This past Saturday, a series of drone attacks struck Khurais oilfield and the Abqaiq processing plant in Saudi Arabia. Abqaiq is the largest such facility in the world, and is central to the Saudi kingdom’s wealth and economic influence. The attacks have been claimed by the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel army with close ties to Iran.
TCF senior fellow Thanassis Cambanis sat down with TCF fellow and Iran expert Dina Esfandiary to explore the security and policy implications of the strikes. How likely is it that Iran is behind them? What do they mean for security in the region? And what should America’s role be in their aftermath?
Thanassis Cambanis: Is Iran behind the attacks in Saudi Arabia? How much certainty do we have about responsibility in the tit-for-tat attacks between Iran and its regional rivals?
Dina Esfandiary: It is difficult to be sure without further evidence. In summary, the U.S. government released imagery showing seventeen points of impact at the Khurais and Abqaiq oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. U.S. officials stated that the strikes came from the north or northwest, which would be consistent with an attack from Iran, Iraq, or Yemen. They then revised their statement, and now assert that the attacks came from Iran directly, stating Saudi missile defences did not detect them because they were pointing in the opposite direction. But the direction of impact should not be significant given the fact that the weapons described—drones or cruise missiles—are steerable weapons. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attacks but claimed to have launched ten drones—a possible outcome, given that the group have acquired drones that could fly that distance.
If the Houthis were responsible, launching from different locations to hit the same target fits the pattern being followed in modern warfare of moving away from the concentration of force. They could also have conducted the attacks either without notifying the Iranians (though this would be surprising), or in contravention of Iranian advice. Given the sophistication and success of the attacks, it is likely that Iran at the very least had some knowledge of this sophisticated attack, and perhaps even had a direct hand in it.
Given the sophistication and success of the attacks, it is likely that Iran at the very least had some knowledge of this sophisticated attack, and perhaps even had a direct hand in it.
Assessing Iranian responsibility in recent tit-for-tat tensions in the Persian Gulf is difficult, because plausible deniability and use of proxies is part of Tehran’s modus operandi. In this case, proving who is responsible for what will be difficult, especially since the Iranians could continue to claim that the Houthis did it without their knowledge. In addition, recent Iranian moves have either been reversible (for example, Iran’s statements on its nuclear program) or not threatening enough to warrant a military response. But if Tehran is responsible for these attacks, then it is clearly escalating its response to President Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign.”
Why would Iran carry out such attacks?
The Saudi oil facilities were soft targets and a major choke point in Saudi Arabia’s oil production—all Saudi crude oil production goes through the gas oil separation plant and the stabilization plants, which reduce hydrogen sulphide in the oil, at Abqaiq. As a result, it will take another two to three weeks for Saudi oil production to be restored to normal. Following a period of heightened tensions in the Persian Gulf this summer, Iran might want to target these facilities to highlight the vulnerability of Saudi oil installations and defense, and demonstrate what Iran itself is capable of doing should tensions with the United States continue to escalate.
What do the attacks on the oil facility tell us about Saudi deterrence—and the security of the world’s oil supply?
Clearly, this episode has served to demonstrate the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia’s oil installations to attacks—many were surprised, given Riyadh’s significant weapons purchases in recent years. While the facilities have significant defenses in place for ground attacks, they are vulnerable to air attacks, despite Saudi’s Patriot missiles. This also raises questions about how secure world oil supply is: as a result of these attacks, Saudi Arabia suspended production of 5.7 million barrels of crude oil a day, equivalent to approximately 6 percent of the world’s daily oil supply.
But a few points on Saudi deterrence are worth highlighting. First, oil infrastructure defense is within the purview of Saudi’s Ministry of Intelligence, not the Saudi military, and it’s the latter which has been the main recipient of U.S. arms sales. Second, according to Becca Wasser of RAND, “there are multiple players in the air defense space” in Saudi Arabia, and some of those actors “too often opt for passive rather than active defense.” All these factors make Saudi’s defenses of critical infrastructure relatively weak—something which the country will presumably work to address now.
What is an appropriate response if Iran is responsible? What options does the United States have?
While Saudi Arabia has called for a response to the attacks, it has stopped short of calling for war against Iran, and, in fact, has called for the matter to be taken to the UN instead. This is because Riyadh, like its Gulf Arab allies, knows it would be on the front line should military confrontation break out. While the United States and Saudi Arabia could retaliate against the Houthis, the last few years of the Saudi-led bombing campaign has demonstrated the limited impact of doing that. But what could be done to deter Iran? Strikes on Iranian military targets could offer some deterrence, but it’s more likely that strikes would invite an Iranian response, potentially leading to all-out war in the region.
The United States should work with local partners in the region to develop better defenses for those partners’ critical infrastructure.
The United States should work with local partners in the region to develop better defenses for those partners’ critical infrastructure. It should also engage the Iranian leadership in talks to de-escalate current tensions in the region, something that President Trump hinted he might be willing to do during this year’s UN General Assembly. The General Assembly convenes for its seventy-fourth session here in New York today, and the representatives from both Saudi and Iran are expected to arrive within the week. Significant indicators in how this all will go could be coming very soon.
Photo Source: A handout photo made available by NASA shows a satellite image of smoke from fires at two major oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia, 14 September 2019 . EPA-EFE/NASA WORLDVIEW HANDOUT