The Gulf Simmer: The New-Old Normal in the Gulf Tepid War
Now that the worry and saber-rattling after the September 14 attack on targets in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia seem to have largely petered out in a flurry of recriminations, posturing, and sanction announcements, it is time to accept reality: the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf should embrace gray zone operations. The likelihood of all-out war was low before the attack, and it is low afterward. Iran has become adept at gray zone operations, needling its Arab Gulf adversaries in annoying and deniable ways, which has turned the conflict across the Gulf into a Tepid War, too warm to be a genuine, deterrence-based standoff but too cold to let things get out of hand. In this reality, which is nothing new, the best option for the U.S. is to signal Iran that this kind of attack is not acceptable by engaging in gray zone operations against Iran, led by Arab Gulf allies.
There are at least three reasons why the attack on the Abqaiq processing facility and the Khurais oil field was never likely to lead to a broader military conflagration. First, there is a glut of oil on the market. Russia is right when it says that lost Saudi production can be made up, and Gulf oil producers have been concerned for some time about the systemic buildup of oil stockpiles. A setback of this magnitude is an opportunity. If the price of oil remains high, albeit not high enough to draw more North American producers into the industry, then the chances of a successful Aramco IPO would be higher, as long as Saudi Arabia can answer questions about defending its oil infrastructure. The price of Brent crude rose over ten percent on news of the attack, but the Arab Gulf states could benefit from this momentary price hike. This may help explain why the response to the attacks has been so muted.
The second factor militating against a general conflict in the Gulf is a sense of war weariness. The last two decades in the Middle East have been violent even by regional standards, with catastrophic loss of life and destruction in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention the spate of smaller conflicts in which both Iran and some of the Arab Gulf states have been involved. While Saudi and Emirati media outlets point to the use of Iranian weapons in the September 14 attack, the emphasis is on the Kingdom’s ability to “deal with the effects of the cowardly attacks.” If the potential for a military response is invoked, it is only in reference to the American military. Furthermore, given apparent disagreements over the best way forward in Yemen, it is unlikely that the UAE will follow the Kingdom blindly into a war with Iran. This is especially the case given Gulf Arabs' penchant for patient deliberation in a quest for consensus, which has the effect of tamping down or softening the most extreme voices in a majlis.
The third reason that the nail-biting and saber-rattling have not resulted in all-out war across the Gulf is the U.S. Trump card. Everyone is waiting to see what the U.S., and President Trump, in particular, will do. Iran will not escalate the situation even more without decisive military action on the part of the U.S.. Given how much it has relied on American weapons in the Yemen conflict, Saudi Arabia is also unlikely to escalate decisively across the Gulf without a clear signal of support from the U.S.. For Saudi Arabia to conduct military operations over its southern land border is one thing, but conducting offensive military operations across the Gulf is entirely another. For its part, the U.S. is still trying to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, a presidential election looms next year, and the President’s National Security Advisor was just fired, likely over concerns that his stance on Iran was too hawkish. Unless Iran were to attack the U.S. homeland directly, American involvement in yet another ruinous Middle East war would define the election and destroy any chance of a second Trump term. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are thus locked in a Mexican standoff, where Trump is the only one with a loaded gun in his holster. And Trump almost certainly will not draw.
So, the Tepid War will continue to simmer in the Gulf, with occasional flare-ups that widen eyes, cause oil market discomfort, and make trigger fingers itch, but little more. Concern looms that today's Gulf resembles the Balkans prior to World War I, with the potential for a destructive regional war, but warfare today is much more capital-intensive, especially in the Gulf, than in pre-1914 Europe, and a large body of water separates the putative combatants, which makes the mobilization timetables and alliances that inflamed the Balkan Wars and subsequently worsened the 1914 July Crisis much less relevant today. Amphibious warfare is hard, and the precision firepower of today's battlefield does not lend itself to the total mobilization for a war that haunted the world a hundred years ago. Given this, Iran will continue to push the envelope by sponsoring the actions of murky groups, actions specifically designed to exploit weaknesses on the part of adversaries, but not so much that this provokes a general military conflict.
The September 14 attacks are the latest actions in this pattern of gray zone operations, and they should not go unanswered. Despite its denials, Iran is almost certainly responsible for this outrageous violation of Saudi sovereignty. The best thing for the U.S. and its allies to do is to keep up the heat on Iran. Maintain the simmer. While the framing of the policy of "maximum pressure" is unfortunate, as it gives a false impression that the U.S. cannot escalate any further, the U.S. and its allies must do something to reinforce norms against this kind of attack. The ideal response would cause pain to the Iranian regime but without being so public and overt that it demands a counter-response. Sow insurrection in Iran, further debilitate the IRGC's financial networks, or sabotage infrastructure, but maintain plausible deniability. Give Iran a taste of its own medicine.
In order for the U.S. to embrace gray zone operations in the Tepid War, two things need to happen. First, American security cooperation with its Arab Gulf allies should focus more on building the human capital of partner forces and less on selling them pricey gear. The failure to prevent the attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais was a failure of human decisionmaking, not equipment. Second, the U.S. should let its Arab Gulf allies lead and craft gray zone operations. This is their Tepid War, not America's. If anyone can generate a response with the ruthless precision and information discipline necessary for success in unconventional operations, America's Arab Gulf allies can. The U.S. can support these actions with advanced intelligence or unconventional capabilities, but any actions on the ground should be taken by those with a long-term stake in the outcome, those who would have to live with Iran if, by some chance, an all-out war breaks out anyway.
Iranian leaders need to know where the acceptable bound of behavior is, and that they have crossed it. Those of us without access to classified information, however, should never hear about the actual response. That is the best way to keep things at a simmer in the Gulf, warm enough that Iran recognizes the costs of escalation, but cool enough that the Tepid War never goes really hot.
Nathan W. Toronto, Ph.D., is a scholar of Middle East affairs based in Washington DC. He taught strategy and decision making at the UAE National Defense College for six years, and is fluent in Arabic. He has published previously on Middle East security and military strategy, and he is the author of How Militaries Learn: Human Capital, Military Education, and Battlefield Effectiveness.