Less than twenty-four hours after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled the Iranian attack against Saudi oil facilities to be an act of war, his Iranian counterpart warned the world that any US or Saudi military action against Iran will lead to an ‘all out war.’ Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went on to explain that while Iran does not wish for war, it is prepared to defend itself should war come. His comments today have escalated the war of words presently underway between the Iranian regime and the Trump administration.
Zarif’s verbal barrage comes on the heels of not only Pompeo’s words, but also Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it believes Iran ‘unquestionably sponsored’ the attacks. Riyadh stopped short of openly blaming Iran, however. In yesterday’s statements, the Saudi government did explain its intention to gather more information on the attack. Specifically, determining the launch points of the cruise missiles. As I hinted at in a post the other day, this explanation could be little more than a screen to hide what is taking place behind the scenes. The US has incontrovertible proof that Iran is entirely responsible for the attack and the intelligence has been shared with the Saudi leadership and its military.
The other Gulf States appear to be aligning themselves with the United States as the crisis escalates. Today the United Arab Emirates announced it would be joining the US-led maritime coalition now being put together. Bahrain has previously said it too would be a part of the effort. Kuwait has raised the alert level of its military and security services as a precautionary measure. The Kuwaitis are also investigating the detection of unidentified UAVs over its territory earlier in the week, in an attempt to determine if there is a link to Iranian actions and future intentions.
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.
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.
Iran-backed Houthi rebels attacked an airport in southwestern Saudi Arabia today. Saudi officials confirm a projectile struck an arrivals terminal at Abha International Airport near the city of Khamis Mushait. Houthi officials wasted no time in claiming responsibility for the attack with a spokesman for the rebel group saying a cruise missile was launched at the airport’s control tower. Saudi officials have said nothing about damage to the control tower, however, there were two dozen or so travelers wounded by the projectile that hit the terminal. The Houthis also claimed that this attack was a response to “Saudi Aggression” in Yemen, though no details were given beyond that.
Houthi attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia have ramped up in recent weeks. Last month, Houthi drones attacked a pair of pumping facilities along a Saudi pipeline, forcing Riyadh to close the pipeline for a short time. Also in May, Saudi forces shot down a Houthi drone that targeted Jizan airport near the Yemeni border. This month has not been any quieter. On Sunday, rebel drones struck a Saudi drone facility at another airport near the Saudi-Yemen border. On the following day, Saudi air defense forces intercepted two drones as they approached Khamis Mushait, where King Khalid Air Base, a major Royal Saudi Air Force installation is also located.
As tensions between the United States and Iran have drawn down recently, Houthi activity is on the rise in Yemen. Iran is likely pressuring the Houthis to continue their attacks on targets in Saudi territory in the hopes it will shift international attention away from the war of words now taking place between Iran and the United States. Despite its efforts, Iran has had little success persuading the Trump administration to roll back the sanctions now in place. Other attempts to enlist Europe’s help in the matter have so far brought no success.
Tehran’s apparent support for Thursday’s breakthrough in UN-sponsored Yemeni peace talks raises questions about the future of Iran’s involvement in the conflict. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government, and Iranian-supported Houthi rebels have agreed to end fighting in and around the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. The Iranian foreign ministry called the ceasefire ‘promising’ and hopes that negotiations scheduled for January will bring forth a final agreement. The fact that the peace talks have made progress is surprising. For most of the four-year old conflict neither side has shown much enthusiasm for a brokered-settlement. Over the last four months that attitude has vanished, in large part due to increasing US-led international pressure on the involved parties to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Whether or not Iran’s support is sincere or purely cosmetic remains to be seen. The progress made in the peace talks, as well as Iran’s public praise for it, indicates there could be a shift in Iran’s Yemen strategy afoot. Tehran’s funding, and material support of the Houthi rebels has been vital to keeping them in the fight for this long. It is a marriage of convenience between the two more than anything else. The relationship between Iran and the Houthis is not deep. There are no historical ties that compel Tehran to support the movement. Iran’s main purpose for investing itself in the Yemeni War was to establish a firm foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, and threaten Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier, along with the vital Red Sea shipping routes. A Houthi victory would ultimately have led to the establishment of a pro-Iranian government in Yemen, and the end result would be a major victory for Tehran in the Great Game being played out between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region.
Unfortunately, the conflict has not gone in Iran’s favor. Saudi-led intervention has made a Houthi victory more unlikely as time goes on. Yemen has become a nation-state besieged by war, and enduring an almost unimaginable humanitarian crisis. Continued backing of the Houthis in the future appears more of a crapshoot for Iran, especially in light of the other major issues the Iranian government is facing both at home and abroad. The chance of a more permanent ceasefire, or peace agreement in the near future provides Iran with an opportunity to walk away from Yemen with a respectable PR victory (provided support for the UN-sponsored talks continues) and its prestige still relatively intact.
Yemen does not hold the same significance for Iran that it did four years ago. Tehran has bigger problems to contend with. Saudi Arabia, despite the recent Khashoggi incident, has taken a hard stand against further Iranian expansion in and around the kingdom. The close relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family has enticed Riyadh to push back against Iranian adventurism, hence Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to end its intervention in Yemen.
Then there is the United States. Iran is dealing with a full court press by the Trump administration to isolate Iran from the global community. To the surprise of many Iranian leaders, the US efforts have been quite successful so far, and show no signs of easing in the future. So, it would make sense for Iran to circle its wagons and hunker down to endure the next wave of US pressure instead of overextending itself in near-hopeless foreign adventures.