by Michael Isenberg.
The attacks on the Saudi oil facilities, believed to be from a combination of cruise missiles and drones, struck the Abqaiq processing plant and the Khurais oil field at 4 AM Saturday morning. The Saudi government reported that there were no fatalities or injuries, fortunately, but the Abqaiq facility will be offline for an undetermined period of time. The facility removes sulfur from some 5 to 7 million barrels of oil a day, about half of Saudi Arabia’s production, and around 5% of the world’s oil supply.
Now that the fires are, if not exactly out, at least “under control,” the question for those of us in the US is what, if anything should we do about it? And that question can’t be separated from the questions of who was responsible for the attacks and what were their motives.
Who did it?
Within hours of the attacks, a spokesman for the Houthi rebels in Yemen appeared on their al-Masirah news channel and claimed responsibility. The Houthi, based in the country's western hills, have been at war with their government since March of 2015, in what has been called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The war has been a stalemate, with little change in the territories subject to government and Houthi control. Almost from the beginning, the Saudi military intervened on the government side, conducting a massive air campaign, but with little effect. In retaliation, the Houthis have launched drone and missile attacks against defense and oil facilities within Saudi Arabia, but none of these earlier attacks were as damaging as Abqaiq and Khurais.
US military source has claimed that the damage to the facilities were on the west-north-west sides, suggesting a direction of attack from Iran, or possibly Iraq, where there are many Iran-backed militias. Indeed, as the map shows, both Iran and Iraq are much closer to the targets.
In a tweet on Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out Iran explicitly for the “unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply,” adding, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, in turn, accused Pompeo of lying. “Having failed at ‘max pressure,’” he tweeted, “@SecPompeo's turning to ‘max deceit.’”
In my mind, the bottom line as to whether the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks came from the Houthis or the Iranians is: I don’t care. The Houthis are Iranian clients. We know this because of the various Iranian arms shipments to the Houthis, sometimes accompanied by trainers, that have been observed over the years, and sometimes intercepted, most notably the capture of the Jihan One by the Yemeni government in 2013. As far as I’m concerned, Iran is responsible, regardless of where the drones took off from.
What was their motive?
Iran’s defenders insist that the Islamic Republic has no motive for carrying out such an attack. I disagree. When it comes to motive, there are numerous possibilities; an embarrassment of riches. Any one of them could fill a blog post by itself. In the interest of space (and not boring you), I will merely list some here, without going into their details and relative merits:
What should the United States do?
First of all, here’s what I don’t think we should do just now: attack Iran militarily. Abqaiq and Khurais were not directed against the United States and none of our citizens were hurt. A military response would be disproportionate. Not to mention, as I noted above, the Revolutionary Guard wants a confrontation with the US, so we shouldn’t give them one.
But just because I don't want a military confrontation with Iran doesn't mean I think we should sit on our collective ass and do nothing. That’s what we’ve been doing and it’s not working.
A lot of the discussion about Iran revolves around the false alternative, "Go to war" or "Do nothing." In fact, there are numerous lesser measures we could take. Indeed, if history teaches us anything, it's that the best way to create a situation where we have to go to war someday is to do nothing, rather than take those lesser measures while we still can.
It would be irresponsible to do nothing. The Iranians have threatened to shut down shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and have taken numerous steps to make good on that threat. Yes, they deny mining the MT Front Altair and the Kokuka Courageous oil tankers and the evidence against them is sketchy. But there's no doubt they shot down a US drone and seized the Stena Impero oil tanker and its crew (which they’re still holding). Furthermore, they delivered the cargo of the Grace One tanker to Assad’s Syria, in violation of EU sanctions and their own promises, and they’ve imprisoned some dozen or so western citizens, mostly on dubious spying accusations. No responsible government can sit idly by in the face of this many attacks on the liberty and property of its citizens.
And yet, the response of the US and its allies has been virtually non-existent. President Trump posted some threatening tweets and added Ayatollah Khamanei and Foreign Minister Zarif to the list of sanctioned individuals, thereby freezing any assets they have in the United States. This did nothing but prompt mockery from Mr. Zarif who tweeted, “It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda.”
Clearly, Iran is not impressed, and, like all bullies, it has merely been emboldened by the weak response to engage in ever more aggressive provocation. It will continue destroying property and kidnapping people until the West puts some measures with real teeth in place, on top of the US sanctions already in existence.
As I’ve argued previously, US policy should not be based on knee-jerk reactions to the latest event. Rather, the US should act according to an overarching strategy for Saudi Arabia and Iran, neither of whom is a friend to the US or US values. Specifically the US should learn from the successes of the Nixon Administration during the Cold War and follow a two-prong strategy based on (1) linkage—tying the things Iran and Saudi Arabia want to their good behavior, and (2) triangular diplomacy—playing them off against each other.
There is not much we can do right now by way of triangular diplomacy. Ideally we would expand military and diplomatic aid to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and thereby show the Iranians that this kind of attack only benefits its rival. But there’s not much opportunity, given that President Trump—despite Congressional opposition—is already giving them everything they want. Might want to rethink that policy.
There’s a clear path on the linkage side, however. We already know the US sanctions are hurting. If President Trump persuaded our European allies to join the US, it would make a big difference in showing Iran that aggression will not get the sanctions lifted, but instead will have the opposite effect. We've heard about President Trump's spectacular negotiating skills often enough. It’s time for him to put them to work.
UPDATE 9/18--Since I posted this, there have been reports that US officials claim the reason Saudi air defenses were ineffective is that the radars were all pointed to the south, toward Yemen, where an attack was expected from, rather than the north, toward Iran. If true, then this is evidence that the attack actually was launched from Iran. It also suggests that there's something we can do for the Saudis at this point, and thereby send the message to Iran that bad behavior will only benefit its rival: sell them some more Patriot missile batteries for their northern perimeter.
Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com
Photo credit(s): BBC, WhatsNew2Day.com, twitter