After Sunday’s drone and missile attacks against oil facilities and other targets in Saudi Arabia, the United States expressed alarm at the ‘genuine security threats’ the Saudis are facing from Yemeni-based and Iranian supported Houthi rebels. Not to sound facetious, but I honestly do not understand why the Biden administration is just now waking up to the realization that the Houthi rebels pose a danger to Saudi Arabian territory and economic interests. This past weekend saw Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export terminal at the port of Ras Tanura targeted. No damage was caused to the terminal, but fragments from an exploding ballistic missile did fall on the nearby ARAMCO facility.
Sunday was not the first time that the Houthis launched drone and missile attacks against economic targets inside of the Kingdom. The attack against the Abqaiq facility in 2019 caused considerable damage and affected Saudi Arabia’s oil production. The most recent attacks are not expected to have an effect on either production, or oil prices beyond today. Yet the attacks have helped to demonstrate how complicated ending the civil war in Yemen will be. The Houthis are clearly not prepared to talk peace right now, as this weekend revealed.
The White House has apparently noticed this, and the Biden administration sounds downright miffed. “We continue to be alarmed by the frequency of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia. Escalating attacks like these are not the actions of a group that is serious about peace,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told a press conference.
Well, to be fair, its probably not entirely the Houthis decision whether or not they come to the peace table. Tehran has reestablished its influence with the Yemeni-based group and is calling the shots once again. The US has not helped the prospects of ending the war in Yemen much lately either. Last month the Biden administration removed US support for Saudi military operations inside of Yemen. Though a bit naïve, the move was an act of good faith. Unfortunately, it has had almost the exact opposite effect and is enticing the Houthis to resume attacks on the economic infrastructure of Saudi Arabia.
The Biden administration will eventually learn how to navigate the Yemen quagmire, but it is coming at a cost.
On Thursday President Joe Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi Arabian-led military operations in Yemen. He pointed to the large-scale humanitarian crisis going on in that country as being a key motivation behind this decision and lays blame for the present situation in that country at the feet of Saudi Arabia. Iran and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have apparently played no role in Yemen’s suffering according to the curious rationale behind the Biden administration’s decision. The reversal of policy is also nothing short of a slap in the face to Saudi Arabia, a strategic partner of the United States.
All of the combatants and the nations supporting them are responsible for what has transpired in Yemen. Yet the Biden administration has chosen to make an example out of Saudi Arabia. To be fair, the Saudis and their allies have been fighting the Houthi rebels inside Yemen for five years now without resolution. The Saudi intervention has largely checked Iranian ambitions on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, though this has caused a tremendous amount of collateral damage in Yemen, as well as a limited amount in Saudi Arabia itself. By ending US support for future operations in Yemen, the Biden administration runs the risk of emboldening Tehran and providing them with an opening to repair frayed relations with the Houthis and reestablish its foothold in Yemen.
Biden also announced an end to ‘relevant’ arms sales, though he provided no details on just what this means. It probably indicates a pause to some of the arms deals the Trump administration worked out with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a major ally of the Saudis in the Yemen conflict. Biden did assure the Saudis that the US will continue to play a key role in the Kingdom’s defense, but that promise gives the appearance of a pat on the head to Riyadh, as well as a warning that the future political and military decisions by the Kingdom will bring about consequences if they fail to fall in line with the foreign policy designs of the Biden administration in the Persian Gulf region.
Iran’s national oil company has claimed that one of itsoil tankers in the Red Sea has suffered an explosion, and damage. Initially, Iran claimed the cause of the explosion was a missile strike on the vessel but hours later official accounts had rolled back the missile claim. There has been no indication about whether an oil spill has occurred as a result of the damage, if the ship is on fire, or its overall condition. Late this afternoon, Iranian state television reported the ship is returning to Iran. The contradictory reports and lack of facts have only raised more questions about exactly what happened to the tanker, which. News of the explosion boosted oil prices by around 4%.
Iran is conducting an investigation into the incident. “The details of the attack and the instigators are under investigation and will be announced in due course,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said. Given that Iran has been blamed for the recent missile strike on Saudi oil facilities, I wouldn’t be shocked if Iran discovers it was Saudi Arabia that perpetrated the oil tanker attack in retaliation. I’ll be honest, that was the first thought to cross my mind after seeing the headline this morning.
It’s not as if Iran doesn’t have the men, and equipment to attack an oil tanker, theirs or otherwise. The world has seen Iran carry out attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf this year using limpet mines and explosives planted by IRGC troops, and operatives. The motive for conducting an attack against one of its own ships is certainly present and valid. Tehran would certainly hope an overt attack on an Iranian asset would shift some of the scrutiny away from Iran. You can never put anything past the Iranian government, especially now when it must seem to them as if the walls are closing in. Economic sanctions, US pressure, and Saudi Arabian suspicion are combining to have a decidedly negative effect on the leadership in Tehran.
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.
As the United States military prepares to move additional forces to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, Iran is threatening to pursue and destroy any aggressor, and that war might be unavoidable. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave an interview on Face The Nation, which will be shown Sunday morning. In it, the diplomat stressed that should a conflict erupt between Iran and the United States, it will not be a limited war. Meanwhile, as the latest US troop movement prepares to get underway, the Pentagon revealed that the mission of the troops is defensive in nature and will focus on air and ballistic missile defense. Assistance was formally requested by the Saudis. Along with the deployment, the US has announced it will be providing additional military hardware to its Gulf allies. The purpose behind this move is simple. Should the current tension bring about a military confrontation, it is in Washington’s best interest for US allies in the Gulf region to be properly equipped and supplied.
On Friday, the Trump administration also raised economic pressure on Iran. A new round of sanctions will target Iran’s national bank, a move that has the potential to cut off Iran’s dwindling access to global markets. When it comes to hard currency, Iran is running short. Further US pressure will make matters worse, and likely spur Tehran to take action similar to last weekend’s attacks sometime in the near future.
The coming week will see a new realm in the US-Iran crisis open up. The UN General Assembly will be underway, and the situation in the Persian Gulf will undoubtedly be a major topic. It remains to be seen if Iran’s leadership will meet with President Trump. Another area to be watched carefully will be US efforts to build an anti-Iran coalition and how successful they are. On Monday, we’ll discuss the UN General Assembly in greater detail.