President Donald Trump is hinting that U.S. military action against Iran could be his response to the Islamic republic’s alleged role in a weekend attack on Saudi Arabia ― creating the impression, particularly among his critics, that he might actually launch a devastating new war on behalf of an unpopular foreign kingdom.
But, cinematic and politically expedient as it is to imagine a commander in chief sending soldiers into harm’s way and igniting global chaos simply because he’s dazzled by flattery and Saudi wealth, that’s not what’s happening here.
The common perception that Trump will start a conflict because that’s in the Saudis’ interest relies on a misunderstanding of what’s good for the kingdom. And in their own response to Saturday’s drone strikes on two landmark oil processing facilities, Saudi officials have so far shown that they know further escalation isn’t helpful.
Trump, of course, may calculate otherwise. So should war actually break out, it will have more to do with a “locked and loaded” president who imagines some benefit than with foreign scapegoats.
The Saudis know how to aggravate longtime rival Iran, whether through aggressive rhetoric and further cracking down on Saudi citizens who follow Shiism, the minority branch of Islam that’s most common in Iran, or by punishing Iran-linked forces in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria or elsewhere. Instead of doing so, Riyadh is treading cautiously, even though the assault by drones and cruise missiles hit crucial infrastructure for the nation’s chief industry― causing the biggest-ever hit to global oil production ― and could have long-term ramifications if key clients like Japan and China decide it’s safer to import from elsewhere.
Saudi officials have focused on restoring confidence in their country’s security and ability to weather challenges, even as their U.S. counterparts, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on down, have fixated on convincing the world that Iran is responsible for the crisis.
In their own response to Saturday’s drone strikes on two landmark oil processing facilities, Saudi officials have so far shown that they know further escalation isn’t helpful.
On Monday, the Saudi foreign ministry issued a statement calling the attack “an unprecedented act of aggression and sabotage” caused by Iranian weapons but notably said the kingdom was still unsure where it originated and would be inviting the United Nations and other international experts to consult on the question.
Iran’s government has denied being behind the strikes, and an Iran-linked militia in Yemen, which borders Saudi Arabia and is currently the site of a controversial military intervention by the Saudis, has claimed responsibility.
For the Saudi Arabia of decades past, when decisions emerged slowly out of consultations between multiple powerful princes and a creaky, overstuffed bureaucracy, slow-walking the response would be standard. For today’s Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who aspires to operate in rapid Silicon Valley-style and likes to throw his country’s weight around in its volatile neighborhood, this is striking.
It’s also a departure from the kingdom’s willingness in recent years to escalate issues with other countries, whether by severing all relations with Iran in 2016 over unproven suspicions that the government there directed attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities, by detaining Lebanon’s prime minister in 2017, or by picking a fight with Canada last summer over routine criticism of Saudi human rights abuses.
With growing U.S. intelligence tying Iran to the attacks — now even convincing lawmakers outside Trump’s team, including Democrats — the Saudis will almost certainly eventually endorse that conclusion, too. But their delay is an important signal to both Iran and other countries in the region that, for all the Trump administration’s exhortations to see Iran’s behavior as uniformly negative and unreasonable, the Saudis appreciate what experts say Tehran is trying to do: use what resources it has left to ratchet up tension to the point that the U.S. has to let up on at least some of the “maximum pressure” Trump has inflicted.
Another likely reason the Saudis are behaving differently is that they know how difficult their position could be if they followed the U.S.’s bellicose lead and how hard they would find it to deal with that scenario.
“If the Saudis accept… that Iran did send these missiles and/or drones into Saudi territory, it really does put a lot of pressure on the Saudi monarchy to initiate a response,” said Ellen Wald, an analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, in a Monday call with reporters. “And that’s really not something that Saudi Arabia is equipped to handle… the Saudi military is not prepared to fight a protracted war with Iran in any way.”
The crown prince, known colloquially as MBS, would probably struggle to sell such a fight to his people, Wald added.
The Saudi military is not prepared to fight a protracted war with Iran in any way. Ellen Wald, analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council
The kingdom’s bloody adventure in Yemen has already prompted fighting on the border that’s killed Saudi civilians and devastated villages. Frustration at home and abroad over that war and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has fueled internal doubts about the prince’s wisdom. And MBS’s push to end the country’s reliance on oil and patronage networks and its government-mandated religious extremism have meanwhile entailed painful cuts to benefits and tensions between more secular and more hard-line elements of Saudi society.
For MBS, one more flashpoint could just mean more trouble. Other initiatives, like his accelerating bid to sell part of the Saudi state-owned oil company to free up funds for investment, or his ongoing public relations campaign to paint his society as evolving away from its ultra-conservatism (exemplified by stunts like hosting evangelical Christian leaders from the U.S. just before this year’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks) are safer and probably more fruitful bets.
Then again, there’s no denying that both the crown prince and the U.S. president have a knack for making just the wrong move.
MBS’s voice may not be in the president’s head, but Trump’s got plenty of inclinations toward risky decision-making all on his own.