Tensions are rising again in the Middle East after an explosives-laden drone and ballistic missile fired by the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen targeted Saudi Aramco facilities at the Saudi port of Ras Tanura and in the city of Dhahran early on March 7.
The attacks on the world’s largest petroleum company pushed up crude oil prices, now hovering around US$70 a barrel, to levels not seen since 2018. The spike in prices and potential for tit-for-tat attacks has cast a new cloud over hopes that the global economy is poised to emerge from the damage wrought by the global pandemic.
The attacks also up the ante in the ongoing confrontation between Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s multi-sided conflict, and have sparked fresh doubts that the US and Iran will quickly resume the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal abandoned by the previous Donald Trump administration.
The Aramco-operated facilities were hit on at least 17 points of impact in what experts and media described as sophisticated volleys of aerial attacks.
The Houthis claimed responsibility for the offensive but the Saudis refuted their proclamation, pinning the blame instead on Iran. The Saudi military displayed wreckage of drones and missiles used in the operation that was indeed remarkably similar to Iranian technology.
Satellite images showed the storage tanks were hit from a northwest direction, which means the attack was probably launched from Iran. Yemen is the southern neighbor of Saudi Arabia. Iran has denied any role in the attacks.
But there is plenty of reason to doubt Iran’s claim.
On September 14, 2019, massive explosions rocked two state-owned oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in eastern Saudi Arabia, setting off fires that took several hours to be extinguished. According to the Saudi government, nearly half of the kingdom’s output of 9.7 million barrels per day and about 5% of global oil production were knocked out at that time.
In January 2020, a confidential UN sanctions monitors report reviewed by Reuters corroborated that Houthis were not behind a recent staggering blitz on global oil supplies, a shadowy provocation that many feared could set the entire region ablaze.
“Despite their claims to the contrary, the Houthi forces did not launch the attacks on [Saudi] Abqaiq and Khurais [oil complexes] on 14 September 2019,” the report said. The report also added the trajectory of the firings suggested the strikes did not originate from Yemen.
Moreover, UN experts cast doubts on the origins of the missiles and drones used, which they argued could not be manufactured by the Houthis on account of the primitive know-how at their disposal. The experts didn’t name a specific country responsible for that salvo.
Now with the latest attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, many wonder whether they will torpedo US President Biden’s early efforts to engage with Iran.
Some observers suggest the recent attack should be viewed as a message Iran is trying to impart that it would not stand for an increased US military footprint in the region and that it ultimately wants sanctions relief, without which it will not reciprocate Biden’s outreach.
“Iran is threatened by Gulf-Israeli rapprochement after the Abraham Accords, relative GCC unity after the al-Ula agreement, and the lack of sanctions relief ahead of a potential JCPOA nuclear deal renegotiation,” said Caroline Rose, a senior analyst and head of the Strategic Vacuums program in the Human Security unit at the Newlines Institute.
“Additionally, recent decisions from CENTCOM to identify alternative basing options in Saudi Arabian ports and air bases have created an incentive for Iran to pressure the Kingdom and create a sense of insecurity in an attempt to dissuade a more expanded US military footprint in the Persian Gulf,” she added.
Rose suggests by encouraging its proxy, the Houthis, to bump up attacks on critical targets on Saudi Arabian soil, Iran may be trying to gain leverage over the US in upcoming nuclear negotiations, even though they are not obviously imminent: “Although talks do not look likely right now, Iran is certainly trying to leverage the US and its partners to try and put a level of unconditional sanctions relief on the table before talks begin.”
Other commentators believe Saudi Arabia, despite sustaining damage from the raids on its oil facilities, airports and infrastructure by the Houthis, has come to the understanding that it doesn’t behoove the kingdom to retaliate militarily against Iran.
That’s partly due to the policies of the new US administration on the Yemen war and expectations that it could facilitate peace talks in the region.
“Several reasons can lead us to think that Saudi Arabia will probably not opt for large-scale retaliation at the moment. The pressure is now on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to participate in a de-escalation in the region, primarily in view of the nuclear talks that Biden wants to initiate,” said Anne Gadel, an expert on Middle East geopolitics based in Paris and the former CEO of Open Diplomacy Institute.
“The recent signals given by the new US administration to the Saudis, including ending military support for offensive operations in Yemen, reversing the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization and declassifying the Khashoggi CIA report, its will to solve the crisis through diplomacy and the subsequent recalibrating of the US-KSA relationship, are clear signs of this shift of policy in Washington,” she added.
Other Middle East pundits share the view that Saudi Arabia is not prepared to countenance the costs of a new war by rising to the bait of Tehran.
“The cost of war could be very high for Saudi Arabia and actually threaten the stability and integrity of the state itself, so Saudi Arabia is unlikely to want to escalate this to that level. This is especially the case without American backing, and frankly there is no appetite for another large-scale conflict in the Middle East,” said Oz Hassan, an associate professor in the Politics and International Studies Department at the University of Warwick.
The Yemen war is but one of several proxy conflicts that Iran is currently sponsoring to hit Saudi and US interests.
While the Saudi-led coalition is estimated by some to have spent a colossal average of US$5-6 billion per month on its military operations in Yemen over the past seven years, supporting the Houthis has cost Iran a comparative pittance. Some unconfirmed sources put the Iranian expenditure in Yemen at a paltry $30 million a month.
Yet even this apparently small expenditure is a huge undertaking for Tehran, considering its plummeting currency, faltering oil revenues and blocked access to foreign assets due to the US sanctions.
The Islamic Republic’s rich spending on its extraterritorial adventures is a cause of consternation for many Iranians who are scrambling to make ends meet as their purchasing power tapers off on a near daily basis.
Despite public opposition to splurging national resources on overseas expeditions, Iranian authorities have long rationalized the notion of “exporting the revolution” and argued subsidizing allies across the Middle East serves as deterrence against Iran’s traditional adversaries, the United States and Israel, and keeps the threat of foreign aggression at bay.
Indeed, the Iranian leadership often uses its Middle East proxies, including the Houthis, as bargaining chips in dealing with the West on a range of sticking points.
“Iran’s continued supply of key components for drones and other weapons to the Houthis is dangerous to the security of the region. Iran also exposes Yemeni civilians to the risk of attack when Saudi Arabia tries to deter such strikes,” said Tom Warrick, the former US Department of Homeland Security’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy, in an interview with Asia Times.
Warrick believes Iran’s posturing is one of the reasons the Yemeni crisis has dragged on for so long, noting that it should play a more constructive role: “Efforts to end the war in Yemen have the active engagement of the United Nations and are supported by many outside countries, including the United States and Europe. Those efforts deserve more support from Iran.”
The war in Yemen is one of the fault lines making a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia far-fetched. The two countries severed bilateral relations in January 2016, when the Saudi embassy in Tehran and consulate in Mashhad were violently attacked by a mob protesting against the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr by the Persian Gulf kingdom.
Tensions between the two Middle East powerhouses have been ratcheting dramatically ever since and show no signs of abating in sight of the March 7 attack on Saudi oil fields.
“It’s not clear what will bring about a reduction in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, but if Iran stopped supplying weapons and components to the Houthis in Yemen that would be a major step towards reducing tensions throughout the region,” Warrick, now a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Asia Times.
“I do not see any constructive role for Tehran in negotiations between the parties in Yemen. That needs to be left to the Yemenis themselves,” said Warrick.
“There is a reason the Gulf is the most unstable part of the world and the epicenter of modern conflicts. You have diametrically opposed interests in an environment that is unstable, and both regimes need to continuously legitimize their continued autocratic rule,” academic Hassan said.
“Without solving the region’s wider problems and getting peace deals in Yemen and Syria, the opportunity costs of not participating in this behavior are too high. It is very difficult to establish order in those conditions and impossible to build the sort of trust needed to move things forward,” he told Asia Times.
“The decades-long standoff between Tehran and Riyadh does not seem to be on a de-escalatory route,” said Mohammed Soliman, a senior associate at McLarty Associates’ Middle East and North Africa practice. “An agreement that addresses Iran-backed militias activities in the region could be a start of de-escalation. However, we are still far away from this point.”