Last week’s air strike on two of Saudi Arabian Aramco oil refineries knocked out 6 percent of the world’s total oil and 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s supply, sending global prices temporarily soaring mere days before both Iranian and American heads of state meet at the UN General Assembly in New York. Both Saudi Arabia and the US have claimed Iran is responsible, while stopping short of accusing the Iranian government of having actually ordered the strike. The charge is one which Iran denies. However, the Yemen-based Iranian-backed Houthi militia has claimed responsibility, a claim that France dismisses. Some worry this incident may tip the region into a large-scale war that will drag both Europe and the US into its orbit.
On September 14th, two oil facilities in Saudi Arabia were attacked by ten drones and twenty missiles. The attack knocked out so much of the supply that the spike in oil prices, while brief, was also the largest such jump in 30 years. US President Donald Trump tweeted that the USA was “locked and loaded” for a retaliatory strike, martial rhetoric that was later walked back. This is unusual not only because foreign policy is not normally conducted via Twitter, but also because the US does not have a formal treaty alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Responding to Saudi and American recriminations and mulling responses to what US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called “an act of war”, Tehran said that any US or Saudi military strike against Iran would bring “all-out war”. “I am making a very serious statement that we don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation … But we won’t blink to defend our territory”, said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif during an interview with CNN.
Despite both Houthi and Iranian claims, the existing evidence does point to Iran likely being responsible. The US released satellite images that indicate missiles came from the north, the direction of Iran and Iraq relative to the site, and not from Yemen, which is to the south of the Aramco facility.
US investigators are also looking at recovered missile circuit boards and other pieces of evidence to help determine the weapons’ trajectories more definitively. The missile debris seems to match the Quds 1 cruise missile – a weapon the Houthis claim is their own. However, Secretary of State Pompeo has claimed the Quds 1 is “equipment… unknown to be in the Houthi arsenal”.
France, which has lately led Europe in all issues regarding Iran, is sending its own investigators to determine the origin of the attack, but so far has found the Houthi claims to not be credible. On Monday, France, along with Germany and Britain, agreed with the United States and in a joint statement blamed Iran for the attack, urging the country to agree to new talks on its nuclear and missile programmes, as well as regional security issues. “It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation. We support ongoing investigations to establish further details”, read the statement.
Iran considers these accusations part of the United States’ “maximum pressure” policy to force it to re-negotiate the JCPOA deal. Iran has gradually scaled back its commitments to the deal, rejecting any talks about the issue unless sanctions are lifted. “The United States is now using oil as a weapon; oil is not a weapon”, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said that “maximum pressure” from the United States has produced “maximum resistance” from Iran. Speaking at the Iranian mission to the UN in New York, he said “to get real negotiations started, this economic war has to end”, referencing the punishing sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy and reduced their oil sales. “If Trump returns to the JCPOA, we will again negotiate with the United States in the format of a P5+1 meeting”, he added.
If iron-clad proof is brought forward that Iran was behind the attack, it would provoke an even stronger response from both Saudi Arabia and the United States, with the September 14th attack likely to figure large during discussions at the UN General Assembly. Trump and his administration would try to use the event to whip up support against Iran, and lobby other countries to back a UN Security Council resolution on the issue and join a coalition to deter Iranian threats. But that coalition appears to consist of Saudi Arabia, its Gulf allies, and little else.
The International Maritime Security Construct was set up in July after Iran seized a British tanker and allegedly shot down a US surveillance drone. “It’s important to remember the attack on the Saudi facility is an attack on everyone”, a White House official said in a call with reporters on the administration’s plans for the UN.
Trump also ordered another round of punishing sanctions on Sunday, which was followed soon after by the dispatching of 500 additional American soldiers to Saudi Arabia, along with the deployment of troops and military equipment to the United Arab Emirates, in a bid to beef up security. Up to 5,000 American troops are already in the area, according to the Pentagon. Trump may also be considering a cyberattack to continue to hammer away at Iran’s oil sector. A previous cyberattack in June impeded Iran’s ability to target tankers, and left some of their computers incapacitated for months. Such an attack would be effective while being less escalatory than a traditional military operation.
“I think the sanctions work”, said the US President. “We have just sanctioned the Iranian National Bank. These are the highest sanctions ever imposed on a country.” The measures ultimately put a halt to France’s earlier efforts to salvage what remains of the JCPOA (colloquially referred to as “the Iran deal”), which would extend a 14 billion euro credit line to Iran in return for Iran adhering to the treaty’s parameters, but relied on the US easing sanctions and allowing for sanction waivers. Last week’s airstrike means that credit line – and any sanction easing – are now off the table.
“The regime in Tehran must be held accountable through diplomatic isolation and economic pressure”, Pompeo said. “Our campaign of maximum pressure will continue to raise costs on the Islamic Republic of Iran until it reverses its destabilising policies across the Middle East and around the world.”
While the World Watches
What is beyond any doubt is that this airstrike has stoked tensions just as France hoped to ease them at the UN General Assembly, where French President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled to meet Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and the United States’ President Donald Trump. Macron is also due to meet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose countries are also parties to the JCPOA. While a meeting between Trump and Rouhani was also anticipated, this is now increasingly unlikely.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that their main priority at the UN this week, as a leader of the European effort to address these issues, is to de-escalate tensions between the United States and Iran. “The meeting between (US) President (Donald) Trump and (Iranian) President (Hassan) Rouhani is not the number one subject. The priority subject is whether we can restart a de-escalation path with the different actors”, Le Drian said. He also added that to return the region to peace, “Iran must return (fully) to the nuclear deal. It is a requirement. It needs the economic benefits of the accord, but we must also discuss the rest.”
“This moment is dangerous for the world and the situation is serious because of the magnitude of the strikes (on Saudi Arabia) and its targets and … (they) came when we thought there was a window of opportunity for talks”, noted Le Drian.
How is Yemen involved?
Even if the Houthis are lying about being responsible for the airstrike, Yemen is an important factor in ongoing US-Iran tensions. This is due to the fact that Yemen is the site of a years-long sectarian civil war between the mostly-Shia and Iranian-backed Houthis and the Yemeni state military, which has Saudi and US backing. The civil war acts as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The results have been devastating, with mounting civilian casualties, famine and disease gripping the nation.
The USA has a strong friendship with Saudi Arabia, to whom they sell weapons. However, not everyone is pleased with this, as the oil-rich country has become increasingly unpopular due to its brutal role in the Yemeni civil war.
However, current tensions with Iran may offer an unusual opening for peace in Yemen. According to a letter sent to the Washington Post by Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdelsalam, the Houthis have offered to halt their forays into Saudi Arabia if the latter responds in kind. This would entail the ceasing of airstrikes and other military activity, opening the airport in Sanaa, allowing an exchange of prisoners, and helping build a lasting political solution. While the timing is unusual, considering the Houthis’ close ties to Iran, this may represent a desire to put some distance between themselves and Tehran.