Whatever the real story behind the damaging attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, tensions in the Gulf and Middle East more widely have been significantly elevated. US attempts to engage the Iranians in direct and secret dialogue to try to wind back the US “extreme pressures” on Iran which Trump had claimed were underway when questioned about French President Macron’s attempt at mediation are clearly in jeopardy. Whether Trump’s tweeted threat that the US was “locked and loaded” to respond militarily to the attacks heightens concerns about further escalation in the Gulf area have yet to be seen.
All of which have immediate implications for the seemingly Claytons’ contribution Prime Minister Morrison announced recently of an Australian contribution to the US led “coalition for international maritime security in the Straits of Hormuz”.
In the past few months we have reported several times on the very serious military implications of any military escalation in the Gulf by either the US or Iran ( P&I: “Coalition of the Less than Willing “ 1 July 2019 and “ Alliance Management- Morrison’s First Challenge” 8 August 2019). Both emphasised the need for all of these issues to be considered closely by the Australian Government before making any commitment to join the US led “coalition of the less than willing”.
So far this initiative has failed to engage any European country other than the UK : which has sent independently several Royal Navy ships and support to the area tasked explicitly with protecting British-flagged ships. The Australian contribution almost embarrassingly has been for one ship for 6 months starting January 2020 (reportedly substituting for an RAN ship currently on anti-piracy etc duties in the Arabian Sea whose term ends then) and one month of a P8 surveillance aircraft later this year. It has provided an additional flag rather than urgent resources.
The damaging attacks on the vital Aramco facilities of the last few days have also thrown into stark relief the assessment in those blogs that while Iran could not expect to match the US military might its capacity to inflict extreme damage to US personnel and assets – whether directly or through its capable proxies in the region – was of an order that the US had not confronted since WW11.
The tangled web of trip wires in the whole area whether personal, religious, cultural, historical and economic ( for which read “oil”) makes predictions a perilous game here to which one must add Trump’s much heralded unpredictability ! And in the latter as each week passes so for Trump does the importance of the 2020 elections approach. With the recent collapse of the secret efforts to negotiate a pre-election exit from Afghanistan with the Taliban, Trump will want to avoid opening up another war which his professional advice surely would be advising cannot be won on the ground or quickly.
The failure so far to identify , with any clarity or credibility, the actual devices employed in the explosive attacks – drone or missile – and their launch locations adds further drama. This follows the pattern of the earlier attacks on a Saudi oil facility and on the tankers off Fujairah about which compelling evidence has still not been produced for the media. This all leads to informed sources saying basically while they are not sure of precise locations (especially of the Houthi claims) they are confident that there was an Iranian hand behind them all – directly or indirectly.
Trump’s comment that the US was waiting for the Saudis to advise these details is little short of whimsical as the Saudis depend so heavily on the US for their own intelligence information. Of even further concern must also be the seeming inability of the massive amounts of air defence systems the Saudis have purchased from the US (complete with heavy helpings of training etc) to defend these facilities which are so vital for the Saudi economy if not the global energy market. That will be a cause of great anxiety for the UAE and Bahrain and other US allies in the region.
The targets Trump has in mind with his “locked and loaded” threat would appear to be either :
- the Houthi in Yemen : who have claimed responsibility but real doubts exist about their capability to build or even operate drones with such a long range. Anyway, what targets are left in bombed out Yemen where the civilian casualty rates are so appalling?
- pro-Iranian forces located in southern Iraq : within easier range but any US attack on target inside Iraq would risk Iraqi Shia pressuring Iraqi government to expel US forces stationed there.In turn this could have dire consequences for the continuing struggle against ISIS and any thoughts of controlling the Iranian supply route to Syria and Lebanon across Iraq.
- launch sites in Iran proper: which would almost certainly unleash significant Iranian missile and conventional attacks against US (and allied) assets in the Gulf and/or less directly against assets in Iraq and elsewhere.
As our earlier blogs reported , in the second two options above there would likely be a priority for the US to withdraw its carriers and very large ships from the Gulf before launching any operations as they would be considered too vulnerable to Iranian counterattack despite all their electronic and other support. US planning has seen them relocated safely into the Arabian or Red Seas from where they could undertake cruise missile and air attacks into Iran. Though with the Houthis and their smaller drones the Red Sea might not be all that secure either.
The above , of course, must now have special attention by the Australian Government – and all the more with the Prime Minister due to meet President Trump in Washington.
Mack Williams former Australian Ambassador, Royal College of Defence Studies