Aramco attacks may be final straw

Tehran’s provocative acts are increasingly stretching the limits of plausible deniability.
Saturday 21/09/2019
A general view of Abadan oil refinery in southwest Iran, is pictured from Iraqi side of Shatt al-Arab in Al-Faw south of Basra, Iraq September 21. (Reuters)
A general view of Abadan oil refinery in southwest Iran, is pictured from Iraqi side of Shatt al-Arab in Al-Faw south of Basra, Iraq September 21. (Reuters)

Through its dangerous brinkmanship, Iran is taking the region and the world to the brink of a major conflagration.

The latest Iranian act of aggression targeted Saudi Aramco facilities on September 14.

Tehran’s aggressive designs seem to be based on two main premises: the denial of any responsibility for attacks even if regional proxies are used to carry out their war plans and, second, the desire to avoid provoking direct US retaliation. The two premises appear to be less and less tenable.

Tehran’s rulers have had their mind set on imposing their aggressive designs, regardless of the diplomatic efforts of the international community and the attempts by European powers to save the 2015 nuclear deal.

Even de-escalation gestures by US President Donald Trump have been apparently interpreted by Tehran as an invitation for more foul play. The attack on Aramco installations occurred after Trump ousted his hawkish national security adviser and continued to express his willingness to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rohani at the United Nations.

Tehran’s provocative acts are increasingly stretching the limits of plausible deniability. Saudi oil installations were the target of an unprecedented attack that caused major disruption of the Saudi and world oil markets. Iran-backed Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack and Tehran tried to lend credibility to that claim but most regional and US experts and officials saw the direct hand of Tehran in the attack

Saudi military spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki said 18 drones and seven cruise missiles were used in the attack. He pointed out that the cruise missiles could not have been fired from Yemen because they had a range of 700km.

“This is the kind of weapon the Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are using against the civilian object and facilities infrastructure,” he said.

He concluded: “This attack did not originate from Yemen, despite Iran’s best effort to make it appear so.”

US experts discounted claims of responsibility by the Houthis. “Previous Houthi drone strikes against oil facilities tended to result in quite limited damage that could be an indication that a different weapons system was used this time,” said Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was unequivocal. “This was an Iranian attack,” he said, calling it “an act of war.”

US television network CBS News contended that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave direct approval for the attack. US officials said they have satellite photos that show the IRGC preparing for the attack at Iran’s Ahvaz airbase.

Beyond this incident, there has been an incriminating pattern all along, a pattern that obeyed only the bellicose logic of Tehran’s rulers.

Since the imposition of the “maximum pressure” policy by the Trump administration, Iran has threatened that, if it could not export its oil, nobody else would export oil. Instead of considering de-escalation, it found in the lack of retaliatory moves on the part of the United States another reason to commit more provocations.

For months, the Iranians never stopped. There have been attacks on oil tankers near the Gulf of Hormuz and Saudi oil installations since May 12. The Houthis came into the picture with claims of responsibility. On June 13, a Japanese oil tanker was attacked using naval mines. A US surveillance drone was shot down by the IRGC on June 20. Trump aborted a retaliatory strike after the incident.

Later, when British forces near Gibraltar seized an Iranian tanker, the Iranians managed to secure its release by seizing a British-flagged oil tanker.

US experts said Trump’s attitude conveyed a sense of ambivalence and aversion to confrontation with Tehran. His stance probably gave Iranian leaders the impression that the risks they faced were manageable.

They also saw in their misdeeds a means to secure a better bargaining position once negotiations were an option.  In the meanwhile, at home, they could claim to have defied the United States and won.

“Iranian hardliners consider Trump’s inconsistency to be weakness,” Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian history at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, told the New York Times. For Iranian hardliners, he added, “their policy of ‘maximum resistance’ is working.”

Today, with their acts of aggression, Iranian rulers are holding the whole Gulf region and the global oil market hostage.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which recently joined a global maritime security coalition, are taking the challenge of regional security very seriously and are assuming their own responsibilities in this regard.

However, there is clearly more at stake than just Gulf security. World peace is in jeopardy. The whole international community must take a stand.