John Bolton is gone from the White House, yet war with Iran is suddenly imminent. I had begun to believe irony was dead.
“[Bolton] calls for the preemptive bombing of Iran with dreary regularity during his many Fox News appearances,” I wrote after he became Donald Trump’s national security adviser in March of 2018, “and has labored for years to arrange the proper set of circumstances that would allow Tehran to be rendered into a pile of rubble.”
I was actually foolish enough to indulge in a brief moment of optimism after Bolton was unceremoniously shown the door last week. There was talk of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo taking on Bolton’s role like some dual use neo-Kissinger, but that idea guttered out quickly. Trump could replace Bolton with Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, I told myself, and war with Iran — the issue over which Bolton reportedly lost his gig — would still be less likely. It felt like a tiny reprieve in a chaotic age.
Yeah, about that.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility on Saturday for drone attacks on the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia’s petroleum empire: the Abqaiq oil facility, the centerpiece of Saudi Arabia’s petroleum infrastructure, which sits astride the massive Hijra Khurais oil field. Secretary of State Pompeo immediately accused Iran of direct involvement in the attack. On Monday afternoon, Saudi Arabia claimed that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has vehemently denied the accusation.
Oil markets reeled as news of the attack spread. In a world that runs on fossil fuels, the attack was the equivalent of a punch in the heart.
Approximately 100 million barrels of oil are burned globally each day. With a stroke, the drones wiped out nearly six percent of the oil that is globally consumed, and a price hike is almost certain to follow. How high and for how long will depend upon the speed with which Saudi Arabia can repair the facility. After the attack, smoke from the fires at Abqaiq could be seen from space, and the rebels have warned of further attacks to come against Saudi Arabia’s petroleum centers.
Think of it as Saudi Arabia’s 9/11, but without the enormous death toll. The U.S. was hit in the money when the Twin Towers were attacked, causing enormous financial disruption. By hitting Abqaiq, the attackers hit Saudi Arabia in its petroleum breadbasket.
The Abqaiq attack and 9/11 are both examples of a far less powerful group striking back at an aggressor at a vulnerable, sensitive point of weakness. The Houthi rebels have been at the receiving end of a brutal war Saudi Arabia has been waging in Yemen since 2015. Some 90,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed by weapons sold to Saudi Arabia by the U.S., and the U.S. has stood solidly by its staunch regional ally amid howls of international outrage over the ongoing carnage.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of deliberate atrocities during the Yemen war, such as targeting civilians at hospitals, weddings and marketplaces, and in one notable instance, a bus filled with children. The U.S., for its own part, spent years before 9/11 raining bombs and fire on various portions of the Middle East.
Pompeo was immediately out of the gate on Saturday with statements about possessing “intelligence” that confirms Iran’s role in the attack, but failed to provide it to the press. Trump, ever the balanced internationalist, tweeted that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded depending on verification.”
This is particularly worrisome because relations with Iran are already disastrously bad. During the period when Bolton enjoyed actual influence as Trump’s Shiny New Thing, the U.S.’s poor relationship with Iran deteriorated noticeably. Over the course of Bolton’s time in the White House, the Trump administration bailed on a nuclear treaty with Iran that was working, and tried to turn an incident in which oil tankers were attacked into casus belli for a war. Bolton wanted to cry havoc after a U.S. drone was shot down in the region back in June, but Trump did not let that dog off the leash.
That drone incident was the moment Trump and Bolton’s relationship began to deteriorate. That relationship went into a death spiral after Trump suggested opening talks with Iran about its nuclear program and other issues. Bolton, of course, hated the idea because peace with Iran would put a final end to his lifelong dream of wiping that nation off the map.
With such talks now in serious doubt, the idea of an Iran summit has transformed into a bitter point of contention between the president and the media. In the aftermath of the Abqaiq attack, news outlets pointed out that Trump has twice said he would meet with Iranian leaders with “no conditions,” an assertion later confirmed by Pompeo.
“The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, ‘No Conditions,’” Trump rage-tweeted on Saturday. “That is an incorrect statement (as usual!).” On Monday, when asked in the Oval Office about the potential for war with Iran, Trump unspooled yet another one of his verbal blue-plate specials for the assembled media.
“Because we were in a position where with a certain country, I won’t say which one, we may have had conflict,” Trump said, for reasons no one can quite explain. “And he said to me, sir, if you could delay it because we’re very low on ammunition. And I said, you know what, general, I never want to hear that again from another general. So we are very high on ammunition now. That is a story I’ve never told before. Breaking news. But we were very low. I could even say it stronger. I don’t want to say no ammunition but that gets a lot closer.”
Nothing like steady, focused leadership in a crisis, right? Please let me know when you see some, c/o Truthout’s general mailbox.
“In short: it’s all super unclear,” writes Jack Crosbie for Splinter News, “but the president’s public vow to bomb whoever Saudi Arabia tells us to is not reassuring. The Saudis are perfectly capable of fighting their own battles — we’ve sold them more than enough weaponry — but Trump’s stance throughout the crisis has been that, essentially, the U.S. military stands by to defend our favorite brutal authoritarian theocracy at any cost.”
If Trump does commit the U.S. to a war in Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia, it would unsurprisingly be one of the worst calamities of an administration made of calamities. The only surprise here is the fact that John Bolton will have to watch it all on his flat-screen at home, or from the office of his now-anti-Trump super PAC. Maybe irony has a pulse after all.