Events in the Arabian Peninsula have upstaged the Israeli elections, supposedly the big story of the week.
The confrontation between Iran and its allies and Saudi Arabia and its allies is on the verge of boiling over into overt warfare.
Attacking the Saudi oil infrastructure is the equivalent of attacking the heart of a living creature – it is the source of its existence as a country. It is not yet clear if the drones came from Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen, from Iran itself or from Iraq. What is clear is that Iran is directly or indirectly responsible for the attack, which is a clear and blatant act of war.
Let’s examine the balance. Saudi Arabia has oil, money and an extremely well-equipped army and air force. But it lacks the leadership and will to fight effectively, as has been amply demonstrated in the Yemeni civil war. The Saudis have regional allies in the Gulf, as well as Jordan and Egypt.
Iran, on the other hand, is suffering from crippling sanctions imposed mostly by the United States. It has a powerful army, navy and air force, divided, however, into the regular armed forces and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which cordially hate each other. It has its own regional allies in Lebanon and Syria, but more importantly significant and violent non-state allies, especially the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Recently threatening gestures towards Israel have been coming from all three of these terrorist organizations, funded and armed by Iran. So far, fear of massive Israeli retaliation has prevented these gestures transforming into yet another subregional war between these groups and Israel.
Iran itself has been taking clearly illegal and potentially dangerous measures at the mouth of the Gulf itself, including seizing ships flagged under various countries.
All this and more has led to a toxic mixture which has had the potential to mutate into armed conflict at any time.
This regional devil’s brew has just been raised by Iran to a higher level of explosiveness. The two countries whose reaction will determine the outcome of this highly dangerous action are Israel and the United States. Others such as Turkey and Russia will huff and puff but ultimately end up as observers as the Gulf does or does not explode.
The Saudis know that they are no match for Iran one-on-one. They absolutely need the cooperation of the US – Israel would be a big help too. The Iranians know perfectly well they cannot directly attack Israel. Israeli submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped missiles are permanently deployed in or near the Gulf and with that option, Israel could attack and cripple Iranian nuclear and other infrastructure with non-nuclear equipment from the air, as almost happened in 2012 before the attack was called off because of opposition from the Obama Administration in Washington.
Immobilizing half of the Saudi oil production is not a minor event. Retaliation will probably be equally serious, if not more so.
The preliminaries are over. The main event, it would appear, is about to begin.
Unless, of course, the Trump Administration does nothing of significance in retaliation. That would be a mistake of cosmic significance, much more serious than the erasure of Obama’s “redline” following the Syrian use of poison gas, which led to a significant reduction in US influence in the Middle East.