Iran’s Capacity to Strike Back Should Even Make a Politically Desperate Trump Think Twice
On CBS’s “60 Minutes,” the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of his kingdom’s brutal war on Yemen, suggested that a war against Iran would be a bad idea. It could, he said, lead to a “total collapse of the global economy.” The region that includes Saudi Arabia and Iran contains about a third of the world’s energy reserves, and a fifth of its oil goes through the Strait of Hormuz — one of the flashpoints of our present. MBS, as the prince is known, used the interview to urge the West to put more pressure on Iran. With a broad and sinister smile, he suggested that if the West did not succeed, then Saudi Arabia would be impelled to act against Iran.
Saudi Arabia continues to insist that the September 14 attack on its oil facilities came from Iran, and not from Yemen. This is despite the fact that both the civilian and the military authorities in Iran have denied that they conducted the successful raid on the Saudi airfields. Instead, the Houthis in Yemen said that they did do the raid; they said that if the Saudis continue their aerial bombardment of Yemen, such drone strikes would become more common.
As CBS broadcast its interview with MBS, the Houthis released a video that depicted its attack on Saudi troops in August. That attack, the Houthis said, killed at least 500 Saudi soldiers who were trapped and fired upon by drones. Saudi Arabia has not responded to this claim. This attack is the most audacious to date, showing how confident the Houthis have become in this war that has been ongoing for the past four years.
These two drone attacks show that the capability of the Houthis has increased. They have been able to strike genuine fear in the heart of Saudi Arabia, shutting down its oil production and lowering the morale of its troops. Saudi Arabia — with constant arms sales from the West — will be able to continue to bomb Yemen from the sky. But, by all indications, it is unlikely to be able to launch a ground invasion to overthrow the Houthis.
Apart from aerial bombardment, the Saudis have used a blockade of the country to suffocate its people. But this has both created a terrible humanitarian catastrophe and focused the attention of the United Nations. On September 10, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet told the UN Human Rights Council that the impact of this war on Yemen has been “truly devastating.” Over 24 million people — nearly 80 percent of the population — require humanitarian aid. Most of it comes through the port of al-Hudaydah, which has faced attacks and a blockade. The UN has struggled to ensure that it be open. The Saudi attempt to starve the population has failed.
Main source of terror?
At the opening of the UN General Assembly, Yemen was represented by Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadhrami. He is the foreign minister of one of the two governments that claim to represent Yemen. His president is Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whose government is backed by Saudi Arabia. The other government is that of the Houthis, which is led by Mahdi al-Mashat (president) and Abdel-Aziz bin Habtour (prime minister). They are not recognized by the United Nations, so they were not able to attend the opening of the General Assembly. Nor is their highly skilled foreign minister Hisham Sharaf the recognized representative of Yemen. Al-Hadhrami’s emotional address to the UN was marred by sectarianism. There was no room here for negotiations. Iran, he said, echoing Saudi Arabia, is “the main sponsor of terrorism throughout the world.” That was that.
The claim that Iran is the main “sponsor of terrorism” is one that has become a cliché from Washington, D.C., to Riyadh. It has become so common that no evidence is needed to prove it.
It does not matter that it was Saudi Arabia — through the Muslim World League (founded in 1962) — that broadcast the seeds that would eventually germinate as al-Qaeda. Every country with a Muslim World League office would provide the leadership and personnel for Osama bin Laden and his followers. This was from Indonesia to Chechnya. Over the course of decades, the Saudis cultivated the most dangerous elements in these societies, providing them with money, training, and the most reactionary version of Islam to form the detachments that would rain terror on their own societies and on the world.
Afghanistan, which remains in a terrible situation, is a case in point. The Saudis — with the full backing of the CIA — built up such despicable men as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Mohammed Yunis Khalis. Hekmatyar made his name in the engineering department of Kabul University by throwing acid on the faces of female students. This was the man who would be lifted up by the Saudis and the CIA as the face of the mujahideen resistance to the Afghan communists and then later to the USSR. These were men with a morbid sectarianism, great hatred for non-orthodox Muslims a central part of their political landscape. Assassination of minorities and intimidation of women governed their worldview.
Hekmatyar’s form of war was to bomb civilian areas so that silence welcomed his entry into towns and cities. He is known as the “Butcher of Kabul.” This is the caliber of people who are part of the Saudi-CIA network. Hekmatyar was so terrible that even the U.S. government — which supported him for decades — was forced to name him a terrorist in 2003.
Saudi Arabia’s tentacles run across the planet, and their battalions of terrorists became legendary after the attack on the United States in 2001. And yet, it is not Saudi Arabia (with its U.S. handlers) that is seen as the “main sponsor of terrorism” but Iran. It is a topsy-turvy diagnosis.
War or diplomacy
If the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel attack Iran — even in a limited way — the retaliation will be swift. It will come from many fronts:
- Iran will launch direct strikes on the oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.
- Iran will attack U.S. bases and ships in the region, including in Afghanistan.
- Iraqi militias will open a front against U.S. assets in their country.
- Iraqi, Iranian, and Syrian militias in Syria will attack U.S. assets in the east of that country.
- Hezbollah will launch a full-blown attack on Israel.
- Yemen’s Houthi movement might fire its missiles and drones deep into Saudi Arabia.
Such a scenario means that the entire region — from the Mediterranean Sea to the Hindu Kush mountains — will be plunged deeper into war.
Instead of this, Iran has indicated that it prefers the road of diplomacy.
- The United States must return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Modifications of that deal can take place through discussion, not by a full-scale demand by Washington for its renegotiation.
- Yemen’s Houthi movement has said it would like a ceasefire with Saudi Arabia and would like to work together for peace.
These are far better as a way ahead than the scenario that goes into full-fledged war. Pressure on the United States and Saudi Arabia to come to the table is minimal. The Europeans, who could ramp up the pressure, are convulsed by their own Brexit dilemmas, and by a weakness of resolve.
Impeachment proceedings against Trump might lead his Twitter finger to declare war on Iran as a distraction. It might just come to that — a terrifying situation.
[Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.]