Deniability risky tack in Iran’s foreign policy as US mulls strike

Iran has got away with its method so far. Its foes have been unable to present undeniable evidence to link Tehran to violent acts.
Saturday 21/09/2019
Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Abdulaziz al-Assaf (2nd L) receives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, September 18. (AFP)
Mounting concerns. Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Abdulaziz al-Assaf (2nd L) receives US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, September 18. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Deniability after attacks, such as those on Saudi oil installations, has become a major tool of Iranian foreign policy. Tehran escalates the conflict with Saudi Arabia and the United States but is careful not to give Washington a convincing reason for retaliatory strikes.

This high-risk strategy could end up triggering a conflict anyway, however. US President Donald Trump accused Iran of spreading lies and said his military was “locked and loaded” to respond. The US Department of Defence prepared to give Trump a broad range of military options to answer the attacks in Saudi Arabia that were either carried out or orchestrated by Iran, US officials said.

Both in the latest drone attacks in Saudi Arabia and during a series of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf in May, Iran has rejected responsibility for violent actions that serve as warnings from Tehran. The Iranian leadership is telling its adversaries that a full-blown military escalation would be costly because it could cripple the international oil trade and throw the world economy into crisis.

“Plausible deniability is a trademark of Iran’s pushback strategy,” Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Programme at the International Crisis Group, said by e-mail. “Iran wants to show that, instead of a win-lose contest, Iran can turn this into a lose-lose dynamic for everyone.”

Leaders in Tehran underpin the message with warnings by themselves, especially since the United States stepped up its “maximum pressure” campaign to prevent Iran from selling oil on world markets. If Iran’s oil exports are cut to zero, international waterways will not have the same security as before, Iranian President Hassan Rohani warned in August.

Iran has got away with its method so far. Its foes have been unable to present undeniable evidence to link Tehran to violent acts. The United States and other players find it difficult to put together an international consensus about Iran’s culpability to justify retaliatory military strikes.

Following the Saudi attacks, the European Union called for “maximum restraint,” a reference to Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy. China also urged the United States and Iran to “exercise restraint… in the absence of a conclusive investigation or verdict.”

The Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is bogged down in a 5-year-old war, claimed the September 14 strikes on two plants owned by Saudi energy giant Aramco. Tehran said accusations that Iran was behind the action were “fruitless and blind” as well as “incomprehensible and meaningless.”

That has not prevented Washington from mulling military action, however.

“Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] as to who they believe was the cause of this attack and under what terms we would proceed!” Trump posted on Twitter.

Trump added a reference to an incident this year when Iran said it shot down a US drone in its airspace.

“They stuck strongly to that story knowing that it was a very big lie,” Trump wrote about the Iranians. “Now they say that they had nothing to do with the attack on Saudi Arabia. We’ll see?”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the leading Iran hardliner in the US government since the departure of John Bolton as national security adviser, said: “Tehran is behind nearly 100 attacks on Saudi Arabia while Rohani and [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif pretend to engage in diplomacy. Amid all the calls for de-escalation, Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply. There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

Pompeo, however, did not present evidence that Iran was behind the attacks. US Vice-President Mike Pence reiterated Trump’s comments that “we don’t want war with anybody but the United States is prepared.”

US Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, wrote on Twitter after the drone attacks in Saudi Arabia that “Iran will not stop their misbehaviour until the consequences become more real, like attacking their refineries, which will break the regime’s back.” Graham called on the United States “to put on the table an attack on Iranian oil refineries if they continue their provocations or increase nuclear enrichment.”

Zarif warned an attack by the United States or Saudi Arabia would spark an “all-out war” in the Middle East. The Iranian foreign minister left for New York, Iranian state television said, after Iran’s UN mission confirmed that the United States had issued visas allowing Rohani and Zarif to attend the UN General Assembly.

A day after the attacks, the White House said Trump may still meet with Rohani at the United Nations but Tehran said it did not think “such a thing would happen.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has said the kingdom is “willing and able” to respond to this “terrorist aggression.”

However, at least in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, a tit-for-tat strike by Saudi Arabia on Iranian oil fields remained “highly unlikely,” Middle East expert James Dorsey told Agence France-Presse.

“The Saudis do not want an open conflict with Iran. The Saudis would like others to fight that war, and the others are reluctant,” said

Dorsey, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

2