This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
On September 14, attacks targeting Saudi Arabia’s oil processing plant in Abqaiq and oil field in Khurais marked a major new escalation in tensions between Iran and its regional allies and U.S. Gulf Arab partners led by Saudi Arabia. The strikes, which have cut Saudi oil production by as much as half, represent both an important challenge and a significant opportunity in dealing with Iran. Most important, they represent an opportunity to heal significant rifts in the international community regarding approaches toward Tehran and to form a united international front against its ongoing campaign of provocations, sabotage, and destabilization.
Shortly after they were launched, the attacks were claimed by the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis have launched many previous drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia, which intervened in the Yemen war on behalf of the internationally recognized government. But these claims were quickly questioned because these attacks would constitute a major increase in scope and sophistication for the Houthis. In the past, their missile attacks have been largely ineffective, often intercepted by Saudi missile-defense systems, and have fallen much closer to the Yemeni-Saudi border. For the Houthi strikes in Saudi Arabia to go from symbolic and ineffective to devastating and internationally disruptive would be an improbable sudden qualitative leap.
U.S. officials began casting doubt on this story and by the following day were blaming Iran. They noted that 17 points of impact came from the north and northwest, suggesting that the missiles were launched from Iran or Iraq instead of Yemen. They told journalists that the attacks were not merely by drones as initially reported but also involved many cruise missiles, a level of coordination generally thought to be beyond that of the Houthis. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Iran without providing any specific evidence. But on September 16, Saudi Arabia added that Iranian weapons were used in the attack which, it insisted, did not originate in Yemen.
Unnamed U.S. government sources are increasingly saying that the attacks were launched from Iran itself, though the Saudi statement maintains the possibility that they were the handiwork of pro-Iran militia groups in Iraq, something the Iraqi government adamantly denies. But even if the attacks originated in Iraq, the blame would fall squarely on Iran because pro-Iranian militias in Iraq operate so closely with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that Tehran would be seen as directly responsible anyway. Even the increasingly discounted Houthi claims of responsibility wouldn’t relieve Iran of strong suspicions of being culpable in providing weapons and training, and quite possibly the inspiration for the timing of the attacks. It’s very difficult not to view these attacks as the latest phase of a carefully calibrated series of gradually intensifying provocations by Iran, combined with the seizing of yet another merchant vessel in the Gulf waters and the increased detention of Westerners.
The political context indicates that these attacks fit perfectly into the next phase of Iran’s strategy in conducting its “maximum resistance” campaign to try to break out of the straitjacket imposed by Washington’s “maximum pressure” sanctions regime. Iran was primarily attempting to use a carefully calibrated series of low-intensity military actions and provocations to try to convince or coerce various third parties – Europeans, Arab states, and Asian powers – to pressure the United States to ease the sanctions. Thus far, this campaign has not succeeded in producing any sanctions relief, so another escalation was anticipated, although the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia would be a striking escalation in Tehran’s campaign of strategic recklessness.
In addition to feeling the need to escalate to maintain and increase the pressure on third parties, and indirectly therefore on Washington, Iran may have interpreted a series of recent developments as indicating that momentum is on its side. First would be repeated statements from Trump administration officials that U.S. President Donald J. Trump is still interested in a meeting with Iranian officials, possibly at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, and especially reports that he may have been considering easing or suspending some sanctions to facilitate such a meeting. Second would be French efforts to broker a new Iranian-U.S. dialogue. Third might be recent diplomatic efforts by the United Arab Emirates to ease tensions with Iran. A fourth factor could be persistent rumors that Saudi Arabia, too, was becoming nervous about the direction of U.S. strategy regarding Iran.
And, finally, Tehran may have interpreted the departure of former National Security Advisor John Bolton as a positive sign. From the outset of the “maximum resistance” campaign, Iran sought to drive a wedge between Trump and Bolton, who they viewed as impossibly hard line and the main advocate of a major military threat. Tehran’s core calculation has been that Trump will ultimately seek to avoid a military confrontation, particularly before the next election, and that this gives Iran considerable leverage with Washington, which it is using to call the president’s bluff through calibrated provocations.
So with Trump signaling a diplomatic opening and hinting at sanctions relief, the 2020 elections becoming a greater factor in U.S. decision making, and Bolton leaving the administration over disputes that include Iran policy, Tehran may have concluded now was an optimal opportunity to again test Trump’s determination to avoid military action. Tehran may have also been seeking additional leverage in anticipation of engaging in talks with Washington sooner rather than later because the Trump administration appears open to them and Tehran cannot resist dialogue indefinitely if “maximum resistance” continues to fail to produce significant sanctions relief.
Whether or not this was the precise calculation, it seems almost certain that Iran is responsible for these attacks. Tehran is not wrong that its adversaries do not want a conflict. Trump would clearly rather avoid one for political reasons. And it’s notable that Saudi Arabia has thus far avoided directly accusing Iran, much as the UAE had in earlier provocations, while signaling that this is what it strongly suspects. Tweeting about the issue on September 16, Trump said the U.S. military was “locked and loaded depending on verification” of the culprits, and that Washington was “waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed.” While Trump’s critics suggested he was expressing deference to Saudi authority, in fact his language suggests a very different message: that the United States might be willing to act militarily or forcefully but only if Saudi Arabia is willing to take responsibility by publicly blaming Iran and sharing some relevant evidence.
This is the conundrum presently facing Riyadh. Saudi Arabia, like Washington, must realize that this brazen and damaging attack, even if the installations can be repaired in a matter of days, represents an alarming collapse of deterrence in the Gulf region. Iran seemingly believes it can orchestrate such a major military attack on its neighbor’s key installations with relative impunity. Riyadh and Washington must find a way of restoring deterrence or invite additional, and perhaps worse, attacks in the near future. Yet the Iranian messages to Saudi Arabia were clear: If we suffer, you will also suffer, and we have a wide range of capabilities and options to menace you if need be. So, Saudi Arabia is presumably carefully calculating the costs and benefits of directly accusing Tehran of responsibility and then facing the need to either act itself to restore deterrence or assist the United States in doing so and, in either case, absorbing the consequences.
But a kinetic response is not the only option or the only way to restore deterrence although, given the brazenness of this strike, one may ultimately be considered necessary. Yet given that Iran appears to be attempting to provoke such a response, a retaliatory strike – despite the pain that is inflicted – may be playing Tehran’s game on its terms and timetable. An important alternative response could be an effort to use this attack to isolate and stigmatize Iran internationally and reinforce the sense that it is a dangerous rogue state that requires restraint by a broad coalition of countries. The forthcoming U.N. General Assembly meeting could be a perfect opportunity to make the case that this attack was not merely on Saudi Arabia as a regional adversary and U.S. ally, but on the entire international energy market as a whole, and thus the global economy. Oil prices rose only moderately as a consequence of the attacks because Saudi Arabia claims it can repair the damage within days, there is a relative oil glut on the market, and the United States has released strategic reserves to make up the shortfall.
However, the Iranian message encoded in the attack – the oft-repeated claim that if we cannot sell our oil, no one can sell their oil in peace – is aimed at the international community, which is dependent on well functioning, stable, and reliable energy markets. To make its point about seeking sanctions relief and expressing displeasure with Washington and Riyadh, Tehran has effectively just taken a significant chunk of the international energy market hostage. Meanwhile, it is continuing to engage in piracy on the seas, detaining Western civilians, issuing dire threats, and supporting designated terrorist groups.
A kinetic response, especially if it is poorly calibrated and, as a result, widely viewed as an overreaction, is probably what Iran is hoping to provoke. What Iran is surely not hoping for is to be systematically isolated, condemned, and stigmatized by a re-united international community. One of the most effective ways to thwart Iran’s “maximum resistance” campaign might be to use these and other attacks to convince European states and others to set aside their resentment over the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, and doubts about Trump’s intentions and veracity, and join with the United States and its regional allies in restoring regional stability and security by isolating Tehran and punishing its abusive conduct. That could begin with a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Iran’s actions against Saudi Arabia, seizures of commercial maritime vessels, and detaining Western citizens. Rather than the United States easing sanctions, other international powers might be persuaded to reimpose them until Tehran desists. And several countries that rejected joining a U.S.-led naval effort to protect Gulf shipping might now be willing to reconsider.
Ultimately, it’s not just Saudi Arabia and the United States that have suffered a collapse of deterrence against Iran in this case. The international community and system of global order have as well. This was an assault on an oil installation of global significance, intended to cause pain not merely on the Saudis and their friends, but to all oil consumers around the world. Cast in that light, especially if backed up by solid evidence that the attack originated in Iraq or Iran rather than Yemen, this provocation could be made to backfire very badly on the Iranians. Restoring deterrence after an attack of such magnitude is indispensable, but that might be most effectively done through international cooperation rather than unilateral action.
Sultan Haitham will need to balance powerful interests while engaging all parties, especially as he tackles economic policy.
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