The devastating attack Saturday against a major oil facility in Saudi Arabia dramatically illustrates why the Iran nuclear deal that was accepted by the Obama administration and rejected by President Trump failed to end the Iranian threat to peace and stability in the Middle East.
While the nuclear deal put temporary restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program, it did absolutely nothing to stop Iran’s aggressive conventional and asymmetric military actions against its neighbors and threats against Israel. This is partly why President Trump ultimately withdrew from this deeply flawed agreement.
In fact, the nuclear deal aided Iranian military aggression and support of terrorist groups by lifting international economic sanctions against Iran and freeing up Iranian funds frozen by foreign banks. Iran has supported several terrorist groups in the region, including Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah based in Lebanon, the Palestinian group Hamas that rules the Gaza Strip, and the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
The attack Saturday on Saudi oil facilities – which temporarily cut Saudi oil production in half – was carried out by either drones or cruise missiles (or a combination of the two), according to news reports. About 5.7 million barrels of crude oil production were interrupted by the Saturday attack, amounting to more than 5 percent of the world’s daily oil supply.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet Saturday that “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia … Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
And President Trump tweeted Sunday night: “Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”
The president notably refrained from saying who the U.S. government believes is responsible for the attack on Saudi Arabia, but U.S. officials previously pointed to Iran.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is playing a game of three-dimensional chess against the U.S. and its regional partners – a game aiming to induce weakness and irresolution in the face of the Iranian challenge.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels are claiming credit for the strike against the Saudi oil facilities. However, satellite photos released by the U.S. government showed at least “17 points of impact” that officials said indicated the attack came from the direction of Iran or Iraq rather than the Houthi’s home base of Yemen.
Iranian officials denied their government was responsible for the strikes against Saudi Arabia.
In late 2014, the Houthis burst forth from their stronghold in northern Yemen, conquered the capital city of Sanaa, and plunged the Arab world’s poorest country into deep chaos. Since then, humanitarian suffering caused by the Houthi insurgency has mushroomed across the nation on a medieval scale.
Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has led a multinational military coalition to restore the U.N.-backed government in Yemen. The Saudis prosecution of the war has made their nation the primary target of international criticism – even as Saudi bases, cities, airports and oil installations come under attack from Houthi rockets, missiles and drones.
Other foreign belligerents have mostly escaped blame.
Iran’s involvement in Yemen is more nefarious. Tehran seeks to co-opt the Houthi insurgency into a tool with which to bleed and bludgeon its regional rival, Saudi Arabia. This competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia is a struggle for both the sacred and profane: for leadership of the Muslim world, for individual Muslim hearts and minds, for the Middle East regional balance, and for oil.
Iran has provided the Houthis with anti-tank missiles, ballistic missiles of varying ranges, cruise missiles, and suicide drones – which can function as cruise missiles. As a result, Iran has been able to grow the long-arm of Houthi military capabilities, and at a low cost to Iran.
Iranian-supplied weapons allow the Houthi insurgents to strike at the Saudi heartland from a distance and respond to battlefield developments at a time and place of their own choosing.
In additions to the tweets from Pompeo and Trump, elsewhere on Twitter there has been increased chatter about, and even video alleging, that the strikes on Saudi Arabia originated in Iraq. If that were the case, Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, which are part of Tehran’s broad proxy network across the Middle East, would be to blame rather than the Houthis.
Should the thesis of Iraqi involvement hold, it would be a measure of the Houthis’ deference to Iran that they claimed credit for an attack they did not carry out.
It would also be an indicator of Tehran’s tolerance for risk and retaliation in places like Yemen – which is far away, unlike Iraq, which is right next door to Iran.
Conversely, should Iran have launched cruise missiles from its own territory – which is less likely – it would mean Tehran is confident that its adversaries would not respond using military force against the origin of the strikes.
While Iran is known as a ballistic missile powerhouse in the region, copies of its cruise missiles are increasingly winding up in the hands of terrorist groups, be they anti-ship variants with Hezbollah in Lebanon or land-attack cruise missiles with the Houthis in Yemen.
Either way, the launching of cruise missiles and/or drones at a vital artery of the international economy conveys a broader strategic point: Iran’s threats to oil shipping are not limited to the Strait of Hormuz, where over one-fifth of seaborne traded oil passes daily. This signifies that the regime is comfortable broadening the scope of its harassment from oil tankers at sea to oil installations on land. Consider this an attempt to make good on old threats.
With the blaze of Saudi oil facilities in hindsight, the priority for Washington should not be to covet a high-level meeting with the Islamic Republic on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City in the coming days. It must be how better to contest Iran’s asymmetric military capabilities, as well as those of its proxies and partners in the region.
Since May, Washington has been hardening and growing its military footprint in the region through enhanced deployments. This process, as well as tough sanctions, should continue.
Slowing economic pressure, recalling assets – or worse, talking to Tehran only about the nuclear issue – would replicate the mistakes that got the U.S. into the flawed 2015 nuclear deal, which in turn underwrote the expansion of Iran’s regional threat network.
The Trump administration should not make the same mistake as the Obama administration, and should instead continue to hold Iran accountable for its latest hostile actions.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD.