What is Iran hoping to accomplish with the attack on Saudi oil facilities? And what should be the response?
The “mad mullahs” of Iran are the single most destabilizing influence in the Middle East and Iran is the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism. But while the mad mullahs have, since the 1979 Revolution, always been hyper-aggressive, pushing murder, mayhem and kidnapping to the very limit of what they can get away with on the international stage, what the mad mullahs haven’t been, until now at least, is suicidal. Did that just change with an attack on one of the world’s largest oil refineries?
In brief, Saudi Arabia runs the world’s largest oil processing facility at Abqaiq, which is responsible for 5% of the world’s oil and gas supplies. On Saturday, either Iran or an Iranian proxy attached it, using either drones or missiles. The fires have since been put out but the damage remains to be fully assessed. This is, any way you look at it, a profound escalation of the war in the Middle East, one that directly threatens the global economy.
This from Fox News:
“Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while [President Hassan] Rouhani and [Foreign Minister Mohammad] Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy,” Pompeo tweeted, referring to the nation’s president and foreign affairs minister. ” … There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”
Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attack hours before Pompeo’s tweet. The world’s largest oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia and a major oil field were impacted, sparking huge fires at a vulnerable chokepoint for global energy supplies. . . .
According to multiple news reports that cited unidentified sources, the drone attacks affected up to half of the supplies from the world’s largest exporter of oil, though the output should be restored within days. It remained unclear if anyone was injured at the Abqaiq oil processing facility and the Khurais oil field.
The WSJ characterizes the attack on the oil facilities as “the big one“:
Saturday’s attack on a critical Saudi oil facility will almost certainly rock the world energy market in the short term, but it also carries disturbing long-term implications.
Ever since the dual 1970s oil crises, energy security officials have fretted about a deliberate strike on one of the critical choke points of energy production and transport. Sea lanes such as the Strait of Hormuz usually feature in such speculation. The facility in question at Abqaiq is perhaps more critical and vulnerable. The Wall Street Journal reported that 5.7 million barrels a day of output, or some 5% of world supply, had been taken offline as a result. . . .
And this from CNN:
The attack on the world’s largest oil processing plant early Saturday morning is a dramatic escalation in the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia — even if the Iranians didn’t fire the drones or missiles responsible.
Several projectiles struck the Abqaiq plant, starting a series of fires that quickly took out nearly half Saudi’s oil production — 5% of the global daily output — and sparking fears about the security of the world’s oil supplies. . . .
But where did this attack originate and who was behind it?
The Houthis have sent dozens of drones and short-range ballistic missiles against Saudi Arabia in the past two years. Many have been intercepted by Saudi air defenses; others have fallen harmlessly. A very few have caused limited damage and casualties.
Houthi drones are based on Iranian models, . . .
A source with knowledge of the incident told CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen late Saturday that preliminary indications were the drones/missiles “did not originate from Yemen and likely originated from Iraq.” A second source in the Gulf region told CNN that while there was no proof yet, the indications were that the attack originated in southern Iraq.
Pro-Iranian militia are well-entrenched in southern Iraq, and the Quds Force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards unit in charge of foreign operations, has a presence there. Earlier this year, some regional analysts assessed that a drone attack on a pumping station at Afif in northern Saudi Arabia originated in Iraq. But no hard evidence was produced.
The Iraqi government Sunday issued a statement rejecting reports “about its land being used to attack Saudi oil facilities.” . . .
Things are unquestionably getting desperate in Tehran since Trump pulled us out of the Iran Deal and reimposed sanctions. This from Foreign Policy Magazine:
. . . The bad news for Iran is that, just a few months after U.S. sanctions on oil exports kicked back in, the economy is in miserable shape. The currency has depreciated, inflation is rampant, and unemployment is high, while GDP contracted last year and looks set to shrink even further this year. Dwindling oil exports have cut into government revenues, and U.S. sanctions on financial transactions have chilled economic activity in a number of other sectors, including autos and humanitarian goods like food and medicine.“The economy is even worse than they let on,” said Alireza Nader, the CEO of New Iran, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. Iran’s once proud auto industry is on the verge of collapse, and while Iranian Central Bank officials have managed to stabilize the exchange rate, it came at the cost of draining foreign reserves. Meanwhile, shortages of meat and basic medicines are fueling popular frustration. “This idea of the resistance economy is totally false,” Nader said.
The really scary news for Iran is that the full brunt of U.S. sanctions has really just begun to be felt, with limits on Iranian oil exports becoming effective only last November. The U.S. economic pressure is simply adding to years of corruption and economic mismanagement by Iran’s leadership, which has led to chronic inflation, unemployment, and failed efforts to turn Iran into a welcoming place for foreign investment. Coupled with lower average oil prices now than during the Obama administration, when the United States sharply limited Iran’s crude exports, that means Tehran has less ability to absorb U.S. sanctions than in the past. . . .
So the mad mullahs are becoming desperate — and Iran’s method of seeking rapprochement with the global community is to act out and demand that it be accepted on the mullah’s terms. Tehran — pretending that it wasn’t before — is now open about its development of nuclear weapons. Moreover, with its tanker attacks, Tehran has been trying for the past few months to spark a very limited war with the U.S. that they could play to their international advantage as their situation has steadily worsened. When that failed, Iran has now seemingly upped the ante.
True, the mad mullahs are disclaiming any responsibility for the attack (and, in no surprise at all, Democrats such as Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., are already lining up in Iran’s defense.) But the Houthi rebels — or the Iranian backed militias in Iraq — are funded, trained and armed by Iran, regardless of whether their daily operational control comes from the mad mullahs. And thus, if you cut off their funding by taking away Iran’s ability to continue funding these proxy groups, the proxy groups will shrivel and die as well.
The one sure way to end this is to respond forcefully against Iran’s oil, the source of over a third of their government funding. Lindsey Graham 2.0 has it right:
“It is now time for the U.S. to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment,” Graham tweeted.
“Iran will not stop their misbehavior until the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime’s back,” he added.