by Ventsislav Bozhev
On September 14 [this year], Saudi Arabia’s largest oil processing facility suffered a drone attack. Despite there being no casualties, the material losses alone account for hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, oil prices witnessed an upsurge on a global scale due to the effects for Saudi’s exports and the state-owned Aramco was hit just when it was about to introduce one of the largest initial public offerings. Iran-backed Yemen Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, however, the US, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom all see Iran behind the attack. Tehran, of course, denies any involvement, but an operation of such complexity is hardly possible for the Houthi capacity, and the Iranian drones used both point to rather different conclusions.
The US response was swift – a month after the attack, 3000 additional US troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia, including two fighter squadrons, an air expeditionary wing, as well as additional Patriot and THAAD air defense systems. A demonstration of power which sends a clear-cut message – any future attack will be met with the reciprocal means.
The assault itself illustrated the culmination of the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia/US, and their allies that have been brewing for the past few months. Until the 4th of May when the Trump administration ended the waivers to countries buying Iranian oil, Teheran had acted passively against the American policy of “maximum pressure”. Iran’s main approach was giving ultimatums to leave the JCPOA and issuing threats to renew its nuclear program. Now, Iran’s on the offensive, applying its own policy of “maximum pressure” against the American partners. In the last few months alone, a few merchant ships were affected by mines in the Gulf of Oman; Houthi drones attacked Saudi airports and ports; supposedly Iran-backed Shia militias launched rockets in close proximity to the American Embassy in Baghdad; Iran shoot down a US drone over the Persian Gulf, and the IRGC seized a British oil tanker for two months.
Teheran’s reaction comes as no surprise. The hardliners around Ayatollah Khamenei see the American moves against Iran as an economic war, given the vulnerability of the Iranian economy after more than a year of harsh sanctions. Political isolation and economic pressure are at best regarded as an American attempt to cause a recession, which will eventually force the regime back on the table for negotiations. But this time weakened and ready for compromises.
Another possible scenario would be setting the ground for en masse anti-government protests, based on economic dissatisfaction leading to regime change in “Arab spring” or “Color revolution” style. The mass protests over the last two years clearly demonstrate the existence of accumulated economic, social, and political tension in the society. According to Amnesty International, more than 100 protesters are believed to be killed across Iran in less than a week of protests against the surge of fuel prices announced by the government.
So in this sense it is beneficial for Teheran to portray itself as a victim of foreign aggression but at the same time, to save face by demonstrating strength and confidence. This is done by sending clear-cut messages that world’s energy security depends on Iran. If Iran cannot trade, then no one in the region would be able to do it.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Qatar depend entirely on the free access to the Persian Gulf for their exports and, respectively, for the stability of their economies. A possible blockade of the narrow Strait of Hormuz would be an economic disaster for these states, as 1/4 of the world oil trade passes through this exact route. On the other hand, the September 14 attack identified the overall vulnerability of Saudi oil installations, and it should be kept in mind that the UAE installations are within reach for the Iranian conventional artillery. Along these lines, just a hint of a potential attack on the Dubai airport could be critical to Emirates’ tourism. When we add a reciprocal response against Iranian tankers or energy infrastructure, it would create an extremely unpleasant prospect for the shock intolerant global markets.
In a broader sense, a military conflict with Iran would mean engaging in an uncontrollable spiral of violence across the Middle East. Iran’s real military strength does not lie in the army, but rather in its broad network of Shiite proxies led or supported by the IRGC. They can easily turn the whole region into a battlefield from their bases in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and Yemen.
In Iraq alone, tens of thousands of fighters from the predominantly Shiite militia, Hashd al-Shaabi, regard Iran as their spiritual center. Between 2014 and 2017, dozens of different organizations operating under the umbrella of Hashd al-Shaabi proved to be an important player in the fight against the Islamic State. The most influential of them Badr, Kata’ib Hezbullah, Harakat Hezbullah al-Nudjaba are directly linked to Iran. Recent reports show at least five major Iraqi Shiite militias operating in Syria fighting for President Bashar al-Assad’s, along with Afghanistan’s Liwa Fatemiyoun, Palestinian Liwa al-Quds and Lebanon’sHezbollah. All of them supported by Iran.
In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah is estimated to have a capacity of more than 100,000 rockets that can reach almost any point in Israel, whose southern part is already threatened by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad rockets based in the Gaza Strip. Although Hamas and PIJ are not Shia, the two radical groups enjoy their good relations with Tehran, as well as the Iranian support they receive based on a common enemy in the face of Israel. Thus, the main US ally in the Middle East can easily be sucked into a prolonged three-front conflict against asymmetric and non-conventional opponents in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
The Shiite Huthi rebels should also be kept in mind. Their Iran-backed insurgency in Yemen has been the reason for a costly and unsuccessful Saudi military campaign that has been ravaging the country for four years.
The reasoning which provoked President Trump to pull out the United States from the nuclear deal and to adopt the “maximum pressure” policy against Iran, is the same that kept him from taking aggressive measures after the drone incident or the seized British tanker. A few decades ago, there would be hardly anyone thinking that a detention of a British ship would go unpunished, and without an authoritative intervention by the Royal Navy. Two diplomatic victories giving the „hawks“ around Ayatollah Khamenei confidence that they have control of the situation. Iran has been testing the United States and its allies in recent months, showing that the regime is likely capable to withstand political and economic pressure; and that it also has the strength to successfully set its own conditions on the table.
In a game of dangerous bluffs and raising bets, Iran seems to have the upper hand. A similar policy of aggression, successful against North Korea, does not seem to apply the same way against Iran. Quite the opposite – the crisis is deepening without a visible end. Its solution needs much more flexibility and diplomacy that have not been implemented so far (or at least not from the American side). The possibility of uncontrolled escalation, even if not significant, is still on the agenda. And no one wants such war. No one can win such war.