Praemon

The International Response to the Attack on Saudi Arabia

The International Response to the Attack on Saudi Arabia

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Last month, cruise missiles targeted and damaged oil facilities in Saudi Arabia owned by Saudi Aramco. The Houthis in Yemen immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and the United States and Saudi Arabia blamed Iran soon afterwards, insisting the missiles were launched from southern Iran.[1] The reactions of other countries, particularly those remaining in the JCPOA, have proven to be just as important.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China technically remain in the nuclear deal agreed upon in 2015, along with Iran. The United States has struggled to generate significant support for its confrontational Iran strategy among the E3 (France, Germany and the UK), China, and Russia since leaving the deal in 2017. The Trump Administration has been hoping that the Europeans will eventually go along with the United States and either leave the JCPOA and/or call for a new deal. That day is here.

In a joint statement on 23 September, France, Germany and the UK said that Iran was responsible for the attack on Saudi Aramco[2] and declared their support for new negotiations for a more comprehensive deal than the 2015 accord.[3] During that same week, President Macron of France argued that the world needed to do three things for the Middle East: prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, solve the Yemeni crisis, and lift economic sanctions on Iran.[4]

This news is good for all current and former members of the JCPOA. In fact, though it was offended by the Europeans’ accusations, Iran welcomed the overture for a broader deal.[5] President Hassan Rouhani said, “We [Iran] agree with the general framework by the Europeans.”[6] This response makes sense—of course the Iranians would agree to a plan which is two-thirds the Iran deal and one-third regional security, especially considering the Iranians recently released a plan for regional peace. The holdup, however, is found in the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, which the United States wants to be stricter, and the details of regional security, which includes questions not only the Yemeni War but Iran’s ballistic missiles and its international interventions around the world.

Russia and China have chosen to remain in the deal along with the Europeans. President Vladimir Putin, though, did not blame Iran for the Aramco attack.[7] For its part, China continues to import Iranian oil,[8] and it, along with Russia, would prefer to undermine America’s ability to pressure countries with economic sanctions.[9]

The Iran-United States standoff that started in 2017 has always been a problem for the entire world, particularly for the remaining signatories to the JCPOA and especially for Germany, France, and the UK. With the Saudi Aramco attack, the Europeans seem to be increasingly concerned that rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the United States could affect their economies and security further.[10] We can expect the Europeans, then, to put even more pressure on the United States and Iran to negotiate.

Yet Iran says it will negotiate after sanctions are lifted. The United States says it will not end the sanctions unless Iran ends its “menacing behavior.”[11] In the meantime, we may expect Iran to push back against its perceived injustices in additional ways: it was reported this week that “rockets and mortars landed” near the American and British embassies in Baghdad.[12] Protests supported by Shiite clerics (though support in ways other than written statements is unclear)[13] are rocking Iraq, where Iran directs militias and has significant sway over the country’s politics.[14] There is fear that Iran will strike back against the United States using asymmetrical methods, including by destabilizing Iraq.[15]

            In the coming weeks and months, the choices of European powers will greatly impact the future of the Iran-United States standoff. Iran risks alienating the Europeans if it continues to respond militarily in the face of American sanctions, but it also may encourage negotiations on its own terms if its pushback is successful. It remains to be seen how well France, Germany and the UK will balance the demands of their longtime American ally and the benefits of a new relationship with Iran.


[1] “الهجوم على أرامكو: واشنطن “حددت مواقع في إيران أطلقت منها طائرات مسيرة وصواريخ.” 2019. Reuters, as reported by BBC. September 17. Accessed at https://www.bbc.com/arabic/middleeast-49729332

[2] Daragahi, Borzou. 2019. “Iran warns against intervention as Boris Johnson and Hassan Rouhani set to meet.” Independent. September 24. Accessed at:  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-rouhani-trump-boris-johnson-unga-new-york-zarif-nuclear-deal-a9118161.html

[3] Sevastopulo, Demetri, George Parker, Najmeh Bozorgmehr, et al. 2019. “Boris Johnson urges Iran to back a new “Trump deal.” Financial Times. September 24. Accessed at:https://www.ft.com/content/1e818d2e-de30-11e9-9743-db5a370481bc

[4] Eqbali, Aresu and Rasmussen, Sune Engel. 2019. “President Rouhani says Iran open to diplomacy with U.S.” Wall Street Journal. October 2. Accessed at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/president-rouhani-says-iran-open-to-diplomacy-with-u-s-11570048756

[5] Daragahi, Borzou. 2019. “Iran warns against intervention as Boris Johnson and Hassan Rouhani set to meet.” Independent. September 24. Accessed at:  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-rouhani-trump-boris-johnson-unga-new-york-zarif-nuclear-deal-a9118161.html

[6] Karimi, Nasser. 2019. “Iran supports European plan to bolster nuclear deal.” PBS News. October 2. Accessed at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/iran-supports-european-plan-to-bolster-nuclear-deal

[7] Reuters. 2019. “Putin says no proof Iran was behind Saudi oil attacks.” Moscow Times. October 2. Accessed at: https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/02/putin-says-no-proof-iran-was-behind-saudi-oil-attacks-a67559

[8] Vatanka, Alex. “China’s great game in Iran.” 2019. Foreign Policy. September 5. Accessed at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/05/chinas-great-game-in-iran/

[9] Daragahi, Borzou. 2019. “Iran has a plan B thanks to China and Russia—and it might just thwart the Trump administration.” Independent. September 29. Accessed at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/iran-sanctions-trump-us-china-beijing-russia-putin-a9125296.html

[10] Eqbali, Aresu and Rasmussen, Sune Engel. 2019. “President Rouhani says Iran open to diplomacy with U.S.” Wall Street Journal. October 2. Accessed at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/president-rouhani-says-iran-open-to-diplomacy-with-u-s-11570048756

[11] Ibid.

[12] Daragahi, Borzou. 2019. “Iran warns against intervention as Boris Johnson and Hassan Rouhani set to meet.” Independent. September 24. Accessed at:  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iran-rouhani-trump-boris-johnson-unga-new-york-zarif-nuclear-deal-a9118161.html

[13] Mamouri, Ali. 2019. “As anti-Iran sentiments rise, protests erupt in Iraq.” Al-Monitor. October 2. Accessed at: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/iraq-protests-violence-dignity.html

Davison, John and Peter Graff. 2019. “Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric urges protesters, security forces not to use violence.” Reuters. October 4. Accessed at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-protests-sistani/iraqs-top-shiite-cleric-urges-protesters-security-forces-not-to-use-violence-idUSKBN1WJ14J

[14] Mamouri, Ali. 2019. “As anti-Iran sentiments rise, protests erupt in Iraq.” Al-Monitor. October 2. Accessed at: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/iraq-protests-violence-dignity.html

[15] Associated Press. 2019. “AP explains: Iraq unrest comes at critical time in region.” VOA News. October 4. Accessed at: https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/ap-explains-iraq-unrest-comes-critical-time-region

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