The reckless and offensive policies of Mohammad Bin Salman have left Saudi Arabia with few friends. Even if it still has a few partners or allies in the region remaining, they are unlikely to enter a war with the Iranians because the devastation that is likely to follow would be unacceptable.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.