Opinion: Donald Trump hesitates on Iran attack — with good reason | Opinion | DW | 17.09.2019
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Opinion

Opinion: Donald Trump hesitates on Iran attack — with good reason

Trump has toned down his retaliation rhetoric in the days after the attack on Saudi oil facilities. He's in "no rush" to pin the blame on Iran, but American logic could easily apply to the US itself, says Peter Philipp.

US "sources" were quick to accuse Iran of being the culprit in Saturday's drone attack on Saudi oil plants in the country's east. However, they were unable or unwilling to produce evidence as in previous cases concerning alleged Iranian perpetrators.

President Trump did not immediately want to join in the finger pointing, but his first words were clear enough. The US was "locked and loaded," he said, though it would talk through any reaction with the Saudis first. One day later Trump dialed down the tone, saying there was "no rush" to respond until there was a definitive answer, and even offering to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

Peter Philipp (DW)

Peter Philipp was a longtime correspondent in the Middle East

In the meantime, Trump has said the US would help prevent international oil shortages, and that he had already given instructions to access American emergency reserves if necessary.

Washington's logic applies to itself

Yemeni Huthi, who are fighting the Saudi-backed government of Yemen, have taken responsibility for the attack. It could indeed have dramatic consequences for the global energy sector; the oil facilities, which were seriously damaged and set on fire during the attack, are the largest of their kind in the world.

What military and other consequences will follow in the region itself remains to be seen. European leaders on Tuesday called for a collective international response.

Read more: Shock and awe, but few surprises as oil prices spike

It would certainly be too simple and wrong to simply accept the American accusations against Tehran, particularly since one commonly heard argument is that, "Iran supplies the Huthi with weapons."

moke billowed out from the Saudi oil facilities that were attacked on September 14 (Reuters/Planet Labs )

Smoke billowed out from the Saudi oil facilities that were attacked on September 14

The latter has been known for years — but does that automatically make Iran the perpetrator? So far, nothing is known about Iranian military or even "just" military experts in Yemen on the side of the Huthi. On the other hand, the US leadership openly calls the Saudis "our allies."

Washington openly supports these allies in the war in Yemen, a war that has been going on for more than four years. The coalition led by Saudi Arabia attacks the anti-government rebels in Yemen with American weapons, American bombers and American reconnaissance in a war that has claimed at least 10,000 lives among the civilian population alone. This is why the assumption "arms supplier equals perpetrator" could just as easily be applied to Washington.

Moreover, the US is still the driving force behind the Yemen war's "information campaign," saying the Saudis support the legitimate Yemeni government under President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and help it to defend against the Iran-driven Huthi. Not a word about the fact that Hadi has long since resigned and left the country, nor that he spends more time in Saudi Arabia than in Yemen.

People gather around the rubble of a building hit by an airstrike in Yemen (picture-alliance/dpa/AP/H. Mohammed)

The civil war in Yemen has been ongoing since 2015, leaving much destruction and over 10,000 civilian deaths

Iran takes a different approach

In the past, there has been reoccuring tension between the Shiite population in Yemen's northern border area — the home of the Huthi — and the Sunni Saudis. Hungry for action and bloodthirsty (the murder of Jamal Khashoggi!), Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presumably thought he could settle old scores quickly and bring Yemen under Saudi control.

Iran is unlikely to even dream of what the Saudis have failed to manage in four years. Never before has Iran directly engaged in military activities in such a distant region, and the strategic importance of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait between thte Arabian Peninsula and eastern Africa is certainly no justification.

This can't be news in Washington. Perhaps this explains Trump's hesitation.

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