As Iran’s role in the ARAMCO attacks becomes clear Saudi Arabia finds itself at a critical moment. Iran was responsible for the attacks against Saudi oil facilities over the weekend. Drones and missiles were launched from sites inside of Iran. US sources have confirmed it, and provided more detailed information on the locations of the sites. There is no question.
Now, the Saudis must decide how to respond to a clear act of aggression on the part of Iran. Understandably, Riyadh is moving cautiously. However, given the circumstances of the moment, it may need to pick up the pace and reach a decision sooner than it would like. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally are engaged in a high-stakes geopolitical chess match and for better or worse the Saudis are positioned right in the middle. Iran can needle the US by launching attacks against Saudi Arabian targets, either through its Houthi proxy, or on its own, as we are seeing. The United States cannot launch an attack against Iran on Saudi Arabia’s behalf. Especially not now with the UN General Assembly week beginning today. Timing is everything.
This might explain why the Saudis have elected not to respond militarily yet. Retaliating against Iran as the world meets in New York would be a mistake, plain and simple. Riyadh is buying time, claiming it needs to examine the evidence and reach its own conclusions regarding the attack. But if it waits too long to respond, Tehran will be emboldened, and assume it will not be held accountable for its actions. Another attack will be made against the kingdom, inevitably forcing the United States to respond with military action. Where the crisis goes from that point is anyone’s guess.
General Assembly week also provides Saudi Arabia the opportunity to quietly prepare its forces for a military option, should one be ordered. At present, the Royal Saudi Air Force is oriented towards operations in Yemen. Given that the RSAF would be the main force used in a military effort against Iran, it requires time to shift its focus and prepare for operations against Iran. Those preparations could be underway right now, quietly of course. Should this be the case, expect any Saudi military response to occur within hours of the General Assembly drawing to an end on 30 September, 2019.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is beginning 2018 with a round of diplomatic maneuvering intended to relieve at least some of the pressure his government is facing. The target of Pyongyang’s effort is South Korea. In his New Year speech, Un proposed the idea of sending athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics which are being held in South Korea. With the games fast approaching, both nations appear to be willing to work towards reaching an agreement that will allow the North to send a delegation to Pyeongchang. There is much work to be done in order for that to happen, but the two nations are moving forward cautiously in the hope that North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics can become a reality. Pyongyang has reopened a communications line with the South ostensibly to aid discussions on the Olympic subject.
From a more cynical realpolitik vantage point, the North Korean overtures are the right play at the right moment. Pyongyang needs a victory of some type and the most expeditious route to achieving one runs directly through Seoul. South Korea’s liberal government is sincerely enthusiastic about the possibility of both Koreas participating in the Olympics. There is hope that a showing of goodwill now might blossom into meaningful dialogue and warmer relations down the line.
Strangely enough, Kim Jong Un is probably hoping for the same thing, but for completely different reasons. The North Korean leader is rolling the dice on the chance that his effort to improve relations with the South might help to drive a wedge in the US-South Korea relationship and buy the North some much needed relief at a critical moment. Despite his immaturity, Kim is probably aware that time is running out for him and for North Korea. Every day that goes by brings the US closer to choosing the military option for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. There are many pundits and self-declared experts who predict a US military effort against North Korea will result in heavy civilian casualties and unparalleled destruction across the region. For what it’s worth, I disagree with their views on military action wholeheartedly. However, the one area where I agree with my counterparts is the future of Kim Jong Un in the event of war.
In short, there would be no future for him or his regime. Regardless of what happens to his nuclear program, his country, and the entire region, if the United States goes kinetic, Kim Jong Un will not survive the conflict.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson publicly acknowledged that twenty years of diplomatic efforts aimed at North Korea have been an abject failure. The era of ‘strategic patience’ is over and a new strategy is needed to contend with North Korea. Tillerson’s comments essentially mirror what the rest of the world has been thinking for years now. Diplomacy, concessions, and even some instances of thinly veiled appeasement have not deterred North Korea from embarking on a nuclear weapons program. If anything, it convinced Pyongyang that its nuclear ambitions were completely insulated from outside interference. Emboldened, the North pursued and obtained nuclear weapons, as well as medium and long range ballistic missiles. At present, North Korea has multiple nuclear devices and a stockpile of ballistic missiles with various ranges and capabilities.
Tillerson went on to say that the military option is ‘on the table’ if the threat from North Korea’s weapons program reaches a level requiring it. Translation: If the North manages to construct or obtain a ballistic missile capable of reaching US territory, the military option becomes reality.
Realistically, that is the only scenario where a military option could be viable. A North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile represents nothing short of a clear and present danger to the United States and would need to be eliminated without delay. A greater effort aimed at the North’s entire nuclear program would not be successful. Not in 2017. There was a time, when the program was in its infancy, that a concentrated military effort could have effectively destroyed enough components to guarantee that an attempt by North Korea to field a nuclear device would be stillborn. Specifically, it would have been an intensive air campaign similar to the opening stage of Operation Desert Storm. Sadly, the window of opportunity to launch a successful, largescale air campaign closed some years ago.
With that in mind, the question that demands intense consideration at the moment is: Does a military option even exist now? Over the weekend Today’s DIRT will shed some light on the question and provide an answer.
*Authors Note: Apologies again, the USAF Rebuild article is going to be delayed yet again as we focus on North Korea (and the NCAA basketball tournament 😊) this coming weekend.*