Saturday 1 September, 2018 Update: Iran Moves Ballistic Missiles Into Iraq

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As US containment efforts press ahead at full speed, the Iranian government continues to counter with thinly veiled threats against US interests in the region. First it was the Strait of Hormuz, followed by promises of an upsurge of assistance to the Syrian government in its campaign against western-backed rebel militias.  Now, Iran is placing ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq controlled by its Shiite proxies, and is developing its ability to manufacture more missiles there. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is well established in these areas, and has overseen the program since it began roughly three months ago. Iranian officials have stated off the record that the purpose of the missile placement is to serve as a hedge against any attacks against their country. Nominally, control of the missiles will be placed in the hands of the IRGC, with the Shiite proxy groups having limited involvement. In the event of heightened tension, or a crisis, however, all of this could change if Iran does start to assist the Shiite proxy groups with constructing their own missiles.

Iran has provided ballistic missiles for the Houthi rebels, their proxy group in Yemen. The Houthis periodically launch missiles at targets in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has been targeted most frequently, though the Houthi attacks against the Saudi capital have caused only minimal damage, and disruption. By putting a similar capability in the hands of Shiite proxies inside of Iraq, the Iranians are extending the range of its shorter-range ballistic missiles to include Israel.

Along with acting as a deterrent, these missiles could also be used in attacks aimed at destabilizing the region, or damaging US actions aimed at curtailing Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The aggressive missile policy runs the risk of pushing tensions between Washington and Tehran even higher. August has seen a sharp rise in the language, and actions of the actors involved in the Iran drama. Unfortunately, based on the way things look now on the first day of September, there does not appear to be any signs of de-escalation in the near future.

Stormy Straits Ahead?

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International attention is beginning to focus on the Persian Gulf, and Red Sea areas since Saudi Arabia suspended Red Sea oil shipments earlier this week following attacks on two of its oil tankers in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The cntentious rhetoric coming out of Tehran of late, along with its open support of the Houthi rebels, has flared US-Iranian tensions, and contributed to the unease. As the prospect of the US sanctions against Iran being reinstituted in the near future grows, Iran’s next move could very well be an attempt to deter Washington from that course of action by way of thinly-veiled economic blackmail.

Since the outbreak of war in Yemen, the Bab el Mandeb Strait has become a highly vulnerable chokepoint for oil shipments, and commerce. In October, 2016 a UAE ship was attacked by Houthi rebels in the strait. Two weeks later, Houthi rebels fired anti-ship missiles against US Navy warships in the area. The missiles were defeated by defensive countermeasures and SAM fire. In response, US warships launched cruise missile strikes on Houthi radar sites in rebel-controlled territory. These sites had enabled the rebels to track shipping in the strait and provided essential targeting data for Houthi attacks.  Although the Houthi missile attacks were unsuccessful, the action in October, 2016 emphasized how vulnerable civilian-flagged merchant ships, and tankers become when transiting the Bab el Mandeb.

Now, the prospect of renewed Houthi attacks in the straits, as well as the recent Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, are reminding the world once again how vital these two chokepoints are to the global economy. Saudi Arabia’s suspension of oil shipments through the Red Sea rattled oil markets and contributed to a 3-day rise in oil prices. A potential major disruption in the Bab el Mandeb is manageable, however. A similar suspension of oil shipments through Hormuz would deliver even more severe ramifications to the global economy. Quite frankly, even the threat of a Hormuz closure would likely be enough to crash oil markets, and lead to an economic domino effect.

Iran has long understood the value of the strait to the world economy, and its own geopolitical interests. It has attempted to use the Strait of Hormuz as a bargaining chip in the past, most notably during the Tanker War phase of its conflict with Iraq. This led to the US to initiate Operation Earnest Will in 1987. Earnest Will consisted of Kuwaiti oil tankers being reflagged, and escorted through the Strait of Hormuz by US Navy warships. Despite a few setbacks, Earnest Will was largely successful, however, it did lead to clashes between the US Navy and Iranian forces. Operation Praying Mantis was the largest of these skirmishes, and saw the destruction of 50% of Iran’s operational naval fleet at US hands.

Iran’s leadership has to remember Operation Praying Mantis, as well as US Navy action in the Bab el Mandeb in 2016, as it considers it’s next move. An attempt at economic blackmail now will surely bring about a US military response of some type. Tehran’s recent threats, and rhetoric was calculated to force the United States to seriously reconsider its intent to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Unfortunately for Iran, it is not dealing with the Obama administration any longer. President Trump has taken strong stance against Iran, having already removed the US from the JCOPA. He is now pressuring US allies not to purchase Iranian oil, a move that is likely contributing to the current Iranian discomfiture.

Over the past two days, the fears of US sanctions being placed on Iran have been joined by speculation in some circles that a US military attack against Iran might be in the works. Pre-emptive US action against Iran is not probable in the near future, although if a situation develops that sees Iran support Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, or should Iran move to close the Strait of Hormuz, all bets are off the table. In either case, a US military response is not only probable, it is essentially guaranteed.

 

Thursday 26 July, 2018 Update: Saudi Arabia Suspends Red Sea Oil Shipments

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Saudi Arabia announced Wednesday afternoon it is suspending oil shipments through the Red Sea after a Saudi oil tanker was attacked and damaged by Houthi forces in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. The move is extraordinarily swift and decisive, and holds the potential to disrupt shipping in the area. The Red Sea shipping lanes are a highly used route for Saudi Arabian oil tankers, as well as international commerce. The Saudi move could motivate other nations to follow suit if the attacks continue.

This is not the first time the Bab el Mandeb Straits has been used by Houthi rebels to launch attacks on shipping. In 2016 US Naval forces intercepted two anti-ship missiles that were launched by Houthis and targeted at US ships in the area. This past April a Saudi oil tanker was attacked in the strait, receiving minor damage. Saudi Arabia’s response then was more restrained. Oil shipments continued, and Riyadh assured nervous observers the incident would not affect oil supplies.

The war of words between Iran and the United States, and the coming snapback of sanctions against Iran on 6 August threaten to heighten current tensions. Wednesday’s attack on the tanker could be a sign of things to come. In response to the sanctions, Iran might encourage the Houthis, and other proxy groups to intensify attacks against tankers, and resume confrontational skirmishes between Iranian naval forces and the US Navy in the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas. So far in 2018 there have been no incidents between US and Iranian vessels. Before the Iranian nuclear deal was implemented, and even afterward, Tehran has used the harassment tactics to try and strengthen its position. They might turn to it once again, if some of the rhetoric coming from inside of Iran is any indication.

Thursday 7 December, 2017 Update: US Pressures Saudi Arabia to Lift Its Blockade of Yemen

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Pressure is building on Saudi Arabia to lift its blockade of Yemeni ports and  allow food, water, and other essential materials into the country. Saudi Arabia blockaded Yemen’s ports after Houthi rebels fired a SCUD missile last month. Relief organizations have been warning that the situation in Yemen is growing dire. The nation’s economy and infrastructure have been shattered by years of strife, and civil war. Millions of civilians are at risk of starvation.

Now the United States is joining the chorus of nation-states and organizations around the world that are calling on Saudi Arabia to open access in Yemen to prevent yet another humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. Yesterday, President Trump issued a harsh criticism of the Saudi actions and announced that his administration would be calling upon Riyadh to end its blockade. Today, administration officials and advisors have gone to work on the matter in a series of phone calls and meetings with Saudi officials.

Saudi Arabia is a close US ally, and the relationship between the Trump administration and Riyadh has been particularly warm. The White House is hoping to use its clout to ameliorate the deteriorating humanitarian situation. Of course, the request is not being made simply because it is the right thing to do. There are potential benefits for the Trump administration’s foreign policy embedded in it as well. The US announcement that it recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and will be moving its embassy in Israel there from Tel Aviv is a potential power keg. There is concern about the how Muslims across the region will react to the move. The US is hoping its position on the Saudi blockade, and improving the situation in Yemen will cool Muslim reactions to the Jerusalem move.

The Saudis might not be ready to relinquish the blockade so easily, though. The death of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh by Houthis on 4 December has altered the dynamics of the Yemeni civil war. Wednesday’s Saudi airstrikes against targets in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, launched in retaliation for Saleh’s death, indicate escalation could be on the horizon. It would be in Saudi Arabia’s best interests to halt the blockade at least temporarily, however, given the events of the past few days in Yemen, there’s no guarantee that Riyadh’s final decision will be influenced even by the prodding of its closest ally.

 

Saturday 4 November, 2017 Update: Wild Arabian Night in Riyadh

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It has been a hectic past sixteen hours in Riyadh to say the least. The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his immediate resignation, not from his own country’s capital, but from the Saudi capital. Hariri pointed to Iranian influence over Lebanon’s government as the reason for stepping down. The move puts Lebanon on the front burner of the Middle East, and increases the chances of a political crisis and potential conflict in the near future. Hariri’s departure should serve as a warning to the international community concerning Iran’s aggressive political and military moves across the region of late. Which brings us to the second major event of the day.

Shortly after Hariri’s announcement was made, Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a ballistic missile toward Riyadh. The missile was intercepted by a Saudi Patriot missile positioned battery east of King Khalid International Airport. Debris fell on the airport grounds and in the surrounding area causing no casualties or damage. The timing of the attack could be coincidental. A Saudi airstrike against targets in Yemen this past Wednesday killed 26 people at a hotel and neighboring market. The missile strike against Riyadh was likely Houthi retaliation for the airstrike.

While all of this was going on, the Saudi Royal Family appears to be on the verge of its own political crisis. At least a dozen Saudi princes, and four current ministers of the Saudi government have been arrested as part of a major anti-corruption sweep shortly after a committee to combat corruption was formed by a royal decree of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The decree appoints Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan as the head of the committee and grants him broad powers to fight corruption in the government. Along with the arrests of current government officials, a number of ex-ministers have also been taken into custody, and a number of current ministers were fired by the king.

It is clear that the forming of the committee and subsequent arrests are not underway purely to purge corrupt elements from the royal family and Saudi government. Prince Mohammed could be taking this opportunity to consolidate his position in the government, possibly in preparation for an abdication by King Salman in the near future. Which brings up a second, far more cynical possibility; that these arrests and firings are the beginning of an attempted coup. As more news comes out of Riyadh, it will become clear what direction this is going in. For my money, I believe this is a consolidation move by the Crown Prince and likely does signal that King Salman’s days in power are now limited.

Any way you slice it, this has been a stormy, unpredictable day in Riyadh, and the drama will no doubt continue in the coming days.