By Arab News
By Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg*
While the world awaits the results of the forensic investigation into the Sept. 14 attacks against Saudi oil installations, the preponderance of evidence has already persuaded many world leaders that Iran was responsible. There were press reports this week that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei personally approved the attacks on the condition that Iran’s involvement could be denied.
This week, key European leaders, who had avoided taking a stand on Iran’s responsibility, were compelled by the evidence to blame Tehran. On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and afterwards issued a statement saying: “It is clear for us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other explanation.”
The brazen aggression has left Iran’s few remaining friends with no choice but to conclude the obvious. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has maintained friendly ties with Iran’s leaders, said this week: “I believe that Iran, one way or another, was behind the attacks.”
In the face of the mounting evidence and worldwide condemnation of the attacks, Iranian leaders have been all over the place, lashing out at the US, dismissing concerns about their rogue behavior, and insisting that their proxy the Houthis were behind the attacks. In New York, as the 74th session of the UN General Assembly started, Iran’s president and foreign minister spoke to incredulous audiences about their peaceful intentions. They bombarded the media with suggestions that were neither here nor there in order to change the subject and divert attention from their culpability in the attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure and shipping in the Gulf.
While avoiding discussions about the issue at hand, they hinted at some flexibility on the nuclear deal. Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif raised the prospect of a new nuclear agreement with the US. He suggested that Iran could agree to complete denuclearization and sign an additional protocol allowing for more intrusive inspections of the country’s nuclear facilities at an earlier date than that set out in the 2015 deal.
Despite Iran’s protestations, however, there was universal condemnation of the attacks as the UN general debate kicked off on Tuesday. They see it as an attack on the world economy and the global rules-based system in general, for which the UN is the main guardian. Most countries are already convinced of Iran’s responsibility. Some are awaiting the results of the investigation, in which the UN is taking an active part.
The questions on many delegates’ minds revolve around how to respond to the attacks and how to deter further Iranian attacks. Here are some suggestions.
First, bolster the air defense systems of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries threatened by Iran. While Saudi Arabia has built robust defenses to deal with conventional threats and ballistic missiles, the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks underscored the need for defense against small missiles and drones, which are difficult to detect with conventional radars. There is a flurry of activity between the US and its Gulf Cooperation Council allies to close the gaps in their defenses.
Second, encourage more countries to join the US-led International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC). On Sept. 16, representatives from member states of the IMSC, along with representatives from 25 additional countries, met in Florida to discuss Iran’s threats to international shipping. They “reaffirmed their nations’ continued commitment to safeguarding freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, and the Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab, and discussed multinational efforts aimed at enhancing maritime security throughout key waterways in the region,” according to the statement issued at the conclusion of the meeting. The IMSC is enabling cooperative work to promote the free flow of commerce and deter threats to shipping. The IMSC Task Force is headquartered in Bahrain. Saudi Arabia and the UAE joined the IMSC last week.
Third, accelerate the implementation of the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). Since the Sept. 14 attacks, Washington has convened MESA meetings to speed up the implementation of its promise of working together to “confront extremism and terrorism, and achieve peace, stability and development on regional as well as international stages.” Building on the meetings held in Washington last week, MESA foreign ministers are meeting on the margins of the UNGA to discuss the new threats from Iran and how to deter them.
Fourth, the US and its allies should stay the course of applying maximum pressure, especially on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) vast military and financial network in Iran and abroad. More work needs to be done to limit IRGC activities in the region by applying economic pressure, in addition to augmented covert action and bolstering cyber defenses.
Fifth, UN institutions, including the General Assembly and the Security Council, should shoulder their responsibilities in safeguarding the world economic and political order, which is being undermined by Iran’s attacks on shipping in the Gulf and civilian infrastructures in Saudi Arabia. International law, including the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, is clear in prohibiting attacks against civilian infrastructures. The case is quite compelling in the case of oil installations that provide energy to hundreds of millions of people around the world. Both the UNGA and Security Council are expected to debate and approve strong measures to express the world’s solidarity with Saudi Arabia.
The objectives of this diplomatic activity should be clear: To deter further Iranian attacks, bring Tehran to the negotiating table to discuss all issues of concern to the world at large, and persuade it to change its behavior and live peacefully with its neighbors according to the globally recognized principles of the UN Charter.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs and Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1