missiles streaked down and turned the night sky orange. In the early hours of
September 14th a barrage of fast-moving weapons hit Abqaiq, a town in the
eastern Saudi desert that is home to the world’s largest oil-processing
facility. They punched holes in the spheroids that process crude oil and
smashed five of Abqaiq’s 18 stabilisation towers, lighting up the night. A separate
volley set ablaze the Khurais oilfield, 185km to the south west.
sun rose a few hours later, thick plumes of smoke were visible from space. The
images reminded some of the 1991 war with Iraq, when Saddam Hussein’s
retreating army set fire to oilfields in Kuwait. Oil prices briefly surged 20%
on news that more than 5.7m barrels a day of oil production had been halted.
This was the biggest disruption to the world’s energy supply in decades (see
appears to be the most dangerous escalation yet by the Islamic republic in its
simmering conflict with America and its allies. After months of sabre-rattling
and increasingly brazen acts of aggression—from mine attacks on ships to the
seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker—Iran (or its proxies) has moved on to
strike directly at the jugular vein of the world’s economy. The barrage, by a
mix of cruise missiles and drones, also marks a worrying transition to open war
from the shadowy proxy conflict that Iran has waged with Saudi Arabia and its
made mischief in the region, and beyond, for years. The Quds Force, a
special-operations arm of the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
(irgc), provided explosives used in attacks on American troops in Iraq a decade
ago. Iran was also implicated in terrorist activities in Europe and the
Americas long before that.
regime’s most dangerous card—a nuclear programme that may have left it months
away from the ability to manufacture an atomic bomb—was removed from the deck
in 2015. An agreement struck between Iran and six world powers saw it accept
strict limits on uranium enrichment in exchange for relief from some economic
sanctions. The deal may have also helped to dissuade Iran from aggressive acts
that could have threatened the foreign investment and other benefits promised
by the deal. But that calculus changed when President Donald Trump unilaterally
withdrew America from the agreement in May 2018 and in effect banned the export
of its oil a year later. Iran’s exports have shrunk from a peak of 2.8m barrels
a day last year to less than 1m now. Mr Trump has since added to the pain with
new sanctions on entire industries, such as petrochemicals and the gold trade,
and on individuals including Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister.
pressure has prompted Iran to hit back. It first sabotaged oil tankers in the
Persian Gulf. Then it stepped up a notch to seizing them, most recently
grabbing a vessel on September 16th that it said was smuggling fuel to the
United Arab Emirates (uae). Iran has also begun to flout some aspects of the
nuclear deal itself, by enriching uranium to proscribed quantities and levels
There was a
logic to this escalation. Iran hoped that by threatening to step away from the
nuclear pact it would press the other signatories, in particular France,
Germany and Britain, into offering it support such as credit lines to mitigate
the impact of American sanctions. And by menacing shipping in the Gulf it
wanted to demonstrate that the regime could impose costs on America and its
allies. But what may have started as a way of signalling Iran’s unhappiness has
since escalated into more dangerous actions such as the latest attack on Saudi
Arabia’s oil facilities.
this is because of Mr Trump’s tepid response to earlier provocations. For all
his hawkish rhetoric and sanctions, a campaign he calls “maximum pressure”, the
president is averse to military conflict. He ordered retaliatory air strikes
after Iran shot down an American drone flying over the Gulf in June, only to
recall the bombers at the last minute.
still unknown about the latest attack. But it is reasonable to conclude, as
Saudi Arabia (and its ally America) soon did, that Iran had a hand in it. The
Islamic republic denies involvement, but circumstantial evidence links it to
the weapons used. The first claim of responsibility came from the Houthis, who
control northern parts of Yemen and its capital, Sana’a. un investigators have
previously said that Iran had supplied the Houthis with advanced weapons,
including drones, missiles and equipment to make rocket fuel.
drones look almost identical to Iranian ones. Scores have been flown into Saudi
Arabia, aimed at airports, military bases and other targets. In December 2017
the Houthis even launched missiles towards a nuclear reactor under construction
in Abu Dhabi. In January the un noted that the Houthis had acquired a new drone
with a range of up to 1,500km. In May the group claimed to have struck two
oil-pumping stations and a pipeline deep in Saudi territory using such drones.
used in the latest attack seem to have been developed in Iran. Fabian Hinz, an
analyst with the James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation Studies, wrote that
wreckage found near Abqaiq looked like a cruise missile known as the Quds-1,
probably designed by Iran. At a press conference on September 18th Saudi Arabia
showed the wreckage of drones and missiles that it claimed proved Iran’s
involvement. America says that these were launched from a base in southern
Iran. Satellite photos indicate a sophisticated and precise operation, with
clean strikes on Abqaiq’s facilities. It is hard to imagine the Houthis
conducting such an attack without Iran’s help.
output, and by extension the world economy, was the first casualty, then the
second was surely Saudi credibility as a dependable guardian of that supply.
Last year Saudi Arabia spent between $68bn and $83bn on defence (estimates
vary), behind only America and China. Saudi Arabia was one of the first foreign
buyers of America’s Patriot missile-defence system in 1991 and now operates six
batteries of them.
ground forces have been humbled by four years of fighting rebels waging
guerrilla warfare in Yemen. And its air defences seem to be just as inept at
fending off conventional threats. To be fair, drones and cruise missiles are
especially hard to stop, particularly if they overwhelm defences by arriving in
large numbers. They are small and they fly low, hiding from radar behind the
curvature of the earth. And they are manoeuvrable, so they can skirt known
missile-defence sites. Some reports suggest the Aramco barrage snuck in via
Kuwait. Saudi air defences are relatively thin in the eastern province, with
most of its batteries focused to the south on the threat from Yemen.
Saudi forces seem to have had only limited success in using their Patriots
against ballistic missiles, which are easier to spot. The company that makes
the Patriot claims that its batteries have batted away more than 100 Houthi
missiles over Saudi Arabia and the uae. But Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the
Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, says there is no
evidence that they have intercepted any missiles. If the Patriot and similar
systems are leakier than assumed, Saudi oil facilities may be worryingly
vulnerable to Iran should the conflict escalate.
standing as the ultimate guarantor of security in the region has also been
damaged. Mr Trump first said that America was “locked and loaded” to respond to
the attack. Then he prevaricated, as he had done in earlier incidents, kicking
the ball back to Saudi Arabia, saying he would wait “to hear from the kingdom”
before acting. The following day he stressed his desire to make a deal with
Iran. On September 18th Mr Trump announced that he would impose further
sanctions. But their impact will be limited, because the administration is
running out of effective targets.
An aide to
the vice-president, Mike Pence, said that “locked and loaded” was in fact a
reference to American energy independence, a prize bit of spin even for Mr
Trump’s White House. The erratic swerves then continued with Mike Pompeo, the
secretary of state, calling the attack an “act of war” in a visit to the kingdom.
Arabia has tried to downplay the incident at home. King Salman said that his
country has the “ability to respond”—hardly a war cry. Much of the public
commentary on the attack has come from oil officials, not military men. Two
days after the attack the front page of Al-Riyadh, a pro-government daily, led
with a story about the crown prince attending a camel race. Coverage of the
Aramco incident came further down. It emphasised international support for the
kingdom and avoided photos of burning oilfields.
in keeping with Saudi tradition. For decades the kingdom was conservative in
its foreign policy and shunned the use of hard power. Under the previous
monarch, King Abdullah, it would have been unthinkable for Saudi Arabia to
conduct a military strike without America’s full support.
changed. The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has ploughed ahead with a
ruinous war in Yemen despite deep misgivings in Washington and other Western
capitals. He has also worked to cultivate a new Saudi identity, one rooted in
muscular nationalism instead of Islam. Officials in the Gulf have warned for
months that the kingdom would eventually have to retaliate against Iran for the
seemingly endless string of drone and missile attacks on its facilities.
Arabia remains hesitant to pick a fight with a foe that can fight back. The
experience of its air force in Yemen is not encouraging. Air strikes by the
Saudi-led coalition have killed thousands of civilians, despite Britain and
America providing precision munitions from their own arsenals and targeting
assistance in a bid to reduce “collateral damage”. Iran, which operates the
Russian s-300 air defence system, would be an even harder target for Saudi
warplanes. (Vladimir Putin, in a sublime bit of political trolling, suggested
on September 16th that Saudi Arabia might want to buy the same system, while Mr
Rouhani chuckled on a stage next to him.) The kingdom does have its own arsenal
of Western-built cruise missiles, but their short range means they could reach
only parts of Iran.
evidence of Iran’s role comes to light, Mr Trump may face more pressure to act.
“The strike on Abqaiq is arguably the most serious attack on energy
infrastructure in the Gulf since Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in
1990,” says Michael Singh of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace
Policy, a think-tank.
has a range of options. His proposed strike in June was aimed at the radar and
missile batteries involved with shooting down the American drone. This time he
could target facilities from which the attack on Saudi Arabia was
launched—although drones and cruise missiles tend to be mobile and easy to
launch from austere sites. Another option would be to target facilities
associated with the irgc. Attacking their bases and personnel outside
Iran—whether in Iraq, Syria or Yemen—might be considered less escalatory than
striking Iranian soil. A larger show of force is also possible. In 1988 America
responded to Iranian attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf with Operation
Praying Mantis, a major air and naval assault on Iranian ships and platforms.
not sit by. Its conventional means are limited; its $13bn defence budget is a
fifth of Saudi Arabia’s, and one-fiftieth that of America’s. But it could
target further missile volleys at ships, bases and other critical
infrastructure throughout the Gulf. The Quds Force could also mobilise regional
allies, from the Houthis inYemen to Hizbullah in Lebanon, to attack Western and
Arab interests, which is one reason that the Pentagon is discouraging Mr Trump
from ordering a military strike. More subtly, Iran’s accomplished cyber-forces
could disrupt energy, financial and political networks within the region and
beyond. In 2012 Iranian hackers were blamed for crippling 30,000 of Saudi
Aramco’s computers in one of the costliest cyber-attacks ever.
A wild and
uncontrolled backlash is unlikely. In choosing their parry, Iran’s leaders
would need to balance between facing down America by raising the stakes, and
avoiding an all-out war that would threaten the regime’s survival. Their hope
is that Mr Trump would lose the stomach for a fight long before matters reached
such a stage.
always the inexorable endpoint of Mr Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure”. He
and his aides thought they could pummel Iran into a new deal that constrained
not only its nuclear programme but also its foreign policy. Instead they
convinced Iran’s hardliners that the only way of dealing with America was
through muscular confrontation. Neither side will find it easy to back away.
Headline: A strike on Saudi Arabia moves a shadowy conflict closer to open war
Source: The Economist
is not the clipped winged angel but balanced reporting should state
the facts as known. Why
not refer to the ... tanker seizes by British on 9th
July off Gibraltar? And:
not forget that the Trump Administration started this low-level war
by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear accord. The UN Security Council
voted unanimously to ratify the agreement, so the US stands in
violation of UN resolutions and international law.