Iranian Involvement Suspected In Monday’s Oil Tanker Attack

Monday’s attack on a Singapore-flagged oil tanker docked at the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah is raising fears of more attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure as US-Iranian tensions continue to mount. Although no nation, or group has yet taken responsibility for the attack on the BW Rhine, Iran is viewed as the instigator as the attack was likely carried out by the Yemen-based Houthi rebels, an Iranian proxy group. The tanker was struck by a small boat carrying explosives causing blast damage and a fire on board. The attack has temporarily closed the Saudi port and brought on concern about the safety of oil tankers in the Red Sea.

Iran is thought to have played a role in the attack. The recent assassination of nuclear scientist  Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, coupled with the declining health of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other regional setbacks are forcing Iran to demonstrate it is capable of striking back at US and Saudi interests in the region. The above-mentioned events supply Iran with motive while the Houthis provided means. It is by no means a clear cut indication of guilt, however, all signs do seem to be pointing towards Iran.

Partial Ceasefire Takes Effect in Yemen

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Saudi Arabia has agreed to a partial ceasefire in its conflict in Yemen. The ceasefire will take effect in four regions of the war-torn country, including the area around San’a, Yemen’s capital city. If the ceasefire is successful, it will be expanded to other parts of Yemen. The somewhat unexpected move by Riyadh comes in response to Houthi forces declaring a unilateral ceasefire last week. Following the 14 September attacks against Saudi oil facilities, Houthi leaders claimed responsibility. This claim was seen as a move to obscure Iran’s role in the attack and was dismissed by Saudi, US, and European military officers and diplomats. Internally, however, the claim caused a rupture between Houthis who want to cool ties with Iran, and those who want to strengthen the relationship. Some Houthi leaders have even gone as far as to warn Riyadh about Iran’s intention to launch follow-up strikes against targets in Saudi territory.

The ceasefire, should it hold, gives Saudi Arabia’s military a period of time to catch its breath. Operations in Yemen have taken a toll on Saudi forces, especially the Royal Saudi Air Force. Given the direction relations with Iran are going in, it’s very possible the RSAF will be needed soon. At present, the air force’s combat readiness is marginal following four years of conflict in Yemen. Saudi air crews, and commanders need to relearn the tenets of modern air warfare in order to be of use in the coming weeks and months. Even if the Saudis decide not to retaliate militarily against Iran, there’s a strong likelihood that Tehran will launch another overt attack against Saudi Arabia at some point in the future.

The Saudi Military Option

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As Iran’s role in the ARAMCO attacks becomes clear Saudi Arabia finds itself at a critical moment. Iran was responsible for the attacks against Saudi oil facilities over the weekend. Drones and missiles were launched from sites inside of Iran. US sources have confirmed it, and provided more detailed information on the locations of the sites. There is no question.

Now, the Saudis must decide how to respond to a clear act of aggression on the part of Iran. Understandably, Riyadh is moving cautiously. However, given the circumstances of the moment, it may need to pick up the pace and reach a decision sooner than it would like. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s biggest ally are engaged in a high-stakes geopolitical chess match and for better or worse the Saudis are positioned right in the middle. Iran can needle the US by launching attacks against Saudi Arabian targets, either through its Houthi proxy, or on its own, as we are seeing. The United States cannot launch an attack against Iran on Saudi Arabia’s behalf. Especially not now with the UN General Assembly week beginning today. Timing is everything.

This might explain why the Saudis have elected not to respond militarily yet. Retaliating against Iran as the world meets in New York would be a mistake, plain and simple. Riyadh is buying time, claiming it needs to examine the evidence and reach its own conclusions regarding the attack. But if it waits too long to respond, Tehran will be emboldened, and assume it will not be held accountable for its actions. Another attack will be made against the kingdom, inevitably forcing the United States to respond with military action. Where the crisis goes from that point is anyone’s guess.

General Assembly week also provides Saudi Arabia the opportunity to quietly prepare its forces for a military option, should one be ordered. At present, the Royal Saudi Air Force is oriented towards operations in Yemen. Given that the RSAF would be the main force used in a military effort against Iran, it requires time to shift its focus and prepare for operations against Iran. Those preparations could be underway right now, quietly of course. Should this be the case, expect any Saudi military response to occur within hours of the General Assembly drawing to an end on 30 September, 2019.

Iran-Backed Rebels Launch Massive Drone Attack on Saudi Oil Facilities

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Iranian-supported Houthi rebels targeted Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure on Saturday morning with drone attacks against a major oil-processing facility, and an oil field owned by ARAMCO. These attacks have caused substantial damage and appear set to have a major effect on oil markets. The Saudi government has announced it will be shutting down roughly half of its oil production for the moment. This translates to around 5 million barrels of crude oil a day, which is roughly 5% of daily global oil production. The attacks are an unprecedented effort against global energy supplies, and have revealed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf nations oil infrastructure.

Iran is undoubtedly behind this attack, using its Houthi rebel proxy as a viable front. The Saudis have endured dozens of drone attacks initiated by the Houthis in recent years. None have been as economically damaging as this one. For Tehran, this attack comes days after the European Union’s failure to ease US economic sanctions currently in place against Iran. Many reports have surfaced alluding to the possibility of President Trump easing sanctions. If true, this likely had something to do with the resignation of John Bolton, who is a fierce hawk on Iran.

This morning’s attacks achieve two goals: It degrades Saudi oil production and negatively affects the oil market. There will be a slight period of economic distress, however it will not linger. Geopolitically, decisions have to be made soon. This is a direct attack on Saudi territory, and its economic capabilities by Iran. Riyadh can see beyond the Houthi front. The question for Riyadh is: How to respond?

The United States will have a say in the matter as well. As the ‘Maxium Pressure’ campaign against Iran continues to bring success, Tehran is becoming increasingly desperate. A show of military force may be needed to deter Iran from going any farther in its efforts. Or, the Saudis could decide to strike Iranian oil producing facilities on their own in retaliation. With luck, the coming hours will reveal just what direction the Saudis, and United States are leaning in, with regards to a possible response.

The Trump Pause

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The United States was primed and ready to begin attacks against the Iranian SAM (Surface to Air Missile) and radar sites responsible for shooting down an unarmed US Navy MQ-4 drone over the Strait of Hormuz. At the last moment, President Trump cancelled the strikes, citing the unacceptably high risk of Iranian casualties. In Trump’s view the Iranians had shot down an unmanned aerial vehicle. Responding with air and cruise missile strikes that could kill up to 150 Iranians was not a proportionate reply. It remains unknown whether the strike plans have been permanently cancelled, or placed on a temporary hold for the moment.

President Trump’s pause presents an opportunity for Iranian government to dial back its belligerent actions and turn off the crisis without losing face. Trump has demonstrated that the US is prepared to response militarily if a single US life is lost as a result of Iranian military action. By not retaliating due to concerns about casualties, Trump has seized the moral high ground and shown the world that the United States is not actively seeking a conflict with Iran. The ball is now in Teheran’s court. If Iran chooses to remain on the path it is currently on, it will inevitably lead to US military action, and even more economic sanctions.

The root cause of this crisis is the current state of Iran’s economy. US sanctions have placed a tremendous burden on the government, which now seems to be irreversibly tethered to the belief Washington will ease the sanctions as a result of the pressure Iran, and its proxies are applying in the region.

The next forty-eight hours could reveal much about Iran’s future intentions, and the direction this crisis will take.